Exhibitions/ Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures

Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance

October 6 / 2010–January 17 / 2011
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

The first major exhibition in forty-five years devoted to the Burgundian Netherlandish artist Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1532) brings together Gossart's paintings, drawings, and prints and places them in the context of the art and artists that influenced his transformation from Late Gothic Mannerism to the new Renaissance mode. Gossart was among the first northern artists to travel to Rome to make copies after antique sculpture and introduce historical and mythological subjects with erotic nude figures into the mainstream of northern painting. Most often credited with successfully assimilating Italian Renaissance style into northern European art of the early sixteenth century, he is the pivotal Old Master who changed the course of Flemish art from the medieval craft tradition of its founder, Jan van Eyck (ca. 1380/90–1441), and charted new territory that eventually led to the great age of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).

More About the Exhibition

In the early sixteenth century, the Burgundian-Habsburg Netherlands—a geographical area that once encompassed present-day Belgium, Holland, and parts of Germany and France—experienced the rise of humanism, the birth of the Reformation, and constant struggles of territorial expansion among the ruling dynasties of Western Europe. The future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was born in Ghent in 1500. After the untimely death of his father, Philip the Fair, in 1506, he was raised by his aunt, Margaret of Austria, governor general and regent of the Netherlands, who held court in Mechelen. The economic power of Bruges was waning as Antwerp assumed new prominence, and artists traveled from place to place to establish a livelihood in the burgeoning art markets of the major Northern cities.

Among the most innovative artists of this period was Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1532), also known as Jenni Antwerpen, Jennin Gossart, Mabuse, and Johannes Malbodius. The latter two of these sobriquets indicate his town of origin, Maubeuge, today in northern France. In 1503 Gossart joined the painters' guild in Antwerp, where he trained two apprentices. His sojourn in Rome in 1508–9 in the entourage of Philip of Burgundy, illegitimate son of Duke Philip the Good, on a diplomatic mission to Pope Julius II, brought him fame.

He was one of the first Northern artists to experience firsthand the art of antiquity, to make drawings after Greek and Roman sculpture and monuments, and to assimilate this new awareness of the ancient world into his work. Gossart was much heralded at the time for introducing to Northern art depictions of biblical and mythological subjects (historie and poesie) with nude figures. At the humanist courts where he worked—in particular, for Philip of Burgundy—he was lauded as the "Apelles of our age," comparing him to the most famous painter of antiquity. Influenced by his pivotal trip to Rome, Gossart redirected the course of early Netherlandish painting from the legacy of its founder, Jan van Eyck, and charted new territory that eventually led to the great age of Peter Paul Rubens.

The current exhibition is the first reappraisal in more than forty-five years of the extraordinary achievements of this versatile master. Viewed in the context of his contemporary milieu, Gossart is celebrated as an artist of unsurpassed skill and remarkable originality. Technical examinations of the majority of his works have informed a reconsideration of his innovations as a painter, draftsman, and printmaker.

The exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, Flanders House New York, and the Society of Friends of Belgium in America.

Additional support is provided by The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Hester Diamond, David Kowitz, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and Joyce P. and Diego R. Visceglia.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in association with The National Gallery, London.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The catalogue is made possible by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund and the Roswell L. Gilpatric Publications Fund.

Additional support is provided by the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.

Gossart is documented as having come from Maubeuge, a town originally in the medieval county of Hainaut, which was ceded to France at the Peace of Nijmegen in 1678. The details of his early training as a painter remain obscure; we first learn of him when he became a master in the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1503 under the name of Jennyn van Hennegouwe, or Jan of Hainaut. The guild records also relate that Gossart took on two apprentices, Henne Mertens (possibly Jan Mertens [Van Dornicke]) in 1505 and Machiel in't Swaenken in 1507, two artists about whom virtually nothing is known. Curiously, almost no paintings by Gossart may be assigned to his Antwerp years. Rather, it is to his drawings that we must look for his virtuosity as a key proponent of Antwerp Mannerism, particularly to The Emperor Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, which best expresses Gossart's extraordinary skills at this stage of his career.

