In 1574, the year "Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman" was painted by Pieter Janszoon Pourbus, Spain was in an interesting period. It was ruled by King Philip II, great grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, of Columbus fame. And it was still in the midst of the Inquisition, fueled by the Catholic reforms created by Philip’s great-grandparents to counter the spread of Protestantism and pursuing heresy with brutal methods. The Spanish Inquisition was not a pretty period in the history of Spain. And I think we can safely assume that the gentleman posing in this painting in courtly attire was not Protestant, Jewish or Muslim. Or perhaps, alternatively, no longer living in Spain.
Pourbus was not Spanish himself, but Dutch. He was born in Holland, but in his youth he settled in Bruges, Belgium, a prosperous town that in the era offered excellent opportunities for artists. In his early adulthood he emerged as the leading artist of his generation in a city known as a major artistic center. It’s definitely possible the subject of his painting was indeed Protestant, but had fled to Bruges because of his lack of religious freedom in Spain. We’ll never know.
The script at the bottom of "Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman" translates to “Hope Vanishes, Love is Eternal.” You have to wonder if the sentiment should be attributed to the artist himself, or the posing Spanish gentleman with the furrowed brow. Almost 450 years later, we’ll never know that either. But that’s part of what makes art interesting: imagining the stories behind the scenes. Behind the artist. Behind the subject. And behind the donor, as that is a story in and of itself.
Stella Duncan (1887-1948) donated this painting in 1948 as a part of a significant gift to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture of 125 artworks, antiques and textiles. This was one of two seminal donations received by the museum that year (the second by Fra Dana) that proved to be pivotal to the museum and eventually set a new collections course. According to MMAC curator Brandon Reintjes, “It is not too much of an overstatement to say that they were significant in establishing the present museum focus as one devoted to art and culture.” A fine year for the museum.
Duncan was a Montana-born University of Montana alumna (B.A. 1907), active in modern languages and theater. She traveled extensively in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is likely that during a trip to Europe as a delegate to Heidelberg University she purchased "Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman" from Eugen Pussak, a dealer in Berlin, in 1935. MMAC has a 1931 photograph of the painting, which, according to Reintjes, was enormously helpful in establishing its origin and object condition.
Duncan settled in the Boston area and worked first as a buyer for an antique business and then opened her own import and export business. She retained the items she considered the best examples during her long and successful career and these form the core of her gift to the collection.
"Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman" is part of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s permanent collection and can be viewed, along with 119 equally thought provoking pieces, at the Paxson and Meloy galleries on the University of Montana Campus in the PAR/TV Center. MMAC’s exhibit “Art of the State: Celebrating 120 Years of the MMAC Permanent Collection” runs through May 23.