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Friday, January 9, 2015

Jan Gossaert (Mabuse)

The Adoration of the Kings, 1510-15, Jan Gossaert,                             
(perhaps the earliest depiction of a black figure in European art).                        
Jan Gossaert (Mabuse)
Self-portrait, 1515-20
History buffs revel in the trivia of important events, that have altered the course of mankind, yet have have happened largely by accident. Some are silly--What if Adam hadn't been hungry? Some are profound--What if Adolph Hitler had been admitted to the Vienna Academy of Art? Some are merely curious--What if Ben Franklin had been electrocuted flying his kite in a thunderstorm? In the realm of art history we wonder, what if Mona Lisa had been in a bad mood? Or what if the Flemish artist, Jan Gossaert, hadn't accompanied Phillip of Burgundy to Rome in 1508. It was during the height of the Italian Renaissance. There he checked out what was happening in the art scene on the other side of the Alps. If I lost you there, don't be concerned, it's a little-known story involving cross-cultural pollination, yet one that was to have a fairly negative impact upon Flemish art while also serving to "kick off" what we've come to call the Northern Renaissance.
The Holy Family, 1507-08, Jan Gossaert, shortly before he went to Rome.
Perhaps one reason you've never heard of Gossaert or his trip to Rome is the fact that, at best, he was something of a run-of-the-mill Flemish painter, not to mention the fact that his sojourn to Rome didn't much help his art or his reputation. As is so often the case with artists of the 15th-century and before, Gossaert's early biography is rather tattered. Not only do art historians not know precisely when he was born (around 1478), but there's at least three theories as to where he was born, all of which are too foggy and lengthy to get into here. Suffice to say it was likely in Flanders (the coastal area of Belgium just over the French border). To complicate matters still more, he's often known as Jan Mabuse, a name he gave himself based upon one of his alleged places of birth, Maubeuge. Let's just stick with Jan Gossaert.
Descent from the Cross, 1520, Jan Gossaert.
Eventually the Italian influences began to improve his art.
Like his birth, Gossaert's early training in art, such as it was, is clouded in uncertainty, given the fact that at the time there were no art schools as we know them today; and in Northern Europe especially, few grand masters of note training future artists of note (which Gossaert wasn't, in any case). Flemish art is usually thought of as being fussy, dour, religious, rather prudish, highly detailed, and rich in color contrasts. Gossaert was probably a better than average portrait painter and had, apparently shown some skill in painting religious subjects, mostly Madonnas and altarpieces like his Adoration of the Kings (top). He joined the Antwerp painter's union (Guild of St. Luke) around 1503, which usually meant he'd finished whatever meager art training he might come by. Sometime thereafter, he came to the notice of the Burgundy royalty (Adolph of Burgundy) and became their court painter. (Burgundy is the area southeast of Paris).
Phillip of Burgundy,
Jan Gossaert
In 1508, Phillip (the Good), ruler of Burgundy, sent his illegitimate son, Phillip (the just plain Phillip) to Rome to talk to the Pope. What about is of little consequence. What's important, the Duke sent Jan Gossaert along too. It must have been a long conversation or else the pope kept Phillip waiting a good long while, inasmuch as the party didn't return home until the following year. In the meantime, Gossaert studied the art of the Italians, apparently concentrating on that of Leonardo and his followers as well as how Raphael was making a killing selling Madonnas. What seems to have impressed Gossaert most, however, was all the nudity in Italian art. Nothing like it existed in Flemish art (it was cold up north, people kept their clothes on). However Gossaert was no Leonardo or Raphael. He took back with him an infatuation with naked figures in art, but apparently didn't stayed in Italy long enough to gain much skill in painting them.

Neptune and Aphitrite, 1515,
Jan Gossaert 
Hercules and Deianira, 1516,
Jan Gossaert
Some art historians have credited Gossaert with having brought the Italian Renaissance to the North, though that's quite a stretch of the imagination. Other writers insist that Gossaert's introduction of Italian influences into Flemish art set the stage for a hundred years of imitation. Whatever the case, mostly what Gossaert brought back north with him was the nude figure, employing it in much of his work thereafter, usually doing so very poorly at that. His Neptune and Aphitrite (above, left) from 1515, is proportionally crude, his figures lumpy to the point one wishes they'd just put their clothes back on. (Adam's codpiece, a seashell, is hilarious.) Gossaert's Hercules and Deianira (above, right), dating from the following year, isn't much better. However Greek mythology was not all that popular in the northern "Bible Belt" where artists made their living mostly painting altarpieces for churches. That meant if Gossaert wanted to paint nudes, he was pretty much limited to Adam and Eve. So be it, he painted lots of them. Some, stretched the genre very nearly to the breaking point.

Adam and Eve Panel of the
Malvagna Triptych, Jan Gossaert
Adam and Eve, 1520, Jan Gossaert,
sampling the forbidden fruit.
Other artists of the Northern Renaissance , such as Durer, soon picked up on the Adam and Eve theme, perhaps from Gossaert, but in any case, did so with restraint and decorum, not to mention considerably more skill. Gossaert's first couples have a tendency to cavort, cuddle, and canoodle in a most unholy manner. And though his grasp of human anatomical proportions seems to have gradually improved, his affinity for mythological poses bordering on the erotic, appears to have gone unabated (above left, and right). Maybe he began using live models. His figures of Adam and Eve (below) go so far as to take on a cartoonish manner causing them to be amusing, rather than spiritual. I'm not sure just what's happening in Gossaert's Adam and Eve (below, left) but I think it has something to do with Adam's adam's apple. It even has a secondary classical title, The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis, as if the artist, or art historians years later, weren't quite sure what to make of it either. It dates from 1517. Another Gossaert's Adam and Eve (below, right) is voluptuously romantic, eschewing both the traditional wisp of genital ivy and Adam's silly seashell shield. What if Adam hadn't been hungry?

Adam and Eve, Jan Gossaert.
What? No seashell?
Adam and Eve, 1517, Jan Gossaert
(or, The Metamorphosis of
Hermaphrodite and Salmacis).


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