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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1532) and His Circle

In a comparison with the greatest painter of antiquity, Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1532) was repeatedly acknowledged as “nostrae aetatis Apellem” (the Apelles of our age). This praise first appeared in two separate texts of 1516 and 1529 by Philip of Burgundy‘s court poet and humanist, Gerard Geldenhouwer. Lodovico Guicciardini (1567), Giorgio Vasari (1568), and Karel van Mander I (1604) all described the themes of Gossart’s art and credited him with being the first to bring from Italy to the North the art of depicting historie and poesie with nude figures. Though little remains of comments by contemporary artists concerning Gossart’s reputation, he is said to have earned the praise of German master Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) (19.73.1), who saw Gossart’s Middelburg altarpiece (now lost) during his trip to the Netherlands in 1520.

This admiration for Gossart and the intriguing notices of his works from Dürer and Van Mander make it all the more frustrating that there are so few remaining documents of specific commissions that can be linked to extant paintings. However, a number of signed drawings and prints as well as signed and dated paintings provide the linchpins for reconstructing the attributions and the chronology of Gossart’s oeuvre. The incomplete record of his career and what remains of the paintings, drawings, and prints suggest that he depended upon the pensions he received through his attachment to various court patrons and that he augmented this fixed income with outside commissions. Gossart worked most of his professional career as a court artist, first for Philip of Burgundy, subsequently for Philip’s great-nephew Adolf of Burgundy (who was admiral of Zeeland and later marquis, or lord, of Veere), and finally for Mencía de Mendoza, the wife of Henry III, count of Nassau-Breda. He also fulfilled requests on occasion for Emperor Charles V, Archduchess Margaret of Austria, and King Christian II of Denmark. These close connections to the court were responsible for the fact that he produced designs for works in other media and for special events as well as paintings. Gossart, perhaps inspired by Dürer’s visit to the Netherlands, also dabbled in printmaking (1991.1167). He mostly worked alone, but is known to have collaborated with other artists, including Gerard David and various landscape painters, when the commission called for it.

Jan Gossart’s fame in his own time was due not only to his innovative images, but also to the fact that he advertised his achievements by signing so many of his works from the outset of his career. The significant number of signed and dated works also helps to reconstruct the artist’s stylistic development from his earliest days in Antwerp to his final years of production. Most of Gossart’s paintings are single panels, and nearly half are portraits, a genre in which he particularly excelled. It is clear that he was sought after for his extraordinary abilities to represent the lifelike appearance of individuals. Curiously, among the portraits that have survived, only a few depict women, the overwhelming number representing men of the courtly realm and upper levels of society (32.100.62).

Gossart devoted his attention not to depicting extended narratives, but to a limited variety of biblical and devotional themes, mostly those of Adam and Eve, the Virgin and Child, and episodes from the Passion of Christ. What is new to Northern art of the time is Gossart’s introduction of mythological themes with nude figures portrayed with heightened eroticism. These subjects and this approach allowed the artist to indulge his interest in the human body, to explore myriad possibilities for the interaction of figures, and to pursue an increasingly sculptural approach to them. These aspects of Gossart’s art were not limited to mythological themes, but played an important role in his paintings and drawings of Adam and Eve and the Virgin and Child (2001.190).

Gossart came from the small town of Maubeuge (from which the Dutch name Mabuse is derived), originally in the medieval county of Hainaut. It is not at all certain where he was trained, though some scholars have proposed Bruges. Since the records of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp state that Gossart, under the name of Jennyn van Hennegouwe (Jan of Hainaut), became a master in the guild in 1503, it is also possible that he trained there. Wherever Gossart trained, his earliest works express the Antwerp Mannerist style, of which he was a pioneer and key proponent in the first decade of the sixteenth century. This style is characterized by cluttered compositions, fantastic architecture, elegant, exaggerated poses of attenuated figures, swirling draperies, and excessive embellishments of all kinds. Several drawings date from this time, but curiously, hardly any paintings can be proposed as coming from this period.

With such a conventional start to his career as a guild member in Antwerp, it is not easy to explain just how Gossart came to the attention of Philip of Burgundy, admiral of Zeeland and the illegitimate son of Philip the Good. However this happened, the artist joined the delegation headed by Philip that traveled, at the request of Margaret of Austria, regent and governess of the Netherlands, to Pope Julius II in Rome. Philip and his entourage set out on October 26, 1508, and arrived in Rome on January 14, 1509. The view of modern Italian painting and sculpture that Gossart was offered there would have a longlasting effect that can be seen in the works he produced after his return to the North.

