Jan Gossaert's Renaissance
Date and time
23 February – 30 May 2011
Sainsbury Wing Exhibition
About Jan GossaertWorking for wealthy and extravagant members of the Burgundian court in the Low Countries in the first three decades of the 16th century, Gossaert was especially noted for his sensuous nudes, painted to evoke the sheen of marble, and his stunning illusionistic portraits in which he plays intriguing spatial games.
Please install FlashThe first northern artist to draw directly from antiquity in Italy (during a visit to Rome in 1508–9), Gossaert was a peerless exponent of the illusionistic properties of oil paint as practised by his countrymen from Jan van Eyck onwards.
About the exhibitionThe exhibition features over 80 works, including many of the artist’s most important paintings, including the ‘Virgin and Child’, 1527, Prado, Madrid, and ‘Hercules and Deianeira’, 1517, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham. It also features drawings and contemporaneous sculptures of the Northern Renaissance.
The National Gallery has one of the largest and finest collections of Gossaert’s paintings in the world – a highlight being The Adoration of the Kings (1510–15). This exhibition allows them to be set in the context of the full range of the artist’s work, from the fruits of his early visit to Rome to the unusually erotic presentation of the nude in his Adam and Eve series.
Audio guideAn audio guide for 'Jan Gossaert's Renaissance' is available from exhibition ticket desks.
This exhibition was organised by the National Gallery, London, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (where it is on display from 5 October 2010 to 17 January 2011).
Image above: detail from Jan Gossaert, 'Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz Snoek?)', about 1530. Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1967.4.1
At the National Gallery, Art That Made the Leap to Real Life
Published: April 29, 2011
LONDON — The radical change in perception that took place in northern Europe during the first quarter of the 16th century is one of those phenomena of cultural history for which there is no obvious explanation. Suddenly, painters started depicting their fellow humans in real-life attitudes unlike in the formal images that had prevailed until then.
National Gallery, London
The leap can be judged from the contrast between “The Virgin and Child Enthroned With Four Angels” painted around 1495 by Quinten Massys and “The Virgin and Child in a Landscape,” done around 1515-1520 possibly by Bernaert van Orley.
In the Messys panel, Mary is a majestic icon of dignity. In the other, the Virgin is a young mother filled with tender emotion as she gazes at the baby cradled in her arms.
This shift from idealized rendition to sharp observation took place in gradual stages. At first, touches from the real world were discreetly introduced into icons otherwise far removed from reality. Simon Bening dealt with the traditional theme of Saint Jerome in the wilderness by composing a landscape with a fairy-tale atmosphere — in the foreground, the lion traditionally associated with the saint crosses its front paws with a very human expression. But the saint himself is a man of flesh and blood who bends forward, looking troubled, almost haggard.
Jan Gossaert, established as a painter in Antwerp by 1503, played a key role in this march toward reality. Glimpses into his own evolution are provided by the treatment of the same subject at different times.
Around 1510, the artist painted an exquisite “Adam and Eve,” on loan here from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. The man and the woman stand in a landscape, turning their heads toward each other as they do in a famous print by Albrecht Dürer. But Adam does not gaze at Eve. He looks downward with an expression of wistful wonder. Eve, has a faint smile that gives nothing away.
A decade later Gossaert produced a monumental version that signals a profound break with the past. Still seen standing in a landscape, Adam and Eve look distraught. Adam passes his arm behind his companion’s shoulder in a protective gesture. The bags under his eyes and the deep furrows that come down from his nose are observed with an attention to physical detail inconceivable in earlier times. Eve has the expression of a woman who has been crying and is filled with anguished remorse.
Far away, a classical fountain with draped female characters carved above the basin rises in a landscape bathed in golden light. It conjures the image of Paradise Lost with a poetical sense.
The handling of the fountain is a reminder that Gossaert traveled to Italy, where he arrived in the autumn of 1508 with the admiral Philip of Burgundy. By 1509 they were in Rome, where Gossaert sketched ancient Roman monuments and sculptures at Philip’s request. The artist did it with evident relish, and soon introduced features derived from antiquity into his compositions, like the fountain.
