This painting, which most likely was intended as a single, private devotional panel, combines the depiction of the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds, as described in both biblical and mystical literature. It probably dates from the early 1480s, before David established himself in Bruges. The homely and naive figure types and the geometric simplification of the heads of the Virgin and angels reflect models the artist knew from his early training in the northern Netherlands. Already present is the characteristic combination of serene landscape, simple architectural setting, and meditative figures that would contribute to the painter’s popularity.
duc de Galliera, Paris (in 1874, as by Memling); Mr. Gore, London (?in 1878); [Steinmeyer, Lucerne, until 1923; sold to Kleinberger]; [Kleinberger, Paris and New York, 1923; sold to Friedsam]; Michael Friedsam, New York (1923–d. 1931)
Paris. Palais de la Présidence du Corps Législatif. "Ouvrages de peinture exposés au profit de la colonisation de l'Algérie par les Alsaciens-Lorrains," April 23–?, 1874, no. 340 (as by Memling, lent by M. le duc de Galliera).
New York. F. Kleinberger Galleries. "Flemish Primitives," 1929, no. 28 (as a triptych, lent by Col. Michael Friedsam).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Painter's Light," October 5–November 10, 1971, no. 2.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Gerard David: Flanders's Last Medieval Master," April 1–May 9, 1972, no catalogue?
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 72.
Madrid. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. "Gerard David y el paisaje flamenco," June 10–August 22, 2004, no. 2.
Max J. Friedländer inAusstellung von Kunstwerken des Mittelalters und der Renaissance aus Berliner Privatbesitz Veranstaltet von der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft . . . 1898. Berlin, 1899, p. 14, relates this painting, then in a private collection in Paris, to a Nativity by David in the von Kaufmann collection (now Cleveland Museum of Art), and to one in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts; observes that our picture is in poor condition.
Eberhard von Bodenhausen. Gerard David und seine Schule. Munich, 1905, p. 89 n. 1, mentions it as related to the Budapest Nativity and observes that on a photograph of this work in the Saint John's Hospital in Bruges it is incorrectly ascribed to Memling; notes that the type of the Madonna derives from Geertgen tot Sint Jans.
Eberhard von Bodenhausen and Wilhelm R. Valentiner. "Zum Werk Gerard Davids." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s., 22 (1911), p. 183, ill., observe that it is known to them only through a photograph, ascribe it to David and consider it contemporary with the Kaufmann and Budapest pictures or perhaps even earlier; comment that it was apparently made in Haarlem under the influence of Geertgen and that the composition derives from a painting by Dirk Bouts in the Johnson collection in Philadelphia; state that it was exhibited in Paris in 1878.
Friedr. Winkler. "Gerard David und die Brügger Minaturmalerei seiner Zeit." Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft 6 (1913), p. 278, calls it a lost early work and notes that it and the Budapest and Kaufmann Nativities are related to a Nativity in the Breviary of Isabella of Spain (British Library), presented to Isabella in 1497; believes the illumination is by David.
Friedrich Winkler inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme. Vol. 8, Leipzig, 1913, pp. 452, 454–55, refers to it as an early work of David's, lost since 1878.
Martin Conway. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London, 1921, pp. 278–79, lists it, along with the Kaufmann and Budapest Nativities, as an early work; considers our picture the earliest of the three, calling it a "pure Haarlem work," close to Geertgen.
Max J. Friedländer. Letter. March 3, 1923, calls it a characteristic early work of Gerard David.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 6, Memling und Gerard David. Berlin, 1928, pp. 84, 88–89, 91, 100, 143, no. 159, pl. 67, publishes the Nativity with the wing panels of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Francis [32.100.40bc] as a triptych and places it later in David's oeuvre than the Budapest and von Pannwitz [Kaufmann] Nativities; ascribes to David the Nativity in the Breviary of Isabella of Spain, which must date "shortly before 1497," and sees this illumination as a repetition of our Nativity, which he therefore dates before 1497.
Max J. Friedländer in The Michael Friedsam Collection. [completed 1928], p. 138.
Sidney P. Noe. "Flemish Primitives in New York." American Magazine of Art 21 (January 1930), pp. 32, 37, ill. p. 30.
Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), pp. 22–24, no. 31, observe that it is not definitely known that the three panels belonged together, but that they seem to "constitute a unified triptych"; add that the relative dimensions of the panels would tend to support Friedländer's reconstruction, noting that although the wings are 3/4 inch shorter than the central panel, they appear to have been cut down; date them not long after 1483 and state that the Nativity was in the Paris Exposition of 1878.
Ludwig Baldass. "Gerard David als Landschaftsmaler." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, n.s., 10 (1936), pp. 91–93, notes the influence of Geertgen, adding that one does not yet see signs of the influence of the great Flemish painters, and concludes that the triptych must be an early work painted under a hypothetical apprenticeship with Geertgen in Haarlem; considers the Budapest and von Pannwitz Nativities later.
