Jan Gossart: Conservation Discoveries

Learn more about the exhibition Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance on view at the Met October 6, 2010--January 17, 2011.

The first major exhibition in forty-five years devoted to the Burgundian Netherlandish artist Jan Gossart (ca. 1478-1532) will bring together Gossart's paintings, drawings, and prints and place 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).

Karen Thomas, Associate Conservator, Department of Paintings Conservation

Producer and Director: Christopher Noey
Editor: Kate Farrell
Digital Images and Animation: Paul Caro
Camera: Wayne De La Roche, Jessica Glass
Sound Recording: David Raymond
Production Assistants: Sarah Cowan, Robin Schwalb


The only way one can really come to terms with who was Gossart as an artist,

and what did he make, and what were his great achievements in the early 16th century is to go and see everything.

So I did go to Antwerp, and this portrait was brought out for me to take a look at, and I was amazed.

We decided that the picture should be cleaned in order to really find out for sure whether or not this was by Gossart.

First, we always do cleaning tests just to see what sort of solvents are going to work and what it will take off.

And the tests indicated that there was a very lively, bright palette underneath

that was going to be revealed with the removal of the varnish and really a great deal of overpaint and restoration.

And it was really difficult to get any sense of the subtlety of the painter's technique, so my job was to remove all of that and restore it.

The most dramatic change occurred in the sitter's coat.

Before it was cleaned, it had a gray appearance, almost no color, and once varnish came off,

it was this vibrant bluish-green, and the sculptural quality came alive once all of those materials came off.

We have this additional issue of the coat of arms in the background.

The coat of arms was intended to give an identity to the sitter, which was discovered to be a false identity,

so to cover it up seemed the best option.

Without it, the figure sits so much better in space, and it's so much easier to see how striking this portrait is.

Gossart has a tendency to use a gray underpaint, which, when that's topped with the warmer tones to build up the shadows and the sort of rosier parts of the cheek,

it gives an almost stone-like, carved quality to the flesh.

He builds up those shadows with very, very thin glazes of transparent paint.

They're very important in his creating these smooth, dramatic shadows in the face and in the neck.

The gold damask is painted with a real economy of materials.

By using basically three colors, he can make this amazing folded material with a woven pattern in it.

I think there were a lot of wonderful aspects of this painting that you just couldn't see in the state it was in when it came in,

and to be able to pull that out from underneath all that muck that was on top of it was really exciting.

In the Prado Museum today is an extraordinary painting by Gossart called the De‘sis.

It is Christ in the center, Virgin Mary at the left, John the Baptist at the right, and an angel singing overhead.

Very important is the fact that it copies in part these figures from the 1432 Ghent Altarpiece made by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

What hasn't been known is, "How close was that connection?"

If you study the De‘sis, with infrared reflectography, you see that each of the heads is actually made on paper first

and put down on panel, and then the whole painting is worked up in oil.

Just how closely he worked with it, though, is quite astonishing.

For example, the size of the heads that Gossart made are a one-to-one relationship with the Ghent Altarpiece heads;

and he traced it so closely that in Christ's head there is still the drawing for the fillet that God the Father is wearing with the big pearl in the center of it.

So you find bits and pieces of the exact tracing of the Ghent Altarpiece that wasn't carried out fully in Gossart's painting.

And he also then did very wonderful freehand drawing for the position of the hands,

which would have been, then, a deviation from the Ghent Altarpiece design.

In the process of going to look at all the paintings I could for the Gossart exhibition and the study of them,

I was prompted by opening an exhibition catalogue of works that had gone from Budapest to Japan to go to Budapest to see the Christ on the Cold Stone.

This work had been dismissed forever as a workshop piece, or not by Gossart,

and when they brought it out, and we had a chance to really examine it very closely, I was quite sure that this not only was by Gossart

but also would be a work that if cleaned and restored would be a stunner.

When it arrived in the studio it was very distorted by a discolored varnish, a very dark brown varnish,

which shifted the color both tonally and in terms of its color palette.

An oxidized varnish does two things: it acts as a sort of milky layer on dark tones, so you get a sort of reduced tonality; it also shifts color enormously.

So despite that, it was still a beautiful painting, but it really needed to have that varnish removed.

The retouching in this painting, a great deal of it is concentrated where there is a split in the panel.

And sadly, at some point when it was repaired, in order to deal with a slight disjoin, they simply scraped away to make a smooth transition.

I retouched in that area so volumes in the picture would read rather than being interrupted.

One of the other features that was very striking was the blue tones,

these very rich ultramarine blue tones here, appeared to have in a sense perished.

Sometimes ultramarine has a problem we refer to as "ultramarine sickness."

It becomes sort of ashen, it loses all of its modeling. And it very much looked that that was the case with this picture.

Then when I started cleaning it, the striking thing was just locally, it was as if the varnish had lost saturation with the surface,

and the whole form reemerged, and it was a very striking change, indeed.

You cannot help but get a heightened sense of respect when you spend a lot of time looking at this under magnification.

Gossart almost above anything else is a sensualist.

He's so aware of surface, of material, and he is brilliant at depicting those different qualities of surface.

He is a master of the depiction of these marble-like flesh tones, these carefully modulated forms.

The figure also gets into some amazing contortions.

In this case I think it works very well, because that sort of corkscrew movement seems to communicate anxiety and tension,

which in the sense of Christ meditating on the Passion that is to come, I think works very, very well.

When we work on paintings, one of the privileges is the intimate contact, and it also allows for quite intensive technical study,

and there's some interesting aspects in terms of this picture.

There's strong evidence that Gossart reduced the composition in the course of painting on this side.

It appears that the panel was cut and then framed before it was quite finished.

This white cap, to the left of it you see a little orange cap that's decorated with red and white that was painted first.

The picture was put into a frame, and then Gossart changed his conception and changed this to a simpler white form.

Among the changes that were made to the painting during the course of execution, there's a key one here:

this figure who looks out at us. Originally, Gossart just left space for the hand gripping onto the base of the column.

And then at a late stage, when he had completed the blue garment, he changed the hand completely to a pointing finger,

and the whole significance of that character changes accordingly, because it's very much a character conscious of you looking into the picture

and him pointing to the significance of the figure of Christ.

It pulls you into the scene in a very different way because you are now suddenly a part of this crowd.

The viewer, I think, confronted by this additional information that comes from technical examination thinks, "Ah, magic!"

But in fact, what it really does for everyone is help you to look more closely,

make you want to look more closely.

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