US philanthropist returns Memling portrait to Bruges, 550 years later
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US philanthropist returns Memling portrait to Bruges, 550 years later

Portrait of Francisco de Rojas (detail) by Hans Memling

An American philanthropist and former US ambassador to the EU has returned a portrait by the 15th century artist Hans Memling to the city of Bruges, where it was painted about 550 years ago.

John William Middendorf, known as Bill, is now 96 years old, and has a distinguished career behind him. A naval officer during World War II, he later became an investment banker, and then treasurer to the Republican National Committee. In 1969 he became US ambassador to the Netherlands.

In 1985 he was made Ambassador to the European Union, then known as the European Community.

He is also a prolific composer, and wrote his Holland Symphony to present to Queen Juliana of the Netherlands on the occasion of her silver jubilee in 1973. And all along he has been a fervent collector of art.

One of his pieces is a portrait by Hans Memling (1430-1494), born in Germany and trained in the atelier of Rogier Vander Weyden in Brussels. He came to be considered one of the major artists of his day, and was made a citizen of Bruges, and portrait painter to the wealthy and powerful.

The portrait in question is thought to be of Francisco de Rojas, a Spanish nobleman at a time when Spain ruled the Low Countries. It was originally part of a triptych, with de Rojas facing the Virgin, and a Crucifixion in the centre panel.

Musea Brugge, the organisation that looks after all of the Bruges art museums, brought the portrait to the city for a special celebration in 2002, shortly after its then-owner died.

Afterwards, the work was sold to Middendorf, whom I met for the first time,” explained Till-Holger Borchert, director of Musea Brugge.

Over the last ten years he has come to Bruges once a year. We have seen each other regularly and have maintained a good relationship. And that sometimes pays off,” he said.

Now that Middendorf has reached the age of 96, he has decided to break up his collection, selling some works and donating others.

Luckily he kept Bruges in mind,” Borchert said.

The new acquisition will be on display with the city’s six other Memling works in the gallery dedicated to the artist in the Saint John Hospital.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times