From such relatively commonplace beginnings in Antwerp, it is not easy to imagine exactly how Gossart came to the attention of Philip of Burgundy, illegitimate son of Duke Philip the Good and admiral of the Burgundian navy. In any event, Gossart found himself in an entourage of sixty men accompanying Philip on an important diplomatic mission at the behest of Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, to Pope Julius II in Rome. The group set out on October 26, 1508, and, having made stops in Trent, Verona, Mantua, and Florence along the way, arrived in Rome on January 14, 1509.

The goal of the mission was to convince the pope to allow Burgundian rulers to appoint church offices in the Low Countries—a privilege that had been his alone. At hand was the risky matter of balancing power between the papacy and the Burgundian authorities. For this mission, Margaret chose Philip of Burgundy, a consummate diplomat with a humanist education, military accomplishments, and a keen interest in ancient architecture—also an interest of the pontiff's. Philip and Julius found common ground and delighted in each other's pursuits. Meanwhile, Gossart was busy exploring the world of antiquity and recording it for himself and for Philip. (The surviving drawings from that trip are presented in the exhibition.) As Philip's secretary and chaplain Gerard Geldenhouwer wrote in his account of the mission: "Nothing pleased him [Philip] more when he was in Rome than those sacred monuments of antiquity that he commissioned the distinguished artist Jan Gossart of Maubeuge to depict for him."

When Gossart returned from Rome in 1509, he settled in Middelburg, the main city on the island of Walcheren, in Zeeland. There, he was admitted to the Brotherhood of Our Lady, married Margriet s'Molders, and raised three children. Gossart's decision to settle in Middelburg likely was based on its proximity to Souburg, the site of Philip of Burgundy's castle. Philip does not, however, appear to have employed Gossart regularly until about 1515ñ16, and little is known of the artist's whereabouts between 1509 and 1515. A close look at the paintings he made during this time suggests that he led a somewhat peripatetic existence, taking on important commissions in Geraardsberghen, near Brussels (Adoration of the Kings for the chapel of Our Lady in the abbey church of Saint Adriaan); in Mechelen (Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin for the chapel of the painters' guild at Saint Rombouts); and especially in Bruges, where he collaborated with Gerard David, the leading local artist. Rich in the legacy of Jan van Eyck, the celebrated court painter to Duke Philip the Good and the "founder" of early Netherlandish painting, Bruges was a thriving center for manuscript illumination and panel painting. It offered an ideal location for Gossart to continue to perfect his technique and attract new business. As some of his clients had conservative tastes, Gossart had to balance their interests with his inclination toward the new "Romanist" style he had learned in Rome.

Philip of Burgundy (1464–1524), with whom Gossart had traveled to Rome, was particularly favored by the Burgundian-Habsburg court. He was appointed to the important posts of admiral of the Burgundian fleet (1502–17) and bishop of Utrecht (1517–24). Beginning about 1515 he strove to establish a humanist court at each of his two castles—first at Souburg, on the Island of Walcheren, and then at Wijk bij Duurstede, near Utrecht. As Philip's court poet and biographer Gerard Geldenhouwer wrote, he invited such illustrious artists as the Venetian Jacopo de' Barbari and Jan Gossart to Souburg to decorate his castle, calling them the "Zeuxis and Appelles of our time," a reference to the most heralded artists of antiquity.

Working as Philip's court artist, Gossart made numerous paintings of erotically charged mythological themes, such as Venus and Cupid, Hercules and Deianira, and Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. Among the most monumental and important of these works was Neptune and Amphitrite (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), which Gossart signed in 1516 for the first time using the Latinized form JOANNES MALBODIVS PINGEBAT. It is the earliest representation of the theme with colossal nude figures in Northern European painting. As admiral of the Burgundian fleet, Philip saw himself as Neptune, the god of the sea. By adding his signature and motto "More to come" in a seemingly impromptu script at the upper right, Philip identified himself with Neptune and with the art of antiquity, merging past and present.

Gossart's exploration in paintings, drawings, and prints of the interaction of figures, including the heightened sensual relationship between them, was not restricted to the mythological subjects that he painted for humanist courts. In the 1520s, with themes such as the Virgin and Child and Adam and Eve, he began to develop compositional strategies for conceiving his figures in the round and projecting them into the viewer's space, occasionally using trompe l'oeil frames or nichelike architecture to set them off from the background. Often taking his inspiration from sculpture, Gossart imbued his figures with a convincing volumetric form and, calling upon his mastery of the illusionistic properties of oil painting, mimicked the polished sheen of marble for flesh tones. Albrecht Dürer's prints were a source of inspiration for expressive figures, compositions, and the construction of the human form according to idealized proportions.

