The great Bruges painter Gerard David (ca. 1455–1523) has traditionally been regarded by eminent art historians as the last celebrated master of the Flemish tradition, although scholars have recently acknowledged his innovative spirit and pivotal position in the transitional period between Late Medieval and Renaissance art. This study is the first, however, to examine the motivating forces behind startling developments in David's work, such as shifting devotional practices, changing art markets, the accommodation of foreign clients, and the evolving secular nature of paintings demanded by the newly wealthy middle class in the early years of the sixteenth century. David is reconsidered here as a savvy entrepreneur with a new self-awareness as an artist, beyond the station of a simple craftsman.
In order to define more clearly Davids contribution to the history of early Netherlandish painting, Maryan W. Ainsworth has studied more than one hundred works assigned to the artist and his close followers, not simply to solve problems of attribution and dating but also to analyze his working procedures and the ways in which he responded to the changing artistic environment of his time. Each work has undergone close physical examination, often by such technical means as X-radiography, infrared reflectography, and dendrochronology, so that informed conclusions could be drawn about standard practices of the day and innovative methods of production. The first two chapters introduce David's workshop techniques in his drawings and documented works. Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which owns the worlds largest collection of individual panels by David and his followers, serve to introduce the main issues presented in each of the four following chapters, where abundant comparative material, such as drawings and workshop copies, is included to help clarify the place of the major paintings within the larger context of his career. The virtue of this approach lies in the combination of technical investigations, stylistic analysis, iconographic interpretation, and socioeconomic factors to evaluate each work in its totality.
The large number of issues discussed in this important book range from the specific relationship of David's drawings to his paintings, the poles of his style represented by his documented works, the question of his origins and early development, his varied approaches to commissions produced for export to Italy and Spain, and his innovations in landscape painting, to his methods of streamlined production to supply the increasing demand of the open art market. The interdisciplinary approach of this book aims not only to provide a fresh look at the artistic production of Gerard David but also to launch a method of examination that may encourage others to ask new questions in the ongoing study of early Netherlandish painters and their development.