Written in gold on a red background is an inscription that identifies this miniature as a self-portrait of the famous Bruges illuminator, Simon Bening: "Simon Bennik, the son of Alexander, painted this himself at the age of 75 in 1558."Simon Bening became one of the most famous illuminators of the sixteenth century. He spent his early years in Ghent or Antwerp, probably working under the tutelage of his father, the illuminator Alexander Bening. Simon moved to Bruges permanently in 1517, where over time he headed a large and flourishing workshop. Although Bening was much admired in his day and widely imitated, his artistic personality has yet to be thoroughly studied.This miniature painting has attracted considerable interest in art history as an early self-portrait of an artist. Bening portrays himself, spectacles in hand, seated before a wooden easel. The easel holds a drawing of the Virgin and Child; along its left edge, small ledges hold various painting materials. In representing this imagery Bening allies himself with Saint Luke, the patron saint of painting, who is traditionally shown painting an image of the Virgin - a subject that itself became a conceit for the self-portrait of the artist in the 15th and 16th centuries. Bening portrays himself not in the garb of an artisan, but as a member of the intelligentsia. By inscribing his work with a signature (as the son of Alexander) and a date, he acknowledges his talents and heritage in the distinguished lineage of Bening illuminators in Bruges. The illumination was probably made as an independent work, rather than as part of a book, at a time when autonomous miniatures increasingly came into production. A second version of this miniature is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Simon Bening (Netherlandish, Ghent (?) 1483/84–1561 Bruges)
The Dutch School painters can be dated as Early Netherlandish (1400–1500), Dutch Renaissance (1500–1584), and, later, Dutch Golden Age painting in the United Provinces. The detailed realism of Early Netherlandish painting, led by Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck in the 1420s and 1430s, is today generally considered to be the beginning of the early Northern Renaissance in painting. This style was greatly respected in Italy, but there was little reciprocal influence on the North until nearly the end of the 15th century. Despite frequent cultural and artistic exchange, the Antwerp Mannerists (1500–1530) were unrelated to Italian Mannerism. Among notable northern painters were highly individualistic artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder who developed styles that were imitated by many subsequent generations. In the 16th century northern painters increasingly traveled to Italy, so the art of Michelangelo and Raphael and the late Renaissance Mannerism had a great impact on their work. Hieronymus Bosch and Geertgen tot Sint Jans are well-known examples of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Dutch painters. In the northern Netherlands, the Reformation brought religious painting almost completely to an end. Portrait painting was slow to spread from the elite to new riches. By the end of the 16th century, artists such as Karel van Mander and Hendrik Goltzius collected in Haarlem in a brief but intense phase of Northern Mannerism that also spread to Flanders. Between 1605 and 1635 over 100,000 paintings were produced in Haarlem. Rembrandt van Rijn, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan Steen are just a few names form the seventeenth century.