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Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Superb Sixteenth-Century Portrait of Famed Geographer Abraham Ortelius: The Only Portrait Painted During His Lifetime

Adriaen Thomaszoon Key (ca. 1544-after 1589): Portrait of Abraham Ortelius
Oil on panel: 17 1/8" by 14"; 22" x 18 ¾" framed. Inscribed center right: CONTEMNO/ ET/ ORNO

                This superb portrait by the Flemish painter Adriaen Thomaszoon Key represents Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), a luminary figure in the intellectual history of the Renaissance. Born Abraham Ortels in the Flemish capital of Antwerp in present-day Belgium, Ortelius (who Latinized his name in his 20s, as was then fashionable among the educated elite) eventually became one of the most celebrated geographers of all time -- equal parts innovator, entrepreneur, cartographer, and classical scholar. His foremost accomplishment was the production of the first world atlas in the modern sense of the word, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which was first published in Antwerp in 1570. Although he created some maps personally, Ortelius was known more as a publisher than a cartographer. For the Theatrum he compiled the best existing maps, had them re-engraved by talented printmakers in his employ such that all conformed to a standard format and style, appended scholarly text to their versos, and then published them as a uniform edition. The result was an atlas that was truly without precedent.

                Previously, collections of maps had been assembled into book form, but these were invariably volumes made to order according to the desires and needs of an individual client, and no two were alike. In contrast to Ortelius's atlas, few of these books included explanatory text, and they contained a motley assortment of maps by different makers that showed little or no uniformity. In the Theatrum, Ortelius also took the step -- quite rare in the sixteenth century, when plagiarism was rampant -- of crediting the original authors of the maps included. In its lavish production values, geographic sophistication, and high aesthetic appeal, Ortelius's atlas was a decisive step forward in the history of cartography and the dissemination of geographical knowledge. The atlas was wildly successful throughout Western Europe, becoming one of the first "best-sellers" in the history of the printed book. Between the Theatrum's first appearance in 1570 and its final edition in 1612, it was printed in thirty-one editions and seven different languages -- a remarkable figure for the time.

                This portrait of Ortelius by Adriaen Thomaszoon Key is the only known representation of the famous geographer done during his lifetime. Previously attributed to the painter Anthonis Mor (also known as Antonio Moro), the painting was first recognized as Key's work by Burton B. Fredericksen in his 1965 catalogue of the J. Paul Getty Collection (see references, below). Ortelius almost certainly sat for the artist so Key could make first-hand studies "from life" that he could then work up into this final composition. Key shows Ortelius in the flawless naturalistic style for which Northern European artists were celebrated. Every hair in the geographer's beard and rich fur cape emerges with distinct clarity. Ortelius is depicted in bust-length, his face -- in near-profile -- emerging brightly above a neat white ruff from the dark, simple background. He stares intently to the right, resting his hand gently on a terrestrial globe, where the Mediterranean can just be made out. Ortelius's intense gaze, his prominent, furrowed brow, his sober expression and dignified bearing all contribute to an impression of surpassing intelligence. The illumination of his face against the relative obscurity of the background was probably a calculated allusion to the geographer's learning (literal enlightenment) and to his greatest accomplishment, that of having spread knowledge of geography to a broader European public. The inscription at center right, "contemno et orno," which in full would read "contemno et orno mente manu," almost certainly alludes to Ortelius's triumph in having produced the first atlas. Although its meaning is debated, the inscription was probably meant to translate as "I divide and order with mind and hand," which is precisely the task of the geographer -- to divide and order the world and its parts through the intellect, and then transcribe that knowledge onto paper. The placement of Ortelius's above the globe is likewise highly symbolic, in this case alluding to his firm grasp on (and power over) geography.

                                Key, like Ortelius, was a native of Antwerp, and became one of the leading portraitists in that city. He received his artistic training from Willem Key, who is thought to have been a distant relative. Key became a master in Antwerp’s Guild of St. Luke (the painters' guild) in 1568, and dated paintings by him, mostly portraits, are known from 1572 onwards. One of his most noted works, a portrait of William of Orange, is housed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. After the seizure of Antwerp by Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, in 1585, Key was registered as a Calvinist, but he nevertheless remained in Catholic-dominated Antwerp. He had pupils listed in the Guild records for 1582 and 1588, and in 1589 he was still paying his annual guild dues. After that, however, his name disappeared from the Antwerp records, either because he left the city or because he died. Key is known for the altarpieces he produced for Antwerp churches, including the high altar of the Franciscan church, although most of these have disappeared. He is most celebrated, however, for his portraits, which are remarkable for their powers of objective observation.

                Key's remarkable portrait of Ortelius can be dated to before 1579, at which point it was used by the artist Philips Galle as a model for the engraved portrait that was henceforth included as the frontispiece for every edition of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (see fig. 1). For that engraving, Galle used an oval, rather than a rectangular, format, which meant that the globe no longer appeared within the composition. Moreover, the printing of an engraved plate always results in a mirror image, hence Galle's version was reversed from Key's original. In the following century, the great Flemish artist Pieter Paul Rubens, another denizen of Antwerp, was commissioned by the scholar Balthasar Moretus to paint a copy of this work (fig. 2; now in the collection of the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp). Rubens's superb portrait seems to have been based on both the engraving and Key's original work; the image is still reversed, but the globe has made a reappearance.

                This portrait is an exceptionally important, vivid, and suggestive portrayal of Abraham Ortelius, a critical figure in the intellectual life of Renaissance Europe and in the history of cartography.

I. Riesner Collection, Brussels; His sale, Brussels, Galerie Fievez, November 19, 1927, lot 65 (as Antonio Moro, Portrait d'un géographe); Anton W.M. Mensing Collection, Amsterdam, died 1936 and then held in trust by the estate until sold, Amsterdam, Frederick Muller & Cie., November 15, 1938, lot 68 (as Antonio Moro, Portrait of Abraham Ortelius), where acquired by J. Paul Getty; J. Paul Getty Collection, California, until 1954 when donated to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California; deaccessioned 2007.

H. Hymans, Antonio Moro, son oeuvre et son temps (Brussels, 1910), 156 (as Antonio Moro); B.B. Fredericksen, Handbook of Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, 1965), 11 (as Antwerp painter, c. 1575-80 [possibly Adriaen Thomas Key]); B.B. Fredericksen, Handbook of Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, 1972), 64, n. 79 (as Attributed to Adriaen Thomas Key); D. Jaffé, Summary Catalogue of European Paintings in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles, 1997), 66, reproduced (as Attributed to Adriaen Thomas Key); P. Binding, Imagined Corners: Exploring the World's First Atlas (London, 2003), 42 (as Attributed to Adriaen Thomas Key).

Panel is cradled and stable. Overall image is strong and appealing. U.V. reveals scattered retouches in the face, and in the background above Ortelius’s fingers and around his head. Reinforcement around the edge of his ear. The fur area of costume flouresces but does not appear to have had any retouching. In a carved gilt wood frame with nicks and abrasions throughout. Disclaimer: This condition report is given as an expression of our opinion and is not legally binding.

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