Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2011
Maryan W. Ainsworth, ed. Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance; The Complete Works Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2010. 496 pp.; 337 color ills.; 116 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300166576)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 5, 2010–January 17, 2011; National Gallery, London, February 23–May 30, 2011 (in a reduced version as Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance)
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This seminal exhibition, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before traveling to the National Gallery, London, was the first devoted to Jan Gossart in the United States and the first major monographic exhibition anywhere since 1965. The accompanying catalogue, which serves as a catalogue raisonné of the entire oeuvre, re-shapes the contours of this important early sixteenth-century artist and illuminates key questions about his working habits, patronage, and the themes and functions of his art. The exhaustive catalogue entries are prefaced by eight richly informative essays devoted to Gossart’s historical and cultural milieu, his work as an architectural ornamentalist, the drawings executed in Rome, the mythological paintings, his working methods, the artist as draftsman, and his printmaking practice. The results of a dendrochronological study of selected works are given in an appendix. The catalogue will appear in Dutch and Flemish editions together with a companion volume of the documents relating to his art and life, edited by Sytske Weidema and Anna Koopstra, entitled Jan Gossart: The Documentary Evidence (Turnout: Brepols, 2011).

The exhibition in New York (seen by this reviewer) was almost as exhaustive: the curators succeeded in assembling some two-thirds of the entire oeuvre, supplemented by appositely chosen comparative works of antiquity and of his nearer contemporaries that provided historical and artistic context. As the chief curator, Maryan W. Ainsworth, makes clear in her introduction, the aim was to present as complete a picture of the artist as possible, drawing on an often technical firsthand study of the works and the fruits of recent scholarship. The exhibition was arranged over a series of eight galleries that in the main reflected the thematic arrangement of the catalogue.

Gossart (ca. 1478–1532) was already celebrated by his contemporaries as the first Netherlandish artist to visit Rome, to record the antiquities he saw there, and to introduce mythological subject matter and a monumental classical style to the North. In the earlier scholarship, Gossart’s Roman sojourn marked a pivotal break with the Eyckian tradition and initiated his subsequent pursuit of a classical style, a view that strongly determined the chronological mapping of his oeuvre. More recently, scholars have stressed the importance of local factors of patronage and artistic milieu in determining his artistic development and drawn attention to the artist’s uses of different stylistic registers. The themes of the catalogue emerge from and extend these recent reassessments.

Two drawings, the meager evidence of his earliest activity as an independent artist, displayed in the first room of the exhibition, reveal his early interest in the exotic, highly ornamented architectural settings of the Antwerp School, exemplified in his signed The Emperor Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl (Berlin; ca. 1505, no. 91). A theoretical interest in an architectural vocabulary of form was clearly an important aspect of Gossart’s continuing artistic activity. By the second decade, he was working concurrently in two modes, the High Gothic and the Italianate, at times conjoining both styles in a single work. In an interesting essay, “Gossart as Architect,” Ethan Matt Kavaler explores the theoretical roots of this stylistic plurality, which drew from the ornamental traditions of metalworkers as from an early knowledge of Vitruvius, probably garnered while working within the cultivated circles of the Burgundian court. The St. Luke Drawing the Virgin in Prague, made in ca. 1515 for the Chapel of the Guild of St. Luke in Sint-Romboutskerk, Mechelen (no. 9), exemplifies in an almost manifesto-like manner this complex mixing of filigree gothic traceries with personal interpretations of the classical orders.

Seen in the light of such later works, Gossart’s firsthand encounter with Italian and classical art, while in Rome with his patron Philip of Burgundy between 1508 and 1509, appears less obviously decisive upon his subsequent development. In an essay on Gossart’s Roman sojourn, Stephanie Schrader sensitively analyzes the four surviving drawings that can be associated with the trip (nos. 99–102, evocatively displayed beside actual [and copied] classical statuary in the exhibition). Discussing the study of the Colosseum (no. 102), she charts the artist’s antiquarian interest in the building’s construction and his ability to suggest the process of its ruination. More questionable is her hypothesis that the drawings were made in a self-consciously “Netherlandish” manner as an assertion of artistic and cultural equality of the Burgundians vis-à-vis the Papacy—and indeed Antiquity—in a game of diplomatic one-upmanship.