The discovery of ancient Roman art probably sharpened the painter’s inclination to realism. The bodies of Adam and Eve are among the earliest examples of rigorously observed nudes in Western painting. The ripples of the flesh, the marks on the skin, the man’s musculature are rendered with a precision unparalleled in the work of earlier painters.
So eager was Gossaert to render the human body accurately that he had models sitting for him. Written sources are lacking on the subject, but his work clearly provides the evidence. Female characters with identical features can be recognized in pictures that deal with different themes. The woman portrayed in “Hercules and Deianeira,” completed in 1517, also served as a model for Eve in a monumental “Adam and Eve” painted around 1520.
The observation of the trivia of daily life occasionally took an incongruous turn in Gossaert’s art. One of his most famous works preserved in the National Gallery, London, “The Adoration of the Magi,” is believed to have been an altarpiece in the abbey church of Saint Adrian in Geraardsbergen, near Brussels. The idealized rendition of Mary seated in the center and of the three kings who have brought gilt bronze liturgical instruments curiously contrasts with the scene in the foreground where a dog bites a bone. With its hind legs slightly apart, its curving tail tilted to one side and its ears raised, the little fellow is a masterpiece of animal portraiture. Another dog seated on its hind legs observes him, frustrated and tempted to dart forward as its taut musculature indicates.
Gossaert brought the same attention to precision when painting the broken tiles of the floor and the wild plants growing in holes where stones are missing. But nothing in his art is anecdotal. The symbolism here is transparent — the riches of this world are perishable, “sic transit gloria mundi.”
Such a message is remarkable, coming from an artist who moved in the most exalted circles of society throughout his career. Philip of Burgundy who had taken him along to Italy remained Gossaert’s patron thereafter until he died in 1524. Adolf of Burgundy then became Gossaert’s patron. After portraying Adolf, the artist went on to paint the likenesses of Henry III of Nassau and of the children of the exiled king of Denmark Christian II, who was the brother-in-law of the most powerful ruler in Europe, Emperor Charles V.
Even so, Gossaert scrutinized his distinguished sitters with unforgiving psychological sharpness. There is no mirth in the unsmiling face of a young princess believed to be Dorothea, daughter of Christian II of Denmark. After being expelled from his kingdom in 1523, Christian II had entrusted his children to Margaret of Austria. This is the earliest portrait of a lonely childhood in European art. At times Gossaert displayed a fierceness unmatched elsewhere.
The subject of “A Man Holding a Glove,” whose identity is now lost, obviously belonged to the uppermost ranks of the establishment. As Susan Frances Jones observes in a booklet published to coincide with the show under the title “Van Eyck to Gossaert,” the sitter’s costume suggests considerable wealth. That did not stop the Flemish master from faithfully depicting his bony face and globular eyes. The man glares at the viewer with undisguised animosity. The portrait, definitely from Gossaert’s late period, may have been done shortly before he died in 1532. But that does not account for this venomous likeness.
Gossaert was halfway through his career when he produced the most ferocious portrait of a couple ever painted in Renaissance Europe. An elderly man and his wife are seen with their heads turned three-quarters toward each other. He raises his eyes, with his lips shut tight and his right fist clenched over the fur lapel of his expensive coat. She looks down, her drawn features pale with glum resignation. The husband seems possessed with fury as he almost pushes back his spouse with his left elbow.
Not even the celebrated picture of the Italian merchant Arnolfini and his young pregnant wife painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434 approaches the sinister undertones of Gossaert’s portrayal of two estranged humans condemned by social constraints to live together in what the French call “solitude à deux.” In Van Eyck’s work, the elegance of the composition and the presence of the woman’s pet dog soften the suggested lack of harmony in the couple. Gossaert’s double portrait has a raw brutality in its strict realism that would not recur in European art before the 19th century.
