Jan Gossaert’s renaissance escaped Erwin Panofsky; the latter’s renaissance was an edifice supported by the twin pillars of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden; with others like Gerard David mere archways; and Gossaert, who hardly gets a mention, the equivalent of a brick in the entire structure. This exhibition obviously rejects that view completely, and in so doing so, offers an opportunity for re-evaluation of a lost master, now shoved blinking out into the light of recognition after all those years of neglect.
Much of the obscurity can be blamed on the accidents of history: no knowledge of Gossaert’s training is known; he was a contemporary of Simon Marmion, a contemporary in Hainaut, then Northern France, now Belgium. Gossaert seems to have some stylistic overlaps with Hans Memling and he may have learnt illusionistic tricks from Jan Van Eyck whilst acquiring compositional skill from studying Rogier- a confusing education. As well as learning from the masters, Gossaert inspired. A key work is the Adoration of the Kings, which appearing in the early stages of the exhibition, inspired another contemporary Gerard David, who may have collaborated on the altarpiece with Gossaert.
The exhibition is divided into 6 rooms and while the themes might fragment in some of the displays, this hardly matters since the structure is sound and allows the viewer to gain an overview of Gossaert’s subjects and techniques in one show. Besides, afterwards, or on another occasion, you can go to the permanent collection and join up the dots between Gossaert and other early Netherlandish artists.
Room 1 tries to establish a northern tradition into which Gossaert fits. Displaying works by Van Orley, Jacopo de Barberi, and others, the display also gives us our first glimpse of Gossaert as a draughtsman of the antique. A spirited sheet of antique motifs including the Spinario- boy pulling a thorn out of his foot- is rendered in faint lines with a clear balance of lights and darks. This type of classical ricordi contrasts with a very detailed ornamental drawing in which gothic motifs dominate; not to my taste, but the gothic is definitely part of Gossaert’s repertoire.
Room 2 explores Gossaert’s capacity for innovation and new themes. A major stimulus was Dürer’s engravings which are an undertow pulling at the exhibition. There are studies by Dṻrer for his Prado Adam and Eve painting next to Gossaert’s own interpretations. It’s interesting to observe here how Gossaert engages with the German genius: he strives to capture Dürer’s articulation of the muscles, but to my eye Gossaert’s torsos lack conviction. As we’ll discover in the next room, Gossaert has another agenda: he wants to transform Durer's humanistic nudes into something more lascivious, more playful than didactic.
The other side of this room has another startling original: Gossaert’s first night painting, Christ and the Apostles in Gethsemane. It’s telling that this unique night scene- with an angel rendered starkly against a crescent moon with one apostle totally plunged into night- was painted a generation before Adam Elsheimer who would surely be satisfied with a notte as moody as this.
A key work in this room, and indeed the whole exhibition, is the aforementioned Adoration of the Kings. This can be viewed anytime as it’s in the permanent collection, but it should really be seen here where it is accompanied by graphic works by other masters. Gossaert borrowed freely here: the dog comes from Dürer’s print of St Eustace; the Holy Family group from Martin Schongauer; and the sly Latin signature on the brim of a hat nods in the direction of van Eyck, although that master was known to go one better by using Greek inscriptions!
Room 3 deals with the pleasures of the flesh, couples entwined like in the Barber Institute’s Hercules and Deianeira which takes us far from the statuesque Adam and Eve of Durer and closer to a mannerist penchant for figures with small heads and the linkage of limbs in strange patterns. There are many fleshy encounters, some distant echoes of Dürer’s, others derived from strange allegorical figures by Jacopo de Barberi and the antique. There’s a weird drawing of a bathing scene (1520-5) based on Durer’s Four Witches, and reprising the Spinario, which come to think of it, may have encouraged the contorted lower bodies of these uncomfortably posed mythological lovers.
I won’t say much about the next two rooms which mainly deal with portraiture, both Gossaert’s and others. Presiding imperiously over the rest is the stunning Portrait of a Man (1530), probably Jans Jacobsz Snoek who seems to be some kind of renaissance clerk. Pausing with quill pen suspended over a book, he surveys the spectator with a fixed and searching expression bordering on contempt, which makes you decidedly uncomfortable. For some reason he reminded me of a bank manager about to refuse a loan. Mention should also be made of Gossaert’s party trick of having figures extend beyond the frame, although in the Snoek portrait the artist settles for a trompe d’oeil illusionism with documents that seem to float in space ,a contrast to Snoek firmly fixed in place.
The Van Eyck influence becomes more noticeable in the next room; the wings of a triptych show the Annunciation in grisaiile and comparisons with the Ghent altarpiece are immediately invited. There are also pen drawings of saints such as the Life of St Giles where – for me- the cross-hatching and shading is overdone; I like Gossaert’s use of the paper and controlled shading though, to make a nimbus round the head of the Christ. I don’t think I’ve seen that done before, maybe another one of Gossaert’s visual inventions. Also in this room there’s a picture from Vienna I did know- St Luke Painting the Virgin in a Vision. This striking image seems to have some stylistic affinity with Rogier van der Weyden’s St Luke, known through many variants and copies. However unlike Rogier’s painter-saint, St Luke has his metal point guided by angelic hands, which lends a slightly comic air to the proceedings. Clearly there are echoes of the northern renaissance workshop here, its practices and organisation, but as we hardly know anything about Gossaert’s workshop training, we can’t know if it reflects his own workshop practice. Metal point doesn’t figure much in his graphic production, mainly pen- it would be nice to learn more about Gossaert the draughtsman.
The final room belongs to the Virgin, who is represented in engravings, drawings and oils. Perhaps the finest here is the Virgin and Child from the Prado, painted about 1527. Here we have a niche figure surely the culmination of a type that began with Van Eyck and his contemporaries- both he and Gossaert shared the same patron. Noticeable in the Virgin and Child are the rich hues: the lapis lazuli with subtle highlights; the cangiante effect of the orange sleeve; and the warm vermilion of the Virgin’s robe, a pleasing ensemble of colours that almost turn the picture into aesthetic object rather than devotional image.
Gossaert won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially if they’ve had it formed on the high renaissance. His treatment of the nude is eccentric, his compositions seem odd at times, but despite his peculiarities his art is never less than fascinating. It was all put into context for me by a lecture I attended- at the kind invitation of David Jaffe of the NG- after viewing the exhibition. Catherine Reynold’s talk on “Jan Gossaert and the Netherlandish Tradition” convinced me that Gossaert was a minor master of significance, not just another brick in the wall of Panofsky’s northern renaissance.
The catalogue is steep at £60- daunting even for a catalogue junkie like me, but there’s a PDF of Lorne Campbell’s essay on the Adoration of the Kings taken from the NG catalogue on 16th century Netherlandish painting, accompanied by some fine high resolution images, here. Recommended.