Michael Sittow

Michael Sittow

Diego de Guevara by Sittow, ca. 1517
Born 1468/69
Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia)
Died 1525
Education Hans Memling
Known for Painting, Portraits
Movement Early Netherlandish painting

Michael Sittow (c. 1469 – 1525), also known as Master Michiel, Michel Sittow, Michiel, Miguel and many other variants,[1] was a painter from Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) who was trained in the tradition of Early Netherlandish painting. For most of his life, Sittow worked as a court portrait painter, for Isabella of Castille, the Habsburgs and others in Spain and the Netherlands. He was one of the most important Flemish painters of the era.[2]


Michael Sittow was born in 1468 or 1469 in Reval to a wealthy family. His father was painter and wood-carver Clawes (Claves, Claes) van der Sittow (Suttow[3]) and his mother was Margarethe Molner.[4] He was the eldest of three brothers, followed by Clawes and Jasper.[5]

The origins of Clawes van der Sittow (? - 1482) are not clear - he might have originated from the village of Zittow near Wismar or he could have been of Flemish origin. He arrived in Reval in 1454 and became a citizen in 1457. Clawes was a wealthy man for an artist, owning several houses in the city. He became an assessor in the artists' guild in 1479.[4] Clawes van der Sittow married Margarethe Molner (? - 1501) in 1468. She was a Swedish-speaking Finn and the daughter of a wealthy merchant Olef Mölner (Olef Andersson Mölnare).[6]

At first Michel Sittow studied painting and sculpture in his father's workshop, while attending the city school to learn Latin, arithmetic and singing.[4] After his father's death in 1482, Michel continued his studies in Bruges from 1484 to 1488. It is thought that he worked as an apprentice in the leading Netherlandish workshop of Hans Memling.[3][7]

Portrait of a Man by Sittow (c. 1510)

Michel Sittow became an independent master between 1488  1491/92, although he did not become a master in the local Bruges guild.[8] Working as a portrait painter, he travelled in southern Europe, as traits of French and Italian art became apparent in his work.[4][5]

From 1492 Sittow worked in Toledo, Spain for Isabella of Castille as court painter. Isabella assembled academicians and painters from several countries to her court. Sittow became known as Melchior Alemán ("the German")[9] in the court, although letters of Emperor Maximilian and Margaret of Austria speak also of a painter "Mychel Flamenco" ("Michael the Fleming"), who may have been Michael Sittow.[3] Sittow was the highest-paid painter in the queen's court, receiving a salary of 50,000 maravedis a year (Juan de Flandes, the second highest paid artist, received 20,000 maravedis).[9] Sittow collaborated with Juan de Flandes on the series of small panels of the lives of Christ and the Virgin for the queen.[8]

Officially Sittow worked for Isabella until her death in 1504, although he had left Spain two years before and was presumably working in Flanders for the queen's Habsburg son-in-law Philip the Handsome,[6] painting a portrait of Philibert the Good, Duke of Savoy.[10]

Sittow probably visited London in about 1503–05, although this is not documented. He used to be regarded as the author of the portrait of Henry VII (National Portrait Gallery, London), later used as a model by Hans Holbein and other painters when crafting their posthumous depictions of the monarch,[5][7] but this is now "discounted" by specialists.[11]

The Vienna portrait, probably of Catherine of Aragon (c. 1500-05)

If a portrait in Vienna is indeed of Isabella's daughter Catherine of Aragon, already widowed by the death of Henry's heir Arthur, Prince of Wales and soon to remarry his brother, later Henry VIII, this would have been painted on this visit. Two other Sittow paintings of Mary Magdalen (Detroit) and the Virgin Mary (Berlin) appear to use the same model, who may also be a younger Catherine, before she left for England. The use of members of royal households as models for sacred figures is found in court art in the Netherlands at this time; however that the three paintings show the same person, and that Catherine is the model for any of them, is not certain, partly because there are no other good portraits of her when young. The Berlin Virgin formed the other half of a diptych with the Washington portrait of Diego de Guevara, a Spanish courtier with the Habsburgs, otherwise best known for giving the Arnolfini Portrait to Archduchess Margaret of Austria, governor of the Spanish Netherlands. When Philip died in 1506, Sittow lost his patron again. In the same year, he returned to Reval where his stepfather, the glass-maker Diderick van Katwijk had seized his parents' houses, as Michael's mother had died in 1501. Van Katwijk had journeyed to Brabant in 1501 and offered a property settlement to Sittow that the latter refused.[3] As the local court did not support Sittow's claim for inheritance, he had to go to the Court of Higher Instance in Lübeck. He won the case in Lübeck, but could not officially register his parents' houses as his property until the death of his stepfather in 1518.[5][6]