In her essay “The Painter Gossart in his Artistic Milieu,” Ainsworth shows how echoes of more contemporary Italian artists, of Verrocchio and Benedetto da Maiano, filtered into Gossart’s subsequent work. That the small and exquisite Mavalgna Triptych of ca. 1513–15 (no. 6, from Palermo) absorbs the angels of Mantegna’s San Zeno Altarpiece into a composition that otherwise stands in direct continuity with fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting shows how serendipitous and, in a sense, irrelevant to his larger sense of style were these appropriations of Italian art. On his return, Gossart developed a style of great refinement, drawing on artistic practice in Bruges and, as argued here, on Gerard David in particular. New technical examinations have revealed the extent to which Gossart worked alone, without a large workshop; more dramatically, Ainsworth argues for the possibility of “prestige collaborations” with other artists who brought their respective specialisms to a single work, perhaps at the behest of a collector patron. The Malvagna Triptych is a case in point: Ainsworth attributes to Gossart the architectural elements and the angels, and to David the Madonna and child and the attendant saints, the detailed landscape background, as well as the lush scene of Eden painted across the exterior wings. A similar, convincing case is made for the Doria-Pamphilj Diptych (no. 7 A–B): the left wing of the Virgin in the Church after Van Eyck is given to David, the figures of St. Anthony and the donor to Gossart, and the surrounding landscape to Simon Bening. More controversial is Ainsworth’s attribution to David of the Virgin and Child in Gossart’s large-scale Adoration of the Kings of ca.1510–15 (no. 8, pp. 148–49). The catalogue contains two entries for this work: a short, descriptive entry by Lorne Campbell and a second by Ainsworth, who argues for a shared attribution. Campbell, who proposes an attribution to Gossart alone, presents this view in an extensive entry for the painting which was posted on the National Gallery’s website for the duration of the exhibition (it will also appear in his forthcoming The National Gallery Catalogues: The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings and French Paintings before 1600). Yet, given the decision to include separate entries by two leading authorities, it is a shame that there is no reference to this alternative reading in the catalogue, particularly given the scholarly circumspection with which Ainsworth presents her new interpretations.

The mythological subjects and monumental nudes, created some six years after Gossart’s return from Rome, owe less to direct observation of classical remains than to an essentially northern European set of artistic and humanist sources that include Albrecht Dürer and (that honorary northerner) Jacopo de’ Barbari. In her essay on Gossart’s mythologies, Schrader argues that the curious mixture of the academic and the erotic that characterizes these works was shaped by the humanist interests and sensual predilections of his patron, Philip of Burgundy. Gossart’s largest and most monumental mythological painting, the Berlin Neptune and Amphitrite of 1516 (no. 30, unfortunately missing from the exhibition), speaks directly to Philip’s personality, its theme matching his position as Admiral of the Burgundian Fleet, its sensual treatment in line with his self–proclaimed libertinism. Schrader discusses in similar terms the group of smaller mythological works that were made within Philip’s courtly milieu. She convincingly interprets the overt eroticism of such works as the Venus and Cupid (Brussels; 1521, no. 33) with its accompanying injunction to virtue inscribed round the frame as evidence of a sophisticated irony and humor with which Philip and his circle approached these profane subjects.

Overall, more might have been made of a northern literary tradition of allegory and figuration in the treatment of Ovidian myth, as well as Gossart’s preoccupation with Vitruvian precept in explaining the character of his mythologies. The Doric double columns that enclose Neptune and his consort appear to follow Vitruvius’s associative, anthropomorphic theory of the orders, providing an architectural gloss to Neptune’s virility, just as a set of graceful, Corinthian columns provides an appropriately “maidenly” setting for Danäe in the painting of that theme in Munich (no. 35). Elsewhere (p. 35), Kavaler explains these highly artificial architectural environments more broadly as “markers of antiquity” which, as “the temporal site of mythological love stories thus acquired a potentially erotic force.” At the same time, their theoretical foundations merit further elucidation.

