Portrait of a Young Girl by Petrus Christus
Interpretation and Analysis of Flemish Portrait

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Portrait of a Young Girl
By Petrus Christus.
Considered to be one of the
greatest portrait paintings
of the Northern Renaissance.

Portrait of a Young Girl (1470)


Interpretation of other Flemish Paintings


Name: "Portrait of a Young Girl"
Date: 1470
Artist: Petrus Christus (c.1410-75)
Medium: Oil painting on oak panel
Genre: Portrait Art
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance
Location: Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Flemish artists
like Petrus Christus, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

For the colour pigments used
by Petrus Christus in his
portraits, please see:
Renaissance Colour Palette.

For more, please see:
Renaissance Portraits.

Analysis of Portrait of a Young Girl

An important but lesser-known exponent of Flemish painting of the third quarter of the 15th century, Petrus Christus was the leading painter in Bruges, after the death of Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), whose pupil he was and whom he greatly admired. He was also influenced by Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464). However, he was less comfortable with large-scale Biblical art than Van der Weyden. In fact his true calling was not religious painting but portraiture, and among his works, one picture stands out, and has propelled his name to the forefront of Northern Renaissance art: the famous Portrait of a Young Girl (1470), a tiny panel painting, a fragile, enigmatic work of unparalleled delightfulness. Might it be dubbed the "Mona Lisa of the North"? Around it, legends, obsessions of a similar type, have coalesced. The unflinching stare - half come-hither, half stand-offish - is equally troubling. It is charming, without doubt, but with a charm that is hard to pin down. At any rate, the girl looks at the viewer with a complicated, ambiguous expression.

According to tradition, the subject - possibly named Anne or Margaret - was the daughter of an English lord named John Talbot, who was in Bruges with his family to attend the marriage of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret of York. But several other hypotheses have been advanced and they will probably continue to run for a long time to come. Still, in the end, the identity of the sitter is of little importance: it's the light, the almost childlike beauty of the portrait that makes this unique piece a work apart, a rare miracle, an enchanted masterpiece.




There's the perfect oval of the face, underscored by the cap ribbon beneath the chin and rubbing against the cheek; the eyebrows plucked - in keeping with the fashion of the time - almost into nothingness and enhancing, if that were possible, the ideal purity of the forehead's swelling dome; the hair under the headdress drawn back tight; the almond-shaped, gazelle-like eyes; and then the simultaneously sidelong and piercing gaze that one is unsure whether to call cold (almost implacable), or anxious, or even frightened, and the halfway smile, slightly sulky, vaguely scornful - or perhaps both at the same time.

The delicate shading and diffuse light which, instead of picking out the uneven texture of the gracious head, flits over the contours of a face that still harbours telltale signs of childhood in the midst of her beauty, so that one is more sensitive, perhaps, to the fragility of the portrait than to its perfection.

In an atmosphere of what is relatively homely luxury, and with remarkable unpretentiousness, the artist, even if he takes pains to delineate the model's necklace, gown, and coif, avoids pointless detail to set up a relationship between viewer and portrait that forfeits none of its intensity, of its overwhelming, opalescent enchantment. At length one sees nothing but the glance and a pearly complexion that casts a spell over not just the picture, but the air that surrounds it as well.

In a break with tradition, Christus sets his sitter not against the conventional dark background - see, for example, Eyck's Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (1433, National Gallery, London) - but in a real interior, within an airy, three-dimensional setting, as if she was sitting in her home. She was certainly of reasonably high birth: she wears expensive clothes and jewellery, and her poise and facial expression seems to suggest a degree of nobility.

NOTE: Other leading members of the Flemish School included: Robert Campin (1378-1444), Dieric Bouts (1415-75), Hans Memling (1433-94), Hugo van der Goes (1440-83) and Quentin Massys (1465-1530).

Interpretation of Other Flemish Paintings

For more analysis of Flemish works, see the following articles:

Seilern Triptych (1410) Courtauld Institute, London.
By Robert Campin.

Merode Altarpiece (1425) Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.
By Robert Campin.

Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32) St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.
By Jan van Eyck.

Arnolfini Portrait (1434) National Gallery, London.
By Jan van Eyck.

Descent From the Cross (1435-40) Prado, Madrid.
By Roger van Weyden.

Last Judgment Triptych (1471) Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.
By Hans Memling.

Donne Triptych (1477-80) National Gallery, London.
By Hans Memling.

Portinari Altarpiece (1476-9) Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
By Hugo van der Goes.


• For the interpretation of other paintings of the Netherlandish Renaissance, see: Homepage.

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