Wolfgang Schöne. "Über einige altniederländische Bilder, vor allem in Spanien." Jahrbuch der königlich preuszischen Kunstsammlungen 58 (1937), p. 173, publishes miniatures from a book of hours from 1486 in the Escorial, the larger part of which he ascribes to David; on the basis of style, places our three panels in the same period.
K. G. Boon. Gerard David. Amsterdam, , pp. 20–22, ill. p. 17, believes the altarpiece was painted during a "transitional period" in Bruges and considers it later than the von Pannwitz and Budapest Nativities which he places among David's earliest works; sees the discrepancies between the wings and central panel as characteristic of his work at this time.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 89–92, ill., observe that although the panels are now framed as a triptych, they evidently did not belong together originally; note that the landscape is discontinuous and that the sizes of the three panels are different, the wings being shorter than the central panel and too wide to close when framed and hinged; see the Nativity as characteristic of David's Haarlem style and the wings as being in the style he developed after he came to Bruges.
Ernest Lotthé. La pensée chrétienne dans la peinture flamande et hollandaise. Lille, 1947, vol. 1, p. 59; vol. 2, p. 323 n. 77.
M. L. D'Otrange. "Gerard David at the Metropolitan, New York." Connoisseur 128 (January 1952), pp. 206–7, ill.
Georges Marlier. Ambrosius Benson et la peinture à Bruges au temps de Charles-Quint. Damme, Belgium, 1957, p. 142.
Henry S. Francis. "'The Nativity' by Gerard David." Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 45 (December 1958), pp. 230–33, ill., dates our Nativity before the von Pannwitz Nativity, recently acquired by the Cleveland Museum, and the one in Budapest.
Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 79, 123, fig. 23, notes that the panels were not conceived as a triptych, but believes they were produced during the same period of the artist's career, about 1475.
Jacqueline Folie inFlanders in the Fifteenth Century: Art and Civilization. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts Groeninge Museum. Detroit, 1960, pp. 186, 188, observes that David's Nativities in Cleveland and Budapest are derived from this one.
Charles D. Cuttler. Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel. New York, 1968, pp. 191–92, lists David's three Nativities chronologically with the Budapest version first, ours second, and the Cleveland version last, all apparently painted "over a ten-year period that extended into the 1490s".
Susan Urbach. Early Netherlandish Painting. New York, 1971, pp. 10, 28, calls our Nativity David's earliest version "which seems to date from before 1484" and publishes a related Nativity (Christian Museum, Esztergom) by a Northern Netherlandish painter working around 1500.
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 6, Hans Memlinc and Gerard David. New York, 1971, part 2, pp. 83, 85–87, 100, no. 159, p. 127, pls. 161–62.
Elizabeth Ourusoff De Fernandez-Gimenez in "European Paintings Before 1500." The Cleveland Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. Part 1, Cleveland, 1974, p. 151.
Diane Graybowski Scillia. "Gerard David and Manuscript Illumination in the Low Countries, 1480–1509." PhD diss., Case Western Reserve University, 1975, pp. 80–81, 100 nn. 8 and 12, pp. 113, 127, 129–33, 144 n. 13, pp. 152–53 nn. 73–74, 78, pp. 161–62, 164–65, 174, 191–93, 200 n. 14, p. 201 n. 16, p. 205 n. 53, p. 242 n. 9, p. 243 n. 14, fig. 24, dates the central panel in David's Haarlem period and the wings after 1484, observing that they were not originally designed to adjoin this Nativity; suggests that our Nativity and two fragments of a Nativity in the Louvre, Paris, usually ascribed to Dieric Bouts, may reflect a lost Haarlem school composition, perhaps a lost painting by Ouwater; compares the figure of the Virgin to that of Lazarus's sister in Ouwater's "Raising of Lazarus" in the Berlin-Dahlem Museum.
John D. Morse. Old Master Paintings in North America: Over 3000 Masterpieces by 50 Great Artists. New York, 1979, p. 92.
Edwin James Mundy III. "Gerard David Studies." PhD diss., Princeton University, 1980, pp. 24–25, 51 nn. 38–39, apparently views the three panels as conceived as a whole; dates the triptych well into the 1490s, but before 1497, the approximate date of the similar Nativity in the Breviary of Isabella of Spain.
James Snyder. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New York, 1985, pp. 188, 191, fig. 182, observes that there is some question as to whether or not the three panels originally belonged together; dates them about 1480–85.
Hans Vlieghe inThe Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis. Ed. H. R. Hoetink. Amsterdam, 1985, pp. 103–4, ill., erroneously illustrates this nativity scene as the center for David's reverse wings in the Mauritshuis [these actually belong with 49.7.20a–c].
