ART – JAN GOSSAERT’S RENAISSANCE
by Emily Summerscale
I was not sure what to expect as I went along to the National Gallery last week for the preview of this exhibition which began its days in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and will run in London until 30 May. Having recently been to Florence and seen many of the great works of the Italian Renaissance I was feeling less confident about the Northern Renaissance and somewhat embarrassingly unfamiliar with Gossaert. As we were shown around by the curator it quickly became apparent that this was a failing on my part, not only because of the fantastic array of work, but also because so much of it comes from the National’s own collection.
Jan Gossaert was the first Northern painter to visit Rome, in 1508-09, where he studied and copied antique sculpture. He brought these influences and experiences back to Flanders where they affected not only his own work, such as his treatment of mythological subjects and representations of Adam and Eve, but also profoundly impacted the artistic relationship between Italy and Flanders. This in turn made Gossaert a key precursor to later painters such as Rubens. He was lucky to enjoy the patronage of wealthy, powerful men such as Philip of Burgundy, and access to their collections, which contained works by masters such as Albrecht Dürer.
Throughout the exhibition Gossaert’s work is seen in the context of the art of his contemporaries, such as Dürer. Their respective treatments of Adam and Eve are very different as Gossaert represents them in a much more sensual way than his contemporaries. In part this may have been to please his patron, as Philip of Burgundy was a bishop with a taste for nudes. Adam and Eve (around 1510), which is usually housed in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, shows them with their arms around each other in an unusually intimate pose for the time. Adam is pointing at his open mouth (Gossaert often painted open mouths with teeth showing) and the apple has a bitemark. They are portrayed as a loving couple with Adam, strong and muscular alongside a soft and feminine Eve, with Gossaert displaying a keen interest in the psychology of his subjects.
Numerous pieces in the exhibition serve to illustrate what a pioneering artist Gossaert was. Of course one of these is a great masterpiece of the National’s collection: The Adoration of the Kings (1510-15) and Gossaert’s own pride in this work is evident from the fact he signed it twice. A highly detailed image of the work can be viewed on the National Gallery’s website, to do so just click here. The painting is hugely ambitious in several ways; firstly in its use of perspective in the architectural background, but most especially in its quirky details such as the figures that peek out from behind a gate. Can you spot the old man with a sinister expression and gnarled fingers grabbing on to a stick? He is so hidden from view that he could easily be missed. Fantastic detail and richness of colour are also evident in his treatment of fur, drapery and the cracked stone paving in the foreground.
His portraits are given their own section in the exhibition and rightly so as again Gossaert’s subtle exploration of the mental state of his subjects is evident in his depictions. One example of this is An Elderly Couple (around 1515-20) where a man and wife are painted as very physically close, but with expressions which look in opposite directions, giving an impression of great emotional distance. The old man clutches a silver goblet with an aggressive grip and on his hat brooch (fashionable at the time) there is a picture of Adam and Eve naked, effectively contrasting with the estrangement of the man from his wife.
A particularly strong piece is Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (around 1510); a stunning treatment of darkness and moonlight. The faces of Christ and his followers are illuminated by a silvery light which illuminates the tears running down his cheeks.
I came away from the exhibition irritated with myself that I had not previously been more aware of Gossaert, although taking comfort that I may not be alone as this is the first exhibition dedicated to him in over 45 years. The impact he had on the development of Flemish painting through his trip to Rome and the visual trickery he employs coupled with level of detail in his paintings and his acute psychological insights are all reasons to go to this brilliant show. Although the best thing of all is that many of these paintings can be found in the National Gallery all year round.
The exhibition would not have been possible without funding from the Flemish Government