Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 1999
Maryan W. Ainsworth Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1998. 360 pp.; 69 color ills.; 274 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (0810965232)
Thumbnail

This most recent study of the painting technique of Gerard David is an admirable one with a considerable amount of new information on David’s style, particularly as revealed by author Maryan W. Ainsworth’s scientific investigations with infrared reflectography.

As noted in Chapter One, “Designing Solutions: David’s Drawings and Workshop Practice,” no other painter working in fifteenth-century Bruges has left for posterity as many drawings as did Gerard David, native of the north Netherlandish town of Oudewater (born ca. 1455) and active in Bruges from 1484 to his death in 1523. The “Klinkosch sketchbook” and several other sheets give evidence of a painter who routinely drew heads, hands, drapery, and landscape motifs “from life” as a basis for future use in paintings. Frequently these studies would be used in conjunction with other patterns within the shop that recorded individual figures or figural groupings that would be routinely reproduced. Her examinations have confirmed that toward the end of his career David and, perhaps, members of his workshop used pricked cartoons, a phenomenon that she attributes to David’s increasingly busy workshop attempting to meet the evolving art market’s demand for certain of his most popular compositions.

Chapter One admirably attempts to explore David’s “invention stage” as seen in his drawings and underdrawings using evidence that she has amassed over nearly two decades and much of which is published here for the first time. However, Ainsworth realizes that "as with any research, the findings can be properly interpreted only when a large group of works by the artist is studied " (p. 57). Sadly, this is one of the major challenges of the David "oeuvre"—of nearly one hundred works attributed to him, only two are firmly documented: the Bruges Justice of Cambyses panels (completed in 1498) and the Rouen Virgo inter Virgines of 1509. Both early and late phases of his oeuvre are total reconstructions based on stylistic assessments by many connoisseurs over the years. Ainsworth’s own reconstructions of David’s possible evolution appear generally to be quite plausible. While certain attributions will no doubt continue to be debated, her chronology might be the best that we have to date.

David’s two documented works are the principal subjects of Chapter Two, “By His Own Hand: Aspects of David’s Working Methods in His Documented Paintings.” Ainsworth concludes that the Justice of Cambyses panels appear to have been created over a period of years prior to their completion in 1498. She is equally concerned with the iconographic interpretation of the panels, an issue that continues to be debated in the literature: i.e., whether or not the paintings contain references to the tumultuous conflicts Bruges had with Maximilian of Austria prior to and during the years when David would have been at work on the panels. Contrary to Van Miegroet’s view (first advanced by Weale in 1863) in favor of the panels having a political message, Ainsworth (following, most recently, Van der Velden) sees the panels as traditional medieval exemplars of justice and, therefore, is inclined to see the numerous compositional changes (with the possible exception of the repainting of several heads considered to be portraits of the aldermen of Bruges) as merely evidence of David’s stylistic evolution, whereby he gradually moved away from “old fashioned” toward more “au courant” motifs. Ainsworth notes that many of these changes seem to have been made just prior to the Triumphal Entry of Maximilian’s son, Philip the Fair, into Bruges in 1497. This suggests to me that the compositional changes are not simply stylistic but rather iconographic modifications that could not possibly be without political significance. While the now somewhat contentious debate is far from clear resolution, Ainsworth’s sound presentation of the technical evidence will surely be a valuable resource for those hoping to pursue the issue further in the years to come.

David’s exceptionally beautiful Rouen Virgo inter Virgines of 1509 is the subject of the remainder of Chapter Two. Ainsworth’s investigations have revealed that the panel once had a millefleurs tapestry background, now no longer visible due to the darkening in the upper paint layers over the years. Another interesting feature is that David seems to have employed a “wash underdrawing” in order to work up the lights and shades within the composition, thus transforming his underdrawing style into a more “undermodeling” approach. This suggests to Ainsworth David’s increasing confidence in his painting technique, whereby he was moving toward a freer employment and handling of the brush at various stages throughout the creative process.

In Chapter Three, “The Progress of Early Achievements: David’s Origins and First Phase in Bruges,” Ainsworth addresses the challenging question of David’s early works; many of these panels are in New York collections, and even Ainsworth concedes constitute a “motley assortment.” As previously noted, David’s “early period” is pure conjecture; the picture that emerges here (as in Friedländer and, more recently, Van Miegroet) is of a youthful artist exceptionally susceptible to influences, first, from his native North Netherlands (especially Geertgen and Bouts), and then increasingly under the sway of Van Eyck, and, to a lesser extent, Memling once the painter established himself in Bruges. Most significant in this chapter is that Ainsworth proposes a disassembling of the Metropolitan Museum’s Nativity Triptych (Friedsam bequest of 1931) and the hypothetical Passion Triptych (central panel: the Philadelphia Museum of Art Lamentation and the Metropolitan Museum’s Christ Carrying the Cross and Resurrection wings, both from the Lehman Collection).