No other artist enjoyed that twin ability at painting reality in refined detail while portraying sitters with such a punch in his psychological scrutiny.
This is a major exhibition, extensively recast from an earlier New York version. It is a matter of deep regret that no catalog was produced, no doubt because of the systematic cost-cutting that is causing havoc across the British museum scene.
Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance. National Gallery, London. Through May 30.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaMaubeuge) by the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert; or Jennyn van Hennegouwe (Hainaut), as he called himself when he matriculated in the guild of St Luke, at Antwerp, in 1503.
 BiographyLittle is known of his early life. One of his earliest biographers, Karel van Mander, claimed he was from a small town in Artois or Henegouwen (County of Hainaut) called Maubuse. Other scholars have determined he was the son of a bookbinder who received his training at Maubeuge Abbey, while the RKD mentions there is evidence to support a claim that he was born in Duurstede Castle. He is registered in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. From 1508-9 he traveled to Rome and in 1509-17 he is registered in Middelburg. According to Van Mander he was one of the first Flemish artists to bring back the Italian manner of painting with lots of nudity in historical allegories. From 1517-24 he is registered at Duurstede Castle where according to the RKD, he had Jan van Scorel as pupil. From 1524 onwards he returned to Middelburg as court painter to Adolf of Burgundy.
He was a contemporary of Lucas van Leyden, and was influenced by artists who came before him, such as Roger van der Weyden, the great master of Tournai and Brussels, and like him, his compositions were usually framed in architectural backgrounds.
 WorksCastle Howard and Scawby. The bright and decided contrasts of pigment in colored reliefs are like Hans Memling, and the cornered and packed drapery are like Van der Weyden, while the bold but Socratic cast of face are like the works of Quentin Matsys. At Scawby he illustrates the legend of the count of Toulouse, who parted with his worldly goods to assume the frock of a hermit. His altarpiece of the Descent from the Cross with heavy double doors in Middelburg was admired by Albrecht Dürer before the church itself was hit by lightning. This is possibly the work now in the Hermitage, though Van Mander stated the lightning destroyed it and describes another Descent of the Cross in the possession of Mr. Magnus of Delft in 1604.
At Castle Howard, the Earl of Carlisle had obtained the Adoration of the Kings previously created for the Grandmontines, which throws together some thirty figures on an architectural background, varied in detail, massive in shape and fanciful in ornament. This painting is now on display at the National Gallery, which bought it in 1911, and is known today as one of the earliest depictions of a black man (as Balthazar) in western art. Gossaert surprises the viewer with pompous costume and flaring contrasts of tone. His figures, like pieces on a chess-board, are often rigid and conventional. The landscape which shows through the colonnades is adorned with towers and steeples in the minute fashion of Van der Weyden. After a residence of a few years at Antwerp, Mabuse took service with Philip of Burgundy, bastard of Philip the Good, at that time lord of Somerdyk and admiral of Zeeland. One of his pictures had already become celebrated: a Descent from the Cross (50 figures), on the high altar of Tongerlo Abbey.
Philip of Burgundy ordered Mabuse to execute a replica for the church of Middelburg, and the value which was then set on the picture is apparent from the fact that Durer came expressly to Middelburg (1521) to see it. In 1568 the altarpiece perished by fire. In 1508 Mabuse accompanied Philip of Burgundy on his Italian mission to the pope, and by this accident an important revolution was effected in the art of the Netherlands. Mabuse appears to have chiefly studied in Italy the cold and polished works of the Leonardesques. He not only brought home a new style, but he also introduced the fashion of travelling to Italy; and from that time till the age of Rubens and Van Dyck it was considered proper that all Flemish painters should visit the peninsula. The Flemings grafted Italian mannerisms on their own stock, and the cross turned out so unfortunately that for a century Flemish art lost all trace of originality.
