Little is known of the artistic beginnings of this South Netherlandish painter of German origin. Memling was probably apprenticed to a painter in Cologne before he left Germany for Bruges. During his time, he was best known as the artist who domesticated religious images and who had a propensity for optical realism.
Memling lived during the turbulent period of transition between the Burgundian ruling house and that of the Habsburgs. Little of this political tension however is evident in his work. His commissions came almost exclusively from the rich burghers in Bruges: the bankers, the merchants, politicians, churchmen and the occasional aristocrat. Often theses commissions came from foreigners, especially Italians, agents of the Medici bank in Bruges, who had political or financial connections with the town. Memling painted their portraits in devotional paintings or on altarpieces for their chapels in Bruges or back home. The Virgin and child was a popular subject. The National Gallery’s Virgin and Child with Donor and St Anthony, 1472, was one of them and one of the earliest dated works by Memling.
The close similarity between Memling’s style and that of Rogier van der Weyden suggests that Memling probably completed his training in the latter’s studio in Brussels, where he may have worked for a while as a journeyman. Memling was mentionned as a pupil of Van der Weyden by both Vasari (1550) and Van Mander.
There is speculation that Memling may have held a protected and privileged position in the town of Bruges because his name was not registered in the painters’ guild nor did he hold any public office in this city. However, neither is there anything to suggest that he held a position at court, which would have freed him from obligations to the guild.
Despite these unknowns, an exceptional proportion of Memling’s oeuvre has survived. Together with Dieric Bouts and Hugo van der Goes, Memling was considered one of the most important artists working in the southern Low Countries in the 15th century.