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Still life with love

THIS immaculate ``Portrait of a Young Woman,'' by Rogier van der Weyden, exemplifies the qualities of ``early Netherlandish art'' summed up by Erwin Panofsky. The art of the Low Countries in the 15th century (as opposed to that in the other great center of the period, Italy) has, he says, a ``. . . sense of intimacy . . . deepened by that worshipful respect for the particular which makes the picture a little world inexhaustibly rich, complete in itself and irreplaceably unique.'' Some historians think this portrait may represent the artist's wife. This is assumption, based partly on the straight manner in which she meets the eye of the artist (and us). Van Eyck, Rogier's slightly older contemporary, painted his wife similarly looking out at the spectator. Self-portraits, of course, usually exploit direct eye contact; but it would be reasonable to suppose that the intimacy of a portrait of an artist's wife might also have a return-of-gaze.

Indeed it is this, more than anything else, that gives Rogier's ``Portrait of a Young Woman'' such an air of immediacy, makes it so ``complete in itself,'' and confronts the viewer of today with the inescapable, authentic presence of a bourgeois young woman of some 51/2 centuries ago.

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It is not, however, only her eyes, painted with such finesse, that make her seem so undistractedly real. Martin Davies finds in this picture the characteristics he believes peculiar to Rogier (there is no picture signed by him, and none that is strictly documented, so stylistic qualities are paramount in reconstructing ``Rogier van der Weyden''). They are: ``rigour of construction, delicacy of contour . . . , feeling for beauty in the arrangement of the parts.'' And later he adds ``refined form'' and ``abstract treatment.''

An artist who gives such attention to the modulations of a young woman's headdress (symbol of her married status), scrupulously delineating each fold, ripple, and freshly ironed crease in the white linen, even finding pleasure in the way her forehead shows through the cloth and how the pins very slightly pucker it, undoubtedly feels ``beauty'' in the ``arrangement of . . . parts.'' The ability to depict this elaborate form in paint on a flat panel is an end in itself. Rogier shows the same detailed interest in this coif, as a drawable, paintable object, that a sculptor would, carving it in wood, or a 20th-century abstract painter might, exploring a significant order of shape and form.

Early Netherlandish painting has been described as ``still life'' -- even in the way it depicts people. Rogier is true to his time and nationality: He displays a sheer love of surfaces, of their differentiated feel and precise textures. The same sense of touch moves discriminatingly over the linen, the skin of the woman's rounded, gentle face, the quilting of her dress, the fur trimming, the boniness of her fingers, the metal and stone of her rings. Yet the result is far from a prosaic, cool objectivity. The warmth of her character escapes from her ``objecthood.''

It is as if the artist knew that the uncanny sentience of the young woman eyeing him so steadily could only exist in a subtlety beyond mere accuracy; but that paradoxically he must achieve, in the frankness of his art, a faultless exactitude and the most ``delicate contour,'' so that her quiet vitality and invisible sensibility could somehow be released.

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