Born in Tallinn, Michel Sittow, studied in the studio of his father Clawes van der Sittow, a respected painter and wood carver. In 1484, the young artist headed to Bruges, the art centre of the Netherlands at the time, probably to work in the studio of Hans Memling, a German who was the town’s most sought-after master. There he learned the illusionist technique typical of the Netherlandish school of painting.
From 1492 to 1504, Michel Sittow was in the service of Isabella of Castile, and later worked as a portraitist for Philip the Handsome, Margaret of Austria, Ferdinand of Aragon and Christian II of Denmark. Sittow returned to his home-town of Tallinn, first in 1506 in connection with an inheritance dispute, when he joined the local artists’ guild. In 1514, Sittow left for Copenhagen at the invitation of King Christian II, and from there he went on to Spain and the Netherlands. The famous portraitist returned to Tallinn for good in early 1518.
With his diverse heritage (a family with German and Finnish-Swedish roots living in Tallinn) and cosmopolitan career, Sittow did not fit in with the national narrative of art history that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century. However, his cosmopolitan career is all the more relevant in the current European context.
The international exhibition project, which includes multi-faceted collaboration with centres in Europe and the United States, brings Sittow’s extraordinary works from distinguished museums and private collection to his first solo exhibition. This is a unique platform for a broader introduction and further research on the oeuvre of this remarkable artist. Most of Sittow’s small number of works (20 to 25 paintings) are on exhibit, thereby providing an excellent survey of his work as a portraitist and painter of religious works. It also allows us to view his art in a broader context, including in collaboration with Juan de Flandes and other contemporary Netherlandish artists. In addition to the paintings, another section of the exhibition is comprised of a timeline that provides an overview of the 500-year story of Michel Sittow, from his birth and successful career to his fall into oblivion and rediscovery.
The exhibition, which is a collaborative project of the Art Museum of Estonia and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, will take place in 2018 in celebration of the centenary of the Republic of Estonia. This year also marks 500 years since Michel Sittow’s final return to his home-town of Tallinn.
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