Michael Sittow: An Estonian Grand Master

On November 5, 2015 by Tim Newman

Michael Sittow - Young Man in a Red Cap c 1512

Michael Sittow was born in Reval (now Tallinn) in Estonia in 1468 or 1469. He was the son of a wealthy artist and a Swedish-speaking Finn.

His portraits, although very old indeed, have a spark of modernity. His knack for nailing faces is as amazing now as it must have been then.

Sittow’s paintbrush skills were first encouraged by his father who schooled him in his workshop. After his father’s death, he continued his study of the arts in Bruge. After 8 years in Bruge, he moved on to Spain.

His first appointment in Spain was in Todelo, with Isabella of Castille (Catherine of Aragon’s mother). Among the many painters she employed, he became the highest paid in the Queen’s court.

Sittow spent the majority of his career as a court painter in the Netherlands and Spain, and he is now considered one of the most important Flemish painters of his era.

Sittow also went on to paint the magnificently strange and infinitely powerful Hapsburgs.

Sittow was almost lost to history, partly because he was called by so many different names other than his birth name; his pseudonyms included Melchior Alemán (the German), Mychel Flamenco (the Fleming), Master Michiel, Michel Sittow, Michiel, Miguel, and many other variants.

He died, as so many of his European colleagues did, of the plague, in Reval between 20 December 1525 and 20 January 1526.

E.P. Richardson, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1945-1962, described Sittow’s work

His portraits are among the finest of their time, vivid, candid, crisply elegant, and reserved.

They seem to capture what the person actually looked like, which wasn’t all that common in those days. Sittow paints them ugly if they’re ugly, and I’m assuming the subjects didn’t mind. Probably because they’re so darned good.

Below are some of his finest works. Although much of his work may have been destroyed or secretes in an attic somewhere:

Michael Sittow - Assumption of the Virgin c 1500

Assumption of the Virgin c. 1500

Michael Sittow - Catherine of Aragon as Mary Magdalene

Catherine of Aragon(?) as Mary Magdalene

Michael Sittow - Catherine of Aragon as the Madonna

Catherine of Aragon(?) as the Madonna

Michael Sittow - Diego de Guevara

Diego de Guevara

Michael Sittow - Henry VII

Henry VII

Michael Sittow - Isabel 1490

Isabella of Spain c. 1490

Michael Sittow - Katherine of Aragon

Katherine of Aragon

Michael Sittow - Passion Altarpiece in St. Nicholas' Church, Tallinn

Passion Altarpiece in St. Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn

Michael Sittow - Portrait of the Danish King Christian II

Danish King Christian II

Michael Sittow - The Vienna portrait, probably of Catherine of Aragon 1500-1505

The Vienna portrait, probably of Catherine of Aragon 1500-1505

Michael Sittow - The Virgin and Child, 1489 - 1492

The Virgin and Child, 1489 – 1492

Michael Sittow - Beardy Dude Michael Sittow - Portrait of a man





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