The theme of Adam and Eve provided Gossart with an opportunity to portray male and female nudes at almost lifesize scale in some of his paintings. Initially, Gossart followed Dürer's staid approach, as in the latter's famous 1504 engraving, but he increasingly engaged in an exploration of the bold sensuality of the two figures entangled in lust and guilt. This interpretation must have seemed shockingly innovative in the 1520s, imparting a very human emphasis to the biblical story of the origin of sexual knowledge. The understanding of human anatomy that Gossart developed for his representations of Adam and Eve as well as for his mythological themes suggests that he studied the nude after life, but no relevant drawings survive. No doubt his use of proportion studies such as those by Dürer and those described in book 3 of Vitruvius' De architectura (from the late first century B.C.) also informed his depictions.

Although a few drawings on view in the exhibition show various projects for altarpieces, there are no remaining large-scale intact triptychs by Gossart. The Middelburg Altarpiece, which was so highly praised by Albrecht Dürer on his trip to the Netherlands in 1520–21, was destroyed by fire in 1568. Recent study of documentary and technical evidence for The Salamanca Triptych reveals that the wings and centerpiece were united only in the seventeenth century. It seems that Gossart undertook various commissions, including magnificent works made for the highest level of patron, as well as more modest pieces intended for private devotional practice. All share the artist's ongoing attempts to convey the meaning of religious themes—especially the Passion of Christ—through the expressiveness of his figures. He achieved this aim through a decidedly innovative sculptural approach that involved envisioning his figures in the round. As several examples in exhibition show, antique models and contemporary Italian art based on them continued to provide inspiration for Gossart's boldly innovative concepts.

Although Gossart's primary activity was painting, documents show that he was also commissioned to design other types of works, including a triumphal chariot, choir stalls, sculpted tombs, a monumental church window, and possibly even a snowman erected at Philip of Burgundy's Brussels residence in winter 1511. None of these is known to have survived. In addition, the designs of a few extant sculptures and medals have been tentatively attributed to him; at the very least, they can be said to have been inspired by his style. By extending his activity beyond the field of painting, Gossart appears to have been among the first painters in the Netherlands to introduce an artistic practice already common in Germany and Italy.

Several drawings on view in the exhibition add to our knowledge of Gossart as a designer. Most are related to stained-glass roundels—the small, circular painted glass panels that enjoyed great popularity in the Netherlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their refined execution suggests they were meant as more than just models for the glass painters.

Other drawings document commissions for a church window, a sculpted monument, the ceiling of a chapel, and a print. Their finished appearance—necessary because they probably were made to be shown to the patron for approval as well as to guide the craftsmen responsible for the execution of the design—no doubt accounts for their survival. The elaborate, drawn triptych on view also suggests that Gossart was more active as a painter of ambitious altarpieces on a large scale than is generally known.

Excelling in the study of physiognomy, and displaying his remarkable skill as a painter, Gossart's portraits attain an extraordinary level of realism in the tradition of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Gossart, however, employed compositional strategies that freed his sitters from their shallow spaces, thereby increasing the sense of their three-dimensionality and, in this regard, surpassing the works of his predecessors.

Because of his talent as a portraitist, Gossart was highly sought after by his contemporaries, as evidenced by the large number of portraits in his oeuvre. His output, which reached a high point in the 1520s, demonstrates a wide range, from relatively standard works to extremely ambitious, and probably very costly, commissions, such as the portraits of men now in Berlin and Washington, D.C.—unparalleled achievements in Netherlandish painting of the sixteenth century.

Although the majority are independent works showing distinguished (mostly male) sitters, the group also includes a double portrait, a pair of donor wings, two portraits of children, and a few "disguised" portraits of women as holy figures. No doubt all the richly dressed sitters were privileged members of society, even if today most of their names are lost. Those whose identities are known—Jean Carondelet, Francisco de los Cobos, and Henry III of Nassau—confirm that Gossart moved among the highest, most powerful circles of his time.