An influential (and often overlooked) Flemish painter who invested a rare bit of heat in his mythological nudes ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Jan Gossaert, a Flemish artist, is credited with bringing the Italian Renaissance to the Low Countries. In 1509 he visited Rome, where he glimpsed a considerably different approach to rendering religious and mythological subjects (ie, they were nude). The art he saw there forever changed his own paintings, which in turn influenced his contemporaries at home and changed the course of North European art.
Today’s non-specialist may have only a fuzzy idea of Gossaert’s pictures. The only recorded major exhibition devoted solely to him was held in Rotterdam and Bruges in the 1960s. Convinced that he is far too important to be neglected, art historians have undertaken new scholarly and technical study of his works. This was led by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its curator Maryann Ainsworth. The museum, most unusually, also produced a catalogue raisonné. This has been included in the book that accompanies the exhibition “Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance”, which opened on February 23rd at London’s National Gallery.
At the Metropolitan, where the show originated, 50 of the artist’s surviving oil paintings on board were displayed with 41 works on paper and related work by other artists. The London show, on until May 30th, has only 37 of the paintings and the 24 Gossaert works on paper. This smaller array proves to be both better and worse, but above all it is markedly different. At the Metropolitan, the visitor walked through what seemed like acres of rooms hung with a sweeping survey of Gossaert, his influences and those he influenced. The more narrow focus in the National Gallery’s cramped exhibition space dramatically increases the impact of Gossaert’s erotic paintings, his most original work.
The six-room display is arranged thematically. It begins by establishing a context for the artist. On view are paintings by Gossaert’s contemporaries, Quintin Massys and Gerard David. There is a portrait of Margaret of Austria, then Hapsburg ruler of the Low Countries. Other rooms are devoted to religious subjects; among them an “Adoration of the Magi” and, at the end of the show, a “Virgin and Child”. Tenderness floods this last room, but there is an undercurrent of dissent. National Gallery scholars label its “Virgin and Child” as a Gossaert original. At the Metropolitan it was described as a copy. (Amusingly, New York and London scholars also disagree about how to spell the artist’s names. At the Metropolitan he is Gossart; in London, Gossaert prevails.)
Gossaert's portraits, which make up more than half his surviving paintings, fill the exhibition’s largest room. While elsewhere walls are painted various shades of green, the portraits are set off by a rich, red background. One of the most memorable is “The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark”, a loan from the Queen’s collection. It is not an image of enviable privilege. These woeful tykes, dressed in black, are mourning their dead mother.
Gossaert’s greatness, though, lies in his unique, imaginative series of erotic paintings and drawings, starting with his “Adam and Eve” series. Gossaert’s technical gifts and subtle understanding of character and emotion shine out in such nudes as his Venus (with and without Cupid) and Hercules and Deianira. (Alas, the astonishing, nearly life-sized “Neptune and Amphitrite” could not travel to this show.) These are not idealised, otherworldly creatures. They are individual men and women who look as loving as they are lusting; as filled with warmth as with heat. These are bold, original, compelling and skilfully painted images. Gossaert did not have to be the very best in every genre he undertook to deserve the attention he is now receiving. His nudes alone would make this an impressive, engaging show, well worth seeing.
"Jan Gossaert's Renaissance" is on view at the National Gallery in London through May 30th
Picture credit: National Gallery, "Adam and Eve" (about 1520), lent by Her Majesty The Queen, © Her Majesty The Queen