Gossart’s most original monumental nudes were drawn not from mythology but from the Bible. His large-scale paintings of Adam and Eve (nos. 2, 3) are among his strangest experiments with the naked human form. In both these and a series of powerful drawings (especially nos. 64, 65), Gossart portrays Adam and Eve in difficult, contorted poses, enacting the Fall as a psychological drama of sexual appetite, desire, and guilt. Such animated physicality, ostentatiously gestural and hyperbolic, is quite unprecedented in Netherlandish art. Though these images were to be influential on subsequent artists, their broader significance was not realized either in their hanging in the exhibition or among the discrete discussions within the catalogue.

Other discoveries of the exhibition included the close formal affinities between Gossart and the sculptor Conrad Meit, with whom he worked at Margaret of Austria’s court. These connections, effectively demonstrated at the Metropolitan by a series of neat juxtapositions of their work, lend circumstantial credence to the argument made here that Gossart’s Deeis (no. 29), which meticulously copied the heads of the central figures of the Ghent Altarpiece, was made for Margaret’s Mausoleum at Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse while Meit was working on tomb sculpture there between 1526 and 1531. Traditionally dated ca. 1513, it has now been assigned a place among Gossart’s later works, another example of Gossart’s continuing stylistic parallelism. The exhibition also brought a number of works into fruitful association. The hanging of the nocturnal Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (ca. 1510, no. 23) from Berlin with the Washington grisaille Penitent St Jerome (no. 22) made convincing the proposal that they formed parts of the same altarpiece. Equally persuasive was the reconstruction of the Norfolk Triptych that linked two donor portrait panels in Brussels (nos. 55 B, C) with the Virgin and Child in the Chrysler Museum of Art, in Norfolk, VA (no. 55 A). By contrast, the uniting of The Deposition from the Hermitage (no. 25) and the wings of the so-called Salamanca Triptych from Toledo, OH (nos. 24 A, B) made it evident that they were not originally part of the same altarpiece, a claim substantiated by a careful re-reading of the documentary evidence.

Among other important reevaluations, Stijn Alsteens extended the number of attributed drawings from about twenty-three to over forty, convincingly presenting a graphic oeuvre more varied in function and technique than has been hitherto accepted. These include designs for larger-scale, multi-figural compositions such as The Lamentation, The Conversion of Saul, The Martyrdom of St Cyriacus and his Companions (?) (nos. 82, 87, 88), along with a number of designs for decorative schemes such as glass roundels (nos. 85, 86), a sculpted tomb for Isabella of Austria, and a chapel ceiling (nos. 108, 109). These additions are important for widening an understanding both of Gossart’s graphic range and the subjects and types of his art. Nadine Orenstein’s essay and catalogue entries on his small print oeuvre equally firmly establishes that aspect of his output.

As a climax to the exhibition, the final room at the Metropolitan was devoted to Gossart’s portraits. The display showed the full range of Gossart’s abilities in the genre, from the straightforward likeness in the manner of Memling, to ambitious portraits like the Portrait of a Man (Henry III of Nassau-Breda?) (Kimbell Art Museum; ca. 1520–25, no. 48), whose scale relative to the picture frame, amplitude of costume, and the device of placing an illusionistic frame behind the sitter create an expansive sense of presence. Yet it is the marvelously delicate, transparent shadowing and subtle inflections of expression captured in the face of Jean Carondelet in the Carondelet Diptych (Musée du Louvre; 1517, no. 40), one of four exhibited portraits of this important cleric and ducal councilor over the span of his adult life, that show Gossart at his psychologically most acute—and human.

Cumulatively, this rich work of collective scholarship illuminates in multiple new ways the production and patronage of an artist whose work defines a crucial moment in northern European art. It will become the standard reference work on the artist and the starting point of all future research.

Andrew Morrall
Professor, Bard Graduate Center, New York

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