In the summer of 1509 Philip returned to the Netherlands, and, retiring to his seat of Suytburg in Zeeland, surrendered himself to the pleasures of planning decorations for his castle and ordering pictures of Mabuse and Jacopo de' Barbari. Being in constant communication with the court of Margaret of Austria at Mechelen, he gave the artists in his employ fair chances of promotion. Barbari was made court painter to the regent, whilst Mabuse received less important commissions. Records prove that Mabuse painted a portrait of Leonora of Portugal, and other small pieces, for Charles V in 1516.
But his only signed pictures of this period are the Neptune and Amphitrite of 1516 at Berlin, and the Madonna, with a portrait of Jean Carondelet of 1517, at the Louvre, both of which suggest that Vasari only spoke by hearsay of the progress made by Mabuse in the true method of producing pictures full of mythological nude figures and poesies. It is difficult to find anything more coarse or misshapen than the Amphitrite, unless it is the grotesque and ungainly drayman who figures for Neptune. In later forms of the same subject—the Adam and Eve at Hampton Court, or its feebler replica at Berlin and Venus and Amor (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels)—there is more nudity, combined with realism of the commonest type.
Happily, Mabuse was capable of higher efforts. His St Luke painting the portrait of the Virgin in Sanct Veit at Prague, a variety of the same subject in the Belvedere at Vienna, the Madonna of the Baring collection in London, or the numerous repetitions of Christ and the scoffers (Ghent and Antwerp), all prove that travel had left many of Mabuse's fundamental peculiarities unaltered. His figures still retain the character of stone; his architecture is as rich and varied, his tones are as strong as ever. But bright contrasts of gaudy tints are replaced by soberer greys; and a cold haze, the sfumato of the Milanese, pervades the surfaces. It is but seldom that these features fail to obtrude. When they least show, the master displays a brilliant palette combined with smooth surface and incisive outlines. In this form the Madonnas of Munich and Vienna (1527), the likeness of a girl weighing gold pieces (Berlin), and the portraits of the children of the king of Denmark at Hampton Court, are fair specimens of his skill.
As early as 1523, when Christian II of Denmark came to the Netherlands, he asked Mabuse to paint the likenesses of his dwarfs. In 1528 he requested the artist to furnish to Jean de Hare the design for his queen Isabellas tomb in the abbey of St Pierre near Ghent. It was no doubt at this time that Mabuse completed the portraits of John, Dorothy and Christine, children of Christian II, which came into the collection of Henry VIII. No doubt, also, these portraits are identical with those of three children at Hampton Court, which were long known and often copied as likenesses of Prince Arthur, Prince Henry and Princess Margaret of England. One of the copies at Wilton, inscribed with the forged name of Hans Holbein, ye father, and the false date of 1495, has often been cited as a proof that Mabuse came to England in the reign of Henry VII; but the statement rests on no foundation whatever.
At the period when these portraits were executed Mabuse lived at Middelburg. But he dwelt at intervals elsewhere. When Philip of Burgundy became bishop of Utrecht, and settled at Duurstede Castle, in 1517, he was accompanied by Mabuse, who helped to decorate the new palace of his master. At Philip's death, in 1524, Mabuse designed and erected his tomb in the church of Wijk bij Duurstede. He finally retired to Middelburg, where he took service with Philip's brother, Adolph, lord of Veeren.
Carel van Mander's biography accuses Mabuse of an unruly life; yet it describes the solid education he must have had to learn his trade so well. It also describes the splendid appearance of Gossaert, dressed in gold brocade, as he accompanied Lucas van Leyden on a pleasure trip to Ghent, Mechelen and Antwerp in 1527. The works of Mabuse are those of a hardworking and patient artist; the number of his still extant pictures practically demonstrates that he was not a debauchee. The marriage of his daughter with the painter Henry van der Heyden of Leuven proves that he had a home, and did not live habitually in taverns. His death at Antwerp is recorded in the portrait engraved by Jerome Cock.
 See also
- Renaissance in the Netherlands
- Early Renaissance painting
- Madonna and Child Playing With the Veil, a much copied theme that he invented and copied himself several times.