With its prime location not far from the western coast of what is today Belgium and its easy access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Zwin River, fifteenth-century Bruges became the chief economic hub of western Europe and an important international center with especially strong trade links to Italy, Spain, England, and the German territories. In addition, the Prinsenhof there was the favored residence of the dukes of Burgundy, whose regular visits with full entourage lent a festive atmosphere to the city. It is not surprising that the concentration of wealth, power, and prestige in Bruges attracted an unbroken succession of highly skilled immigrant painters who recognized the advantage of settling there to practice their craft. Jan van Eyck came from Maaseik in the Mosan region; Petrus Christus from Baerle, near the present Dutch-Belgian border; Hans Memling from the German town of Seligenstadt; and Gerard David from Oudewater, in the northern Netherlands, near Gouda.
The details of David’s life, like those of his contemporaries, were lost over time and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century, largely due to research carried out by the Englishman James Weale in the Bruges archive. Fortunately, some of the paintings mentioned in archival documents as the work of Gerard David survived. In the absence of a single signed painting, these works—such as the Justice of Cambyses of 1498 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges) and the Virgin Among Virgins of 1509 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen)—serve as the starting point for the reconstruction of David’s oeuvre. This is an ongoing process, aided by technical analysis and by the close connection between paintings and nine or ten known drawings by the artist. The liveliness of David’s drawings, many of which depict heads shown in different views and with a variety of expressions, suggest that they were made from life. These provided David with a stock of material for his paintings (2008.368a,b).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections include the most numerous holdings of David’s individual paintings in the world. These range from his earliest to his late works and exemplify his innovative approach to landscape, his novel depictions of traditional themes, and his original effects of color and light, which had considerable influence on successive generations of artists. These paintings reveal that David worked in a progressive, even enterprising, mode, casting off his late medieval heritage and proceeding with a certain purity of vision in an age of transition.
Little is known of Gerard David’s early life. Exactly when he was born and where he received his early training are matters of speculation. The route he traveled before reaching Bruges in 1484, the year he was inducted as a free master into the Corporation of Imagemakers and Saddlers (which included panel painters), is to some extent disclosed in his paintings. The naive charm of the doll-like figures in the early Nativity (32.100.40a) links this panel with David’s north Netherlandish origins and with works of the Haarlem painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans. The spatial construction of the scene is influenced by Dieric Bouts, a Haarlem painter who settled in Leuven by 1457. It is likely that before going to Bruges, David spent a period of time in Bouts’s workshop, which continued under his sons, Aelbert and Dieric the Younger. The mark of Bouts’s style pervades David’s paintings of the last two decades of the fifteenth century and beyond.
Whether David already worked as a manuscript illuminator as well as a panel painter early in his career remains a somewhat controversial issue. However, evidence that he did so is provided by a tiny illumination of the Holy Face (1975.1.2486). Long ago cut from a book, it may be the missing image that originally accompanied the Holy Face prayer in a 1486 Book of Hours in the Escorial near Madrid. David also contributed a few illuminations to the famous Grimani Breviary and to a Book of Hours presented to Queen Isabella of Castile in 1496, among which is a Nativity that is based on a reverse image of the early panel in the Metropolitan (32.100.40a). There is no document attesting to David’s membership in the guild of illuminators or to his authorship of any specific illumination, but it is known that in 1519–20 David was involved in litigation with his assistant Ambrosius Benson over disputed ownership of patterns for paintings and illuminations. It is also noteworthy that upon his death in 1523, David’s wife paid the confraternity of the book traders for mortuary debts, a burial cloth, and a mass to be said in David’s honor.
The international and courtly environment of Bruges as well as the elegant art of the city’s preeminent painter, Hans Memling, must have motivated David to adopt a more refined style in his paintings upon his arrival there. This new approach is evident in the more graceful poses and attitudes of his figures and the more subtle modeling of their faces; these particular changes, not yet visible in the Saint John the Baptist wing of a triptych of about 1485–90 have already taken place in the Saint Francis panel from the same ensemble (32.100.40bc) and are even more marked in the Crucifixion of the late 1490s (09.157). In some respects David moved beyond his predecessor Memling. Thus, a heightened sensitivity to nature and a specific interest in the depiction of landscape are also apparent in these earlier paintings, where he deliberately matched the type of natural setting to the theme depicted. Saint John the Baptist, for instance, inhabits an enclosed wilderness of cypress and magnolia trees, while Saint Francis receives the stigmata in a remote field, at a distance from his monastery in the background. And the Crucifixion shows subtle tonal shifts from the browns of the foreground to the greens and blues near the far horizon of an integrated and naturalistic scheme of hills, valleys, towns, and forests—features that demonstrate a dramatic departure from the formulaic depictions of Memling.
