Traditionally the young man in this portrait has always been referred to as a ‘Spanish grande’ – i.e. a high-ranking nobleman. This rather fanciful identification is probably based on his southerly appearance, with brown eyes, thick eyebrows and black curly hair. His sparse beard and moustache indicate that he is still a youth. There is, however, no proof that he is actually Spanish, let alone an aristocrat. Although his clothes do indeed follow the Spanish style – he wears a high-necked doublet from which only a bit of his shirt collar emerges – such attire was widespread throughout Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, even in Flanders, where the likeness was probably painted.
For some years the painting was attributed to the Antwerp artist Willem Adriaensz Key (1515/16-1568), after which it was reassigned to his nephew, Adriaen Thomasz Key.1 Comparison of the picture described here with Key’s confirmed works, however, reveals it to be flatter and less carefully executed, which may also be due to its condition. The attribution to Key has therefore been rejected.2 Thus, for the present, the maker of this intriguing portrait remains anonymous.
The portrait is of the rather simple type that had been common in the Netherlands since the days of Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441). The face is rendered in three-quarter view and set against a uniform dark background, more or less filling the picture plane. Rather unusual is that the head is turned to the left. The tradition in male portraiture was generally to have the sitter face right, with, in pendant portraits, his spouse looking left. The fact that the young man here turns left suggests that the painting had no female counterpart. The ‘Spanish grande’ was probably as yet unmarried, which is not surprising given his boyish demeanour.