Anonyme, École flamande
Date : Circa 1621 | Medium : Oil on canvas
This painting, in excellent condition, is exceptional in a number of ways.
The first is in the very originality of its subject: the portrait of a dead young woman. A short text in Latin found in the top right-hand corner on the back of the picture even specifies that it is the portrait of a young woman who died at 25 years of age, and that is was painted two hours after her death in 1621. It is also quite clear that portraits of dead lay individuals were much less common at the time than those of recently deceased clerics.
Even rarer, however, is the extremely natural treatment of the subject: there is no hint of artifice here, and certainly no attempt to embellish the brutal reality of the scene. The body of the young woman is seen laid out here exactly as we find it, with no sign of a religious motif; we can still sense the total exhaustion of a body that has struggled to the very last and the breath of life that has so recently been extinguished.
However, the authorship of the painting and the identity of the model remain however wrapped in total mystery. A rapid search among Flemish painters soon throws up the name of Cornelis de Vos as a possible candidate. The wife of Cornelis de Vos has been suggested as the likely model for the deceased, but records show that she was still alive in 1622. Could the subject not rather have been a figure from one of the royal courts of Europe, as suggested by the sumptuousness of the nightshirt, the sheets and bedspread, and the coat of arms that is hinted at but which has never been identified?