David’s greatest achievement in the portrayal of landscape and in its integration with the theme set within it occurs in the Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (49.7.20a–c) of about 1510–14. The exterior wings (Mauritshuis, The Hague) show a forest scene devoid of human presence, a startling innovation for its time. Influenced by the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion), a religious movement that encouraged the practitioner to imitate Christ by identifying with his life and suffering, and by the popularity of religious pilgrimages, David invited viewers to participate in the scene by wandering, like the Holy Family, through the isolated forest of the exterior wings to share in the jubilant image of the Nativity that is revealed when the wings are opened.
The requirements imposed for commissions did not always allow David free reign in his expression. The retardataire landscape of the Passion wings (1975.1.119; 1975.1.120) of about 1505, for example, with their vertically stacked hills that obscure the distant view to the horizon, probably respond to the strictures of the commission. David may have adopted this solution to suit the formal characteristics of the missing centerpiece, which may have been a series of sculpted scenes from Christ’s Passion. The grisaille Annunciation on the reverse of the Passion wings would also have been appropriate for a sculpted centerpiece.
David’s obvious talent for sensing and fulfilling the specific nature of the individual requirements of his clients in terms not only of theme but also of expression guaranteed him a considerable business. The thriving economic relationship between Italy, especially Genoa, and Bruges involved trade in luxury goods, including paintings. In response to the great popularity of Netherlandish paintings in Italy, wealthy Italian merchants and bankers living in Bruges sought out Netherlandish painters to provide altarpieces for their chapels and churches at home and abroad. Several Italians became patrons of David’s work, among them the diplomat and banker Vincenzo Sauli. Near the peak of his career, in 1506, David received the prestigious commission for a large altarpiece comprising seven paintings in Italian polyptych form from Sauli. Meeting the challenge of producing this monumental work (it is one of the largest known Netherlandish altarpieces) for the high altar of the abbey church of San Gerolamo della Cervara in Ligura, near Genoa, must have been David’s sovereign achievement. The Annunciation panels from this altarpiece are in the Museum’s collection (50.145.9ab).
By the second decade of the sixteenth century, toward the end of David’s career, Italian artists, who had been assimilating northern style, began to influence their Netherlandish counterparts. David’s production of the Cervara altarpiece, the acquaintance with Lombard and Ligurian art he likely gained from the experience, as well as his employment of a Lombard assistant by 1519, placed him at the forefront of this reverse trend, in an ideal position to convey the Italian mode to his northern colleagues. Hints of David’s shift in style are clearly visible in the Virgin and Child with Four Angels (1977.1.1). The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (49.7.21), however, is the more telling manifestation of the new manner. Here the lessons of Italian art are most keenly felt: the chiaroscuro effects, the setting of the central figures against the nichelike foil of trees, the subtle sfumato modeling of the faces, the sophisticated balance of light, and the deeply saturated hues of blue and green function together to ensure the convincing and natural placement of the great pyramidal form of the Virgin and Child within, and not simply before, the landscape. With this panel, David broke new ground in treatment of subject matter as well. The Virgin is no longer an icon but rather a human and accessible mother tenderly caring for her child.
David’s innovations—in particular the assimilation of Italian art and the shifting focus from the traditional iconic image of the Virgin and Child to their portrayal as human presences—were quickly absorbed by his contemporaries Quentin Metsys and Joos van Cleve in Antwerp, which had become the center of Netherlandish artistic production by the close of David’s career. In 1515, David registered in the Antwerp painter’s guild, in order to market his paintings there, though he continued to live in Bruges for the remainder of his life. A panel from David’s workshop (1982.60.17) produced a few years before the master’s death reflects contemporary Antwerp painting. The center panel of a triptych, it depicts the Adoration of the Magi. The theme was, not surprisingly, very much in vogue in Antwerp—the new economic hub of northern Europe and a center of export-import business—as it allowed for the portrayal of wealthy travelers transporting luxurious goods.