Michael Sittow joined the Guild of Kanut (German: Kanutigilde, Estonian: Kanuti gild), the local painters' guild in 1507 and married in 1508. Despite being a renowned master in Europe, Sittow was accepted only as a journeyman and was required to paint a masterpiece before becoming a full master craftsman in the guild.[6] Sittow completed various local orders and worked for the St. Peter's Church in Siuntio, Finland.[5]

In 1514 he was called to visit Copenhagen, to paint the portrait of Christian II of Denmark. The portrait was intended as a gift for Christian's bethrothed, Isabella of Austria, granddaughter of Isabella of Castille. The portrait that is held in Copenhagen's Statens Museum for Kunst is probably a copy of a lost original or a second copy ordered from Sittow. From there he traveled to the Southern Netherlands where he served Margaret of Austria, the Habsburg vice-regent of the Netherlands.[5][12]

From the Netherlands, Sittow returned to Spain and worked for Ferdinand II of Aragon, followed in 1516 by the Spanish King Carlos I, the future Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. When Charles V abdicated from power he took Sittow's wooden sculpture of the Virgin and three paintings with him to his retirement in the monastery of Yuste.[3][5][6] It is possible that Sittow travelled to Spain in an attempt to recover an unpaid salary from queen Isabel of Castille.[8]

In 1516 (possibly 1517 or 1518) Michael Sittow returned to Reval.[7] In 1518, he married Dorothie, a daughter of a merchant named Allunsze. Their son Michel died shortly after birth. In 1523, Sittow became the Aldermann (guild-master) of the Guild of Kanut.[5] Michael Sittow died of the plague in Reval between 20 December 1525 and 20 January 1526.[8] He is buried in the cemetery of the almshouse of the Church of the Holy Spirit (Estonian: Pühavaimu kirik).

Works by Michael Sittow

Passion Altarpiece in St. Nicholas' Church, Tallinn

The name of Michael Sittow was nearly unknown for centuries, until in 1914 Max J. Friedländer put forward a hypothesis that Master Michiel, court painter of Queen Isabella, is the author of the diptych discovered near Burgos, depicting the Virgin and Child on one side and a Knight of the Order of Calatrava on the other. In subsequent decades scholars put together a picture of Master Michiel's career in Spain, the Netherlands and in Denmark, but it was not until 1940 that the Baltic-German historian Paul Johansen identified the mysterious Master Michiel as Michael Sittow from Reval.[3][6]

Michael Sittow specialized mainly in small devotional works and portraits, which sometimes project a melancholy mood. His style is heavily influenced by his teacher Hans Memling and also show influence of the elegance found in portraits by Jean Perréal.[2] Sittow used translucent layers of paint to achieve highly refined and subdued color harmonies, combined with light effects and sensitivity to texture.[13] E. P. Richardson described Sittow's work "/../an artist somewhat like Van Dyck in a later epoch; a brilliant painter of religious subjects, but of outstanding qualities as a portrait painter. His portraits are among the finest of their time, vivid, candid, crisply elegant and reserved."[3]

Few surviving paintings can be attributed to Sittow with certainty, and there are many problems of attribution around his work. Though his biography is well documented, the only works that can be attributed to him with certainty are two rather atypical very small panels from a large series mostly by Juan de Flandes for Queen Isabella. The attributions of both the portrait (today in Washington, D.C.) called Don Diego de Guevara (d. Brussels 1520, a nobleman whose family came from Santander in northern Spain; valued member of the Habsburg court in Burgundy[14]), and the painting of the Virgin and Child which together with it once formed a diptych,[15] are nearly certain, as Diego's illegitimate son Felipe de Guevara mentions his father's portrait by Sittow.[16]

Most of Sittow's paintings are not signed and dated – the only painting that can be dated with certainty is the portrait of Christian II of Denmark.[6] There are more than thirty works attributed to Michael Sittow, however, most of them have not been verified by documentation as his.

