This Renaissance portrait is even stranger than it appears

Dutch artist Dirck Jacobsz created an uncanny reflection on presence and absence in a painting of his parents

The motives for making a painting can be thumpingly straightforward: You see something, you try to reproduce it.

But they can get complex, too.

This painting, at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, is by the Dutch artist Dirck Jacobsz (c. 1497-1567). You might assume it’s a self-portrait, showing the artist at his easel, putting the finishing touches on a portrait of a woman, perhaps his wife.

That’s already quite “meta,” but paintings of painters painting paintings do at least constitute a familiar genre. In that fiction, you, the viewer, would be in the position of the woman posing for her portrait, admiring, perhaps, the artist’s skill (or wishing you had thought to smile more). But you would also know that, in reality, it must have been the painter who stood where you stand. He painted the picture, after all.

But forget all that, because it is not what’s going on here.

To begin with, it’s not a self-portrait. It’s a portrait of the artist’s father, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1472-1533), who was also a painter. The picture on the easel is the artist’s mother. So it’s really a picture of the artist’s father painting his wife, the artist’s mother. What’s so disarming about it is the way both subjects — father and mother — stare out at their son, for whom you, the viewer, are now a substitute.

By convention, the image on the easel — a painting within a painting — should be a little less finished than the primary subject, the painter-father, so as to reinforce the overall illusion of a picture within a picture. But here that’s not the case. Jacobsz’s mother is rendered with almost the same painstaking fidelity and finish as her husband even though, in their son’s fiction, he is real and she is just a painting, created out of the sticky, colorful substance on the palette he holds. Both meet their son’s gaze with the same unstinting focus.

It’s tempting at this point to wheel out Sigmund Freud, who had some interesting things to say about uncanniness and about the relationships between children and their parents. I won’t go there. I’ll only say that the artist’s father had died about 17 years earlier. It is believed the artist’s mother was also deceased, though much more recently. So the painting, which is about two feet high, painted in oils on a wooden panel, was really a memorial, a marker of Jacobsz’s filial devotion, probably to be installed above their tomb in a church.

[All-star show at National Gallery of Art doubles down on identity]

But dwelling on historical context and intention may drain this painting of some of its peculiarity. Like so many of its Netherlandish predecessors, the portrait makes you want to match the intensity of the subjects’ gazes with your own prolonged attention. And it inducts you into a set of very sophisticated reflections on presence and absence.

The tight cropping brings the magic of painted representations right up in front of our noses. How alive both mother and father seem! And how severe! Admire the creases in the skin around the father’s chin and cheek, echoed in his twisting neck, and the bony bulge beside his brow. Notice, too, the contrast between the studio interior — bare to the point of desolation — and the extravagant sky and landscape in the portrait on the easel. One could almost be looking at a surrealist concoction, a metaphysical game, by Rene Magritte.

Interestingly (though not unusually), Jacobsz, the son of a painter, had a son who was also a painter. One can only imagine what sort of posthumous intergenerational portrait he might have painted, had he been so inclined.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen Painting a Portrait of His Wife, c. 1550
Dirck Jacobsz (b. 1497). At the Toledo Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

End of carousel
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.