Frans Floris

Head of a bearded Man

Frans Floris was born in Antwerp ca. 1519 into a prominent family of artists. His father, Cornelis I Floris, was a stonecutter; his brothers all became artists. Cornelis II became a very important architect and sculptor (one of the designers of the Antwerp city hall), Jacob a painter of stained-glass windows and Jan a Potter. Little documentary evidence of Frans Floris’ life remains; most of what we know about him today has come down to us through his extensive biography in Karel van Mander’s Schilder-Boeck (1604). Frans was possibly first trained as a sculptor by his father, before being apprenticed to the Liège-based painter Lambert Lombard. He became a member of the Antwerp guild of St Luke in 1540. Frans travelled to Italy in 1541, where he studied the art and architecture of ancient Rome, as well as the work by contemporary Italian artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo, who would greatly influence him. In 1545 he returned to Antwerp and opened his workshop, where a whole generation of 16th-century artists worked and trained under his guidance. Van Mander lists 26 pupils of Floris’, but the actual number of his assistants may well have exceeded one hundred. In 1547 Floris married Clara Boudewijns; the couple had one daughter and two sons, both of whom were later trained as artists by their father.

Floris quickly became one of the most important Netherlandish artists of his day, enjoying the patronage of many wealthy and noble personalities, including the Antwerp banker and collector Nicolaes Jonghelinck and the duke of Aarschot. In 1549 he was tasked with the design of the decorations for the joyous entry into Antwerp of Charles V of Spain. Furthermore, Floris was well acquainted with several of Antwerp’s leading humanists, including Abraham Ortelius and Christophe Plantin. Floris was a prolific painter, who mainly produced large-scale altar pieces and mythological or allegorical compositions and, to a lesser extent, a small number of excellent portraits. Floris also invented and developed the use of study heads, which were life-size representations of people’s heads, which he painted in oil on panel. First intended for studio use – so his assistants could copy these heads into larger compositions – they later on evolved into works of art in their own right, which is evidenced by the fact that they quickly became desired collector’s items.

The present work is an excellent example of such a head study. Quickly and expressively painted, yet very precise in its detail – notice the wisps of hair and the crinkles around the eyes – it is a testament to the great draughtsmanship of Frans Floris. Possibly a study for the head of an apostle, various versions of this composition exist, attesting to its popularity and impact. The soft, thoughtful and possibly slightly melancholy gaze of the old man shows how well the artist could convey the psychological depth in his subjects.

Artist: Frans Floris (Antwerp ca. 1519 - 1570)
Medium: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: 48 x 34 cm