Jan Gossaert: An Elderly Couple; about 1520 © National Gallery, London

Breathing New Life Into An Old Master

4th March 2011

The National Gallery has one of the world’s best collections of paintings by the Dutch artist Jan Gossaert, but its new exhibition is the first to focus on this neglected name in nearly fifty years.

Jack Watkins went along to see if Gossaert still has pulling power.

Amidst the distinguished line of Flemish Masters, from Jan van Eyck to Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, you could be forgiven for not having heard of Jan Gossaert. Though he may be rated in academic circles as a talent to stand comparison with all those aforementioned names, for the wider gallery-going public, his name doesn’t flash too many light bulbs.

That’s not especially surprising. The details of his life are pretty scanty, and a great many of his works have either been lost or scattered far and wide. Such things make him a challenge for exhibition curators, and the National Gallery’s new show, staged with the support of the Flemish government, is the first to provide an overview of his career since the mid-1960s.

Yet Gossaert is certainly a suitable case for attention. He was one of the first – if not the first – of the ‘northern’ artists to spend time in Rome, making studies of the monuments and sculpture of classical antiquity. As such he was a key player in the spread of Italian Renaissance art to the Low Countries and beyond. Often known as Jan Mabuse – after the town of Maubeuge, now in France, from which he came – he was also a fine portrait painter and, looking at the works on display in this exhibition, you’d have to say he loses little in comparison with Hans Holbein. The Gallery describes him as a ‘pivotal’ Old Master, who changed the course of Flemish art, advancing it beyond the restrained, carefully detailed but somewhat bloodless, van Eyck and on towards the more full-bodied Baroque of Rubens.

Gossaert is thought to have been born in 1478, but he first appears on the scene in the flourishing Flemish commercial town of Antwerp in 1503. Full of wealthy merchants keen to flash the cash and flaunt their status on expensive baubles and works of art, it was just the place for an ambitious young painter to situate himself, and Gossaert seems to have quickly acquired some colourful patrons.

None, however, was more flamboyant than Philip, son of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy – an admiral who became a bishop, and a humanist connoisseur of, it seems, everything from fine art to pretty young women. There have been unsubstantiated stories that Gossaert was fond of a bit of roistering himself, and that he was no stranger to the inside of a hostelry, so you can imagine that the two men got on splendidly.

Within a few years Gossaert was a member of the entourage that Philip took to Rome to sort out some business affairs with the Pope Julius II. The latter had many shortcomings as a holy man, but he was one of the greatest patrons of art in the entire history of Western Europe, with such luminaries as Michelangelo, Raphael and Bramante in his employ. It was exactly at the moment of Gossaert’s visit that Michelangelo was grumpily painting the Sistine Chapel, while Raphael had just been summoned by the autocratic pope to decorate the Vatican apartments.

Gossaert learned quickly, but he was not merely an imitator. Several drawings show not simply what a spectacularly good draughtsman he was, but how adeptly he imbued his work with an appealing mix of classical motifs and deep perspective alongside the more restless energy of ‘old style’ Gothic.

One of the most enduring aspects of Gossaert’s art, learned, perhaps, during his Roman stay, was his ability to make the architectural backdrop to his religious paintings as pleasing to look at as the foreground subject matter. In the Middle Ages, Virgin and Child scenes were two a penny. Artists rolled them out of their studios in the same way hacks churn out pot-boilers. Gossaert, by contrast, composed and painted his meticulously. One Virgin and Child is handsomely set in a classical niche. In The Holy Family, there are more elaborate columns to frame the scene, and the eye looks beyond the human figures to the lofty remains of an ancient Roman palace.

Among Gossaert’s contemporaries, cityscapes were often limply executed, like cheap theatrical backdrops, but in the exhibition’s real showstopper – The Adoration of the Magi – the walls and arches of the old temple and the views beyond are not merely props but drivers of the entire story. Angels float around the broken archways and the perspective is beautifully rendered. In this banquet of colour, the eye roves from the impeccably rendered gold crown of the African king to dogs sniffing around the broken tiles, weeds pushing up through the cracks.
But perhaps Gossaert’s greatest skill of all was as a portraitist. His Virgin paintings are expressions of humanity and tenderness, not sentimentality – although it has to be said that he had a penchant for rendering children as chunky, unattractive cherubs. The last – and largest – room of the exhibition is devoted to his portrait work and, given that he was working before Holbein left for England, he must have been a leader in the genre for his time.

It’s difficult to stand before his Portrait of a Merchant without smiling at the subject’s cheekily impertinent, quizzical expression. With his head slightly turned, is he about to make some camp aside, or dismiss you with a superior sarcasm? Then, in The Elderly Couple, a rueful older merchant grimly grasps his staff, while his wife’s wan, mask-like demeanour hints at the silence characteristic of the relationships of many old couples in their later years. There’s a sense of regret and lost opportunity here, but supportiveness, too, in the placing of the woman’s shoulder behind her husband’s: togetherness, for better or worse. The ability to convey such humanity and ambiguity is the gift of all the good portrait artists and Gossaert clearly was among them. This is quite a low key exhibition, but one that connoisseurs will enjoy.

Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance continues in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 30 May. See www.nationalgallery.org.uk for more information.

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