Upon Gossart’s return from Rome in 1509, a Janin de Waele (Johnny the Walloon)—most probably Gossart himself—was admitted to the Brotherhood of Our Lady in Middelburg, a town near Philip’s court at Souburg. Gossart undertook regular employment at Souberg in 1515–16, where he decorated the castle with scenes depicting mythological nudes. His Neptune and Amphitrite (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), an obvious homage to Philip as admiral of the Burgundian fleet, dates to this time. Until then, he produced several paintings that were commissioned by individuals with close connections at court. Chief among them was an altarpiece, commissioned by Philip’s nephew, Abbot Maximilian of Burgundy, for the Premonstratensian abbey in Middelburg. This work was destroyed by fire in 1568, but Karel van Mander and Marcus van Vaernewijck describe it as a huge altarpiece with double wings.

Middelburg is not far from Bruges, and it has often been observed that Gossart’s paintings and drawings from about 1509–15 reflect the influence of Gerard David, the leading master of Bruges at that time, who was about a decade older. Recent technical investigation now demonstrates that the two collaborated, but as artists of equal stature, as in a diptych in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome; the Malvagna Triptych (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo); and the Adoration of the Kings (National Gallery, London). In every one of these collaborations, David contributed the portions for which he had earned his fame and specific artistic identity: intimate landscape scenes, and the beautiful, refined Virgin and Child figures and comely faces of female saints, which by the 1510s had become the staple of his production for open market sale in Bruges and Antwerp.

After his election as bishop of Utrecht in May 1517, Philip moved to the episcopal château at Wijk bij Duurstede. Gossart apparently went with him and continued to paint mythological nudes for Philip and his humanist friends. He must also have spent time in Mechelen, where he was summoned in 1523 by Margaret of Austria to restore certain pictures in her collection and carry out other unspecified tasks. When Gossart went to Mechelen on that occasion, he stayed with Conrad Meit, who had became Margaret’s court sculptor sometime before 1514 and remained in that position until her death in 1530. The relationship between the two was extremely important for the evolution of Gossart’s sculptural approach to his paintings. Gossart and Meit shared a common interest in mythological themes, and Gossart also came to share the German’s sculptural approach toward them. It cannot be a coincidence that the figure of Venus, and especially the twist of her body, in Gossart’s Venus and Cupid (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) of 1521 appears so similar to Meit’s boxwood Lucretia (17.190.582). Gossart may even have had such a sculpture in his studio, turning it around to find the desired angle of view, while preparing drawings for his painting. Meit and Gossart were also both intrigued by the textures of fabrics, the three-dimensionality of features such as braided or thick, curled locks of hair or draperies, and the smooth porcelainlike finish to flesh, especially that of the face. During the same time that Meit was making sculpted portraits of Margaret, her husband, Philibert, and other courtiers, Gossart was increasingly engaged with painting portraits of various sitters of social prominence. When viewed side by side, Meit’s sculptures and Gossart’s paintings express the same aesthetic goal: a heightened sense of the three-dimensionality of the figure conceived in the round.

At the outset of his career, Gossart’s portraiture was influenced by the works of two great Bruges artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. That his earliest portraits are indebted to Memling is clear from the Magdalen (National Gallery, London) of around 1506–8 and the portrait of Jean Carondelet (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio) of around 1503–8, in which the poses of the figures and the placement of the hands at the lower left corner of the composition are based on Memling’s formula. Perhaps Gossart was most intrigued by his predecessor’s clever innovation of placing the trompe-l’oeil frame not around but behind the sitter, which caused the figure to be projected into the viewer’s space, as in the Museum’s portrait of Maria Baroncelli (14.40.626–27). He began to use this device, particularly for his portraits of members of the court and its circle. Almost invariably he placed the figures at a slight angle to the picture plane and before a framed, colored background. Gossart sometimes enhanced the precious nature of the portrait by placing trompe-l’oeil stone panels behind the sitters.

