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The unravelling of the making of a Renaissance portrait


Michel Sittow (1469-1525) was born of German-Scandinavian stock in the Hanseatic port city of Reval, now Tallinn, in Estonia. He probably received his earliest training in art from his father Clawes van der Sittow, who himself was a distinguished painter and wood carver in the city, yet his apprenticeship in Bruges and years of work for Queen Isabel of Castile and for allied courts gave his art a Flemish and cosmopolitan flavour.

At the Spanish court, he was prized as a portrait painter. He was in Brabant at the end of 1505 or early in 1506, working for Philip the Fair. He returned to Reval in 1506 to settle his inheritance and remained there, receiving membership in the artists’ guild late in 1507 and marrying in 1509. He was called away from Reval in 1514 to paint the portrait of Christian II (1481-1559) of Denmark, the future husband of Margaret of Austria’s niece, Isabella. From Copenhagen, he continued to Spain and the Netherlands. He returned permanently to Tallinn in 1518.

Sittow’s making of the portrait of the Danish king is the focus of this video. The portrait is a good testimony to Sittow’s masterful technique, and despite its modest size, the portrait has become one of the most iconic images of Christian II. However, modern technology has revealed that another portrait is hidden under the surface of the painting. In this film, the SMK Conservators and the scientists at CATS scrutinize the layering of the paint and reveal some of its secret stories.

The film is produced in collaboration between CATS and Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK), the National Gallery of Denmark, the Art Museum of Estonia, and the I DO ART Agency.

The video was featured in the 2017 SMK exhibition Pictures of Power. The Visual Politics of Christian II, and will be included in the two exhibitions Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and at the Art Museum of Estonia – The Kumu Museum).