Many of his paintings (mentioned in various documents) and almost all of his sculptures have not been preserved.[7][17]

List of works

Among works no longer considered to be by Sittow are:

In literature

Michael Sittow (as Michel Sittow) is the main character in Jaan Kross' short story Four Monologues on St. George (Estonian: Neli monoloogi Püha Jüri asjus, 1970). The book is written in the form of a judicial inquiry and explores such issues as nationhood, political exile and cultural assimilation.[20] It was awarded the most prestigious short prose award in Estonia, the Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Award.


See also

One of the houses Sittow inherited from his parents. A memorial to Sittow is to the right of the door.


  1. "Union List of Artist Names". Getty Research. 2004. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  2. 1 2 Richardson, E. P. (1940). "Catherine of Aragon as the Magdalen by Master Michiel" (PDF). Bulletin of Detroit Institute of Arts of the City of Detroit. XIX (8): 82–83.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Richardson, E. P. (1958). "Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat by Master Michiel" (PDF). Bulletin of Detroit Institute of Arts. XXXVIII (4): 79–83.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Mänd, Anu; Risthein, Helena (2001). Tiina Abel, ed. Michel Sittow, 1469-1525: The Artist Connecting Estonia with the Southern Netherlands. Eesti Kunstimuuseum (Estonian Art Museum). ISBN 978-9985-78-255-2.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Risthein, Helena (2005). "Michel Sittow". Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Liivrand, Harry (2004-05-13). "Michel Sittow – meie esimene eurooplane". Eesti Ekspress (in Estonian). EkspressMeedia. Retrieved 2009-05-22.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Krista Kodres, ed. (2005). Eesti kunsti ajalugu. 2, 1520–1770. Eesti kunsti ajalugu (in Estonian). 2. Estonia: Eesti Kunstiakadeemia. ISBN 978-9985-9600-2-8.
  8. 1 2 3 4 "Michel Sittow – biography". The Collection. National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
  9. 1 2 Rafael Domínguez Casas; Theresa Earenfight; Michael Gerli; Chiyo Ishikawa; Tess Knighton; Kenneth Kreitner; Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt; Nancy F. Marino; William D. Phillips, Jr.; Emilio Ros-Fábregas; Ronald E. Surtz (2008). Barbara F. Weissberger, ed. Queen Isabel I of Castile. Monografías A. Tamesis Books. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-85566-159-2.
  10. Weinberger, Martin (September 1948). "Notes on Maître Michiel". The Burlington Magazine. The Burlington Magazine Publications, Ltd. 90 (546): 247–253. JSTOR 869890.
  11. Nairne, Sandy. "Case study 4 – new research on the Gallery's earliest portrait: Henry VII". Making Art in Tudor Britain. National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
  12. Martha Woolf, Michel Sittow, Grove Art Online, accessed 31 January 2008
  13. "Michael Sittow". Getty Museum. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  14. "Portrait of Diego de Guevara (?)". The Collection. National Gallery of Art. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
  15. Paul, Richard (2006-11-13). "Medieval Meets Modern". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-05-29.
  16. John Oliver Hand; Martha Wolff (1986). Early Netherlandish Painting (The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue). Cambridge University Press. p. 228. ISBN 0-521-34016-0.
  17. "Centre for the Study of fifteenth-century Painting in the Southern Netherlands and the Principality of Liège". Retrieved 2009-05-25.
  18. Campbell, Lorne, National Gallery Catalogues (new series): The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, pp 237-8, National Gallery Publications, 1998, ISBN 1-85709-171-X. another version is the Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans in London (National Gallery).
  19. National Portrait Gallery, Case study 4 - new research on the Gallery's earliest portrait: Henry VII
  20. Thomson, Ian (2007-12-29). "Jaan Kross: Writer who through his novels sought to restore the national memory of his native Estonia". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
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