The death in 1524 of Gossart’s longstanding patron, Philip of Burgundy, ended the source of his regular pension. He was not at a loss for work, however, as his well-established connections at court continued to yield commissions. Among the most important were Henry III, count of Nassau-Breda, and his wife, Mencía de Mendoza, marchioness of Zenete, the richest woman in Spain. The couple probably met Gossart on their stay in the Netherlands, and he began to receive a regular stipend from Mencía between 1530 and his death in 1532. One painting listed in her 1533 and 1548 inventories as by “Joanyn de Marburg” is possibly the Virgin and Child in a Landscape (Cleveland Museum of Art) of 1531, and the Christ on the Cold Stone (Real Colegio del Corpus Christi, Valencia) of ca. 1530 may also have been in her collection. The couple sat to Gossart for their portraits, but only copies remain.

Certain examples indicate that there were requests for copies of particular Gossart paintings. In these instances, he may have temporarily hired on journeymen or artists from other workshops to provide the copies, or he could have lent out, rented, or sold the cartoons for these works to established workshops for production. One example for which there seems to have been considerable demand for contemporary copies, as well as for versions produced long after Gossart’s lifetime, is the Virgin and Child of which the best remaining version is in Metropolitan Museum (17.190.17). This is the composition that is usually identified as proof of a Gossart workshop. It is linked to Van Mander’s famous statement that the figures are modeled after Anna van Bergen and her son Hendrik. Some twenty copies and versions survive, ranging widely from works made in the 1520s to those produced long after, even into the early seventeenth century (such as the version in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art). Of the copies that have been studied, several not surprisingly show evidence of transfer from a cartoon by tracing. There is also a distinct variation in quality as well as in technique and handling within the group. While the Metropolitan Museum version is fairly close to Gossart in style and execution, many of the others are far too distant in these regards to have been produced under the artist’s watchful eye and may very well have been made from a pattern that was circulated outside of any possible Gossart workshop.

There has been much speculation about whether Gossart had any apprentices other than the two he trained in Antwerp early in his career. Jan van Scorel, Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, and Lambert Lombard are sometimes proposed as possible students. Van Scorel apparently went to visit or pay homage to Gossart in 1517, when he was at Wijk bij Duurstede, and Lambert is thought to have worked with Gossart in Middelburg about 1525; to say that they apprenticed with Gossart is unjustified. There are no records of where Vermeyen was trained as an artist; opinions vary as to whether it was with Van Scorel, Bernard van Orley, or Gossart. Like Van Scorel, Vermeyen could have come to know Gossart and his works in Wijk bij Duurstede. The similarities between the works of the two artists probably are more a question of strong influence than direct apprenticeship. It is hard to say whether Gossart specifically influenced artists such as Lucas van Leyden and Dirck Vellert in their embrace of the antique style. Lucas came to see Gossart in Middelburg about 1526–27, and they traveled together to Ghent, Mechelen, and Antwerp. Shortly before that time, Lucas made an engraving inspired by Gossart, The Poet Virgil in a Basket (41.1.23), dated 1525, in which the central figure looking out at the viewer appears to be a portrait of Gossart. The new massive figure type, the pudgy child in the foreground, and the increased attention to the textures of costumes signal the artist’s debt to Gossart. From the time of their meeting, Lucas showed increasing interest in classical themes and in nude figures placed in erotically charged, animated poses. He also shared Gossart’s preoccupation with the theme of Adam and Eve, himself creating eight engravings of the subject between 1529 and 1530. Vellert was most influenced by Gossart early in his career, when he began to fill his prints with Italian Renaissance ornament and classically inspired architectural settings in carefully measured spaces, as in the Saint Luke Painting the Virgin of 1526 (1986.1000). The latter expressed in prints some of Gossart’s achievements in his paintings of the same theme.

In reconsidering Gossart and his artistic milieu, it is clear that the artist’s longstanding attachment to the Burgundian-Habsburg courts provided him with privileged access to sophisticated, discerning, and wealthy collectors. His trip to Rome in the entourage of Philip of Burgundy changed the course of his career and also the direction of Netherlandish painting. Although Gossart probably never had a thriving workshop in the sense of many of his Antwerp and Brussels contemporaries, the revolutionary nature of his art caused him to be sought out by a number of artists who adopted and disseminated his style. It is these artists of the next generation who carried forward the incipient Mannerist trends of Gossart’s art—based on an assimilation of antique and Italian Renaissance modes—that dominated painting, drawing, and printmaking during the sixteenth century.