Dirk De Vos inNationaal Biografisch Woordenboek. Vol. 12, Brussels, 1987, col. 215.
Catheline Périer-d'Ieteren. "Précisions sur le dessin sous-jacent et la technique d'exécution de la Nativité de Gérard David du musée de Budapest." Annales d'histoire d'art et d'archéologie 60 (1987), pp. 95–106.
Hans J. van Miegroet. Gerard David. Antwerp, 1989, pp. 36, 38, 48, 80, 273, 276, 278, 280, 320, 328, no. 1, colorpls. 11 (triptych) and 12 (detail of center panel), ill. p. 273, considers the wings later than the central panel, and not from the same ensemble; observes that the three panels probably belong to David's earliest production, possibly between 1480 and 1485.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Gerard David, Hans J. van Miegroet." Art Bulletin 72 (December 1990), p. 649, notes that Van Miegroet discusses the panels together although he concedes that they were not originally conceived as a unit; states that the physical and stylistic evidence that the Nativity is earlier than the wings is "readily apparent," observing that the central panel depends on North Netherlandish prototypes and the wings on later influence from Bruges and Ghent.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "A Meeting of Sacred and Secular Worlds." From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 32, 69, 83, 143, 276–77, 282–84, 302, no. 72, ill. (color), places it in the early 1480s and the wings with Saints John the Baptist and Francis (MMA 32.100.40bc) about 1485–90, asserting that The Nativity was probably intended as a single, private devotional panel.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition. New York, 1998, pp. 92, 102–9, 150 nn. 20, 21, 30, pp. 212, 319, 324, ill. (color, overall and detail, and x-radiograph), notes that the earliest felling date for the panel's source tree is 1477.
Michael Rohlmann. "Flanders and Italy, Flanders and Florence. Early Netherlandish Painting in Italy and its Particular Influence on Florentine Art: An Overview." Italy and the Low Countries—Artistic Relations: The Fifteenth Century. Florence, 1999, p. 57 n. 2, refers to the three Friedsam panels as a Nativity triptych and includes them in a list of Flemish works that came from Italy, "of which the precise origins are unknown".
Michaela Krieger. "Gerard David als Illuminator." Festschrift für Konrad Oberhuber. Ed. Achim Gnann and Heinz Widauer. Milan, 2000, pp. 227, 233 n. 52, fig. 8.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "'Diverse patterns pertaining to the crafts of painters or illuminators': Gerard David and the Bening Workshop." Master Drawings 41, no. 3 (2003), pp. 242–44, ill.
Joaquín Yarza Luaces inGerard David y el paisaje flamenco. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid, 2003, pp. 40, 42, 44, 125, no. 2, fig. 15 (color).
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, p. 2.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Gerard David. Vita e opere." Il Polittico della Cervara di Gerard David. Ed. Clario Di Fabio. Exh. cat., Musei di Strada Nuova — Palazzo Bianco, Genoa. Milan, 2005, p. 14, fig. 2.
Diane Wolfthal. "Florentine Bankers, Flemish Friars, and the Patronage of the Portinari Altarpiece." Cultural Exchange Between the Low Countries and Italy (1400–1600). Ed. Ingrid Alexander-Skipnes. Turnhout, Belgium, 2007, p. 9, fig. 7.
Susan Urbach. Early Netherlandish Paintings. London, 2015, vol. 1, pp. 115, 117, 126–27 nn. 13, 15, under no. 9.
According to Bodenhausen and Valentiner (1911) and Burroughs and Wehle (1932), The Nativity was exhibited in Paris in 1878, presumably at the Exposition Universelle. There is no catalogue of Old Masters lent to this exhibition in MMA Library or FARL. Possibly there was some confusion with the 1874 Paris exhibition.
When this Nativity was bequeathed to the Museum by Michael Friedsam in 1932, it was flanked on either side by panels depicting Saint John the Baptist (32.100.40b) and Saint Francis (32.100.40c). There is no record of the three panels forming an ensemble until 1923 when Friedsam purchased them as a triptych from Kleinberger. The Nativity was exhibited as an independent work in Paris in 1874 and the wings were together since at least the late nineteenth century. Wehle and Salinger (1947) and most contemporary scholars, including Ainsworth (1998), doubt or reject the reconstruction of the panels as a triptych. They were, however, exhibited as such by the Metropolitan Museum until 1998, when the wings were separated from the Nativity on the occasion of the "Van Eyck to Bruegel" exhibition. Ainsworth believes that the Nativity was most likely conceived as a single private devotional panel, dating it to the early 1480s, before David's relocation to Bruges; she dates the wings to his first years in that city, or about 1485–90.
A closely related illumination produced in Bruges about 1496 (British Library, London) may also be the work of Gerard David.
All four sides of the panel have their original bearded edges.