In her introductory sections of Chapter Four, “Art for Export: Commissioned Paintings for a Foreign Clientele,” Ainsworth provides a particularly useful survey of the importance of Italian and Spanish patronage of Bruges painting, not only for David, but also for his most important predecessors, Van Eyck, Christus, and Memling. Two notable examples of this phenomenon are David’s Sedano Triptych (Paris) and the Cervara Altarpiece (now dispersed among collections in Genoa, Paris, and New York). Although the ultimate destination for the monumental Saint Anne Altarpiece (Washington, D. C.) is not known, with others, Ainsworth suspects that this triptych was also one that David and his assistants created for either a Spanish or Italian patron. The Cervara Altarpiece receives the most attention in this chapter due to its complex structure and other unusual features. Considering its date (ca. 1506), the Italianate stylistic features of altarpiece mark it as an important precursor to the Rouen Virgo inter Virgines of 1509. Ainsworth advances the hypothesis that David actually went to Italy (ca. 1503–1506) to examine the ultimate site for which his painting was being created and while on that trip was exposed to many Italian pictorial innovations.

The question of an Italian voyage for David is surely an issue that will be a subject for continuing debate. Considering the substantial numbers of Italians resident in Bruges who were in fairly close contact with their home offices, the postulated voyage to Italy might not have been the only means by which David might have familiarized himself with Italian aesthetic achievements. There will surely be readers who will be more inclined to believe that it was far easier for sketches, written instructions, or preliminary site notations to have traveled north than for busy craftsmen to have journeyed south. Nevertheless, Ainsworth skillfully documents the visual manifestations of these new southern trends in David’s style.

Chapter Five, “Landscapes for Meditation,” is devoted to the exquisite pastoral aspects of David’s art. The chapter begins with the now separated painted reverses of the wings of the Bache Nativity Triptych, two exceptionally innovative landscape scenes not only within David’s oeuvre but in the whole of Netherlandish painting. While these two panels (now in The Hague) seem to be virtually “pure” landscape scenes, Ainsworth (following Buijsen) points out their subtle iconographic significance as possibly evocative of a significant passage in the Book of Isaiah (32:9–20) and thus a fitting introduction to the interior scene of the Nativity. She further persuasively establishes that David’s landscapes seem not to be reliant on pattern books but rather were created in some instances from sketches that he had made en plein air. David’s landscapes were sites that extended the iconography of his religious subjects while facilitating the creation of a contemplative mood.

If Chapter Five was the “pause that refreshes”—surely David’s own intent in creating his landscape settings—Chapter Six, “Hallmarks of Bruges and the Beginning of Mass Production,” returns to the complex and increasingly competitive world of art production in sixteenth-century Bruges. Following a review of the importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary in Bruges, Ainsworth analyzes several groupings of images, such as those representing the “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” the “Madonna and Child with the Milk Soup,” or “Christ Taking Leave of His Mother,” and presents evidence that certain of these images were clearly created from patterns that recorded virtually every feature of the composition. Further, some of these patterns were pricked so that they might be transferred to panels by means of the technique of pouncing, a phenomenon that she notes is only apparent in works considered to be produced in the later phases of David’s career. She reasonably concludes that these images were clearly in high demand and that David altered his traditional working methods in order to meet the multiple requests for these evidently popular compositions.

In certain respects, the question of David’s late period is as complicated as his early period; following the Rouen Virgo inter Virgines of 1509, we again encounter the absence of documented works. Ainsworth has reviewed certain of the attributions and proposes, for example, that the Prado Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a workshop product and the Metropolitan Museum’s Virgin and Child at Half-Length (Friedsam bequest, 1931) shows evidence of the hand of the illuminator Simon Bening. She holds firm, however, on the attribution to David for the Metropolitan’s Virgin and Child with Four Angels (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977), in spite of doubts expressed by Eisler, Held, and Sterling (which I share). Nevertheless, Ainsworth’s overall reconstruction of “late David” is plausible and her attempt to integrate the evidence of changes in his technique with the demands of an evolving art market is a substantial improvement over the reconstructions of Friedländer or Panofsky.

Bruges would gradually come to be characterized as Bruges-la-Morte, a view particularly promoted at the end of the nineteenth century, when fin-de-siècle sentiment focused intently on issues of decadence and decline. At the close of the twentieth century, considerable scholarly efforts by such individuals as A. Janssens de Bisthoven, Valentin Vermeersch, Dirk De Vos, Maximilian P. J. Martens, Hans J. Van Miegroet, and J. Michael Montias among others have transformed this view of life and art production in Bruges, focusing instead on issues of international trade, an emerging art market, a vigorous demand for paintings by individuals and institutions, political conflicts and uprisings, and painters’ considerable efforts to contend with this increasingly complex environment. Maryan Ainsworth’s study is a welcomed addition to this growing body of work that continues to demonstrate that while the sixteenth century would increasingly belong to Antwerp, Bruges and its art were anything but “dead” in this age of transition.

Jean C. Wilson
State University of New York at Binghamton

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.