Adriaen Thomasz KEY, Portrait of a bearded man wearing a chain of guild buckles

Adriaen Thomasz KEY

(Antwerp, ca 1544 – after 1589)

Portrait of a bearded man

Oil on panel, 50.8 x 39.7 cm


Adriaen Thomasz Key was a Flemish painter and designer of woodcuts. After having his legacy overlooked for many years, the work of Key is undergoing a rapid critical reassessment, and he can now be considered one of the most significant portraitists of his generation. He was trained by Willem Key (c. 1515–1568), and was part of his workshop for many years. Traditionally it was thought that Adriaen was a relation of his master but it is now known that his family name was Thomasz. Adriaen only adopted the name Key after he took over his master’s workshop in 1568, because of the advantages of aligning his work with a long-established and successful painter. In effect ‘He thus used the name ‘Key’ to brand his art’.

This remarkable portrait, published in Prof. Dr. Koenraad Jonckheere’s recent monograph, is a fine example of the portraiture of Adriaen Thomasz. Key during the period when ‘he was at the height of his ability’ as an artist (Jonckheere, K., Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c.1545-c.1589) Portrait of a Calvanist Painter, (Brepols, Turnhout, Belguim, 2007), p. 40). The painter depicts the sitter’s flesh with vivid realism, building layers of grey glazes to denote the wrinkles and shadowing of the forehead and the creases of paper-like skin beneath the eyes. Although the portrait has no Italian influence, the work recalls Leon Battista Alberti’s Renaissance ideal ‘that the art of painting harbours a divine force making those who are absent present…and raising the dead to life’. As Prof. Dr. Koenraad Jonckheere, the leading scholar on Key’s work, notes, “through the extremely precise and detailed light effects the wrinkles of the skin acquire depth and the face character, all of which makes an astoundingly genuine impression”. Although the present work, like many of Key’s portraits, is relatively stark and free of iconography, so that the focus is on the sitter’s appearance in his larger, three-quarter length works, Key occasionally included extra, symbolic elements, to refer to a particular aspect of his subject’s character. Wearing a chain of brass guild medallions, the sitter would have been a prominent guild member and distinguished figure in Antwerp; the medallions display the monogram HG and the Habsburg eagle, likely the arms of the margraviate of Antwerp.

Condition report:

The painting is in good overall condition.


Private cillection, New York;

Important private collection, Zürich,



K. Jonckheere, Adriaen Thomasz. Key (c. 1545 – c.1589), Portrait of a Calvinist Painter, Turnhout 2007, pp.116-117, cat. no. A92, reproduced p. 232;

Art Rules, exhibition’s catalogue, Tallinn, June – October 2015, p. 68-69 (illustrated)


Exhibition “Art Rules” organized by Art-Life Project in Tallinn Town Hall, 5 June 2015 – 5 October 2015, Estonia

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