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Monday, December 16, 2013

Gerard David

Virgin Among the Virgins, 1509, Gerard David
When people think of the Renaissance, they all to often think only of the Italian Renaissance. This narrow mindset is not only too limiting (not to mention historically inaccurate), it also leads people into the fallacy of thinking that the Northern Renaissance was just like the Italian Renaissance only further north. Though there was some intermingling of thoughts, styles, ideals, tastes, and images flowing both ways across the Alps, the two designations had far more differences than similarities. Moreover, we can't even truthfully say that the Renaissance began in Italy then moved north. In reality, the Renaissance, what's been termed the "rebirth" of ancient learning, occurred largely simultaneously in the South and in the North. The difference is that, in the South, the focus was largely upon Italy, particularly Florence and Rome. Meanwhile in the North, there were Renaissance painters in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium (Flemish), and to a lesser extent, the far northern Baltic countries. To further complicate matters, both the Italian Renaissance and its northern counterpart flowed westward into France during the 16th century and beyond, a fortuitous consolidation which accounts for the French preeminence in the fine arts, that was to last for the next four-hundred years.

Gerard David, 1509, self-portrait
from the upper-left corner of
Virgin Among the Virgins (top).
We're all aware that one of the godheads of French art was Jacques-Louis David (early 19th century). There was also a David during the Northern Renaissance named Gerard David (so far as I can tell, no relation). Their work looks nothing alike. Three-hundred years is an eternity as to painting styles. The French David (pronounced dah-VEED) painted classical history and mythology. The earlier David painted mostly religious scenes. Though technically German, born near Utrecht around 1460, Gerard David spent most of his life in Bruges (now Belgium) which would technically make him a Flemish painter, though art historians have come to call all such artists from this area "Netherlandish" (yet another technicality). In any case, Gerard David was a contemporary of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. From that point, however, any similarities cease to exist.

Triptych of the Sedano Family, 1490-98, Gerard David, indicative of Memling's influence.
The Nativity, Gerard David
One of the key facts to remember in contemplating the Renaissance is the profound effect which the advent of oil painting had upon art. It freed artists from the onerous technical limitations of fresco and egg tempera, combining the large scale of the first with the portability of the second. Also, remember that oil painting began in the North during the early 15th century and moved south into the hands of da Messina, Leonardo, and the other Italian masters. The van Eyck brothers (Jan, Hubert, and Lambert), who have historically been credited with "inventing" oil painting, lived and worked in Bruges. They were among the first generation of Netherlandish painters. Gerard David was second generation. And though he arrived in Bruges via Haarlem (Netherlands) with his German painting style already firmly established, it was unavoidable that he not be influenced by the likes of the van Eycks, as well as Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and particularly Hans Memling, as seen in his early work Triptych of the Sedano Family from 1490-98 (above). By comparison, David's Virgin Among the Virgins (top), from 1509, bears witness to a more general assimilation of Netherlandish influences. It also bears witness to his appearance (above, left).

Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Gerard David
Besides differences in painting styles between the North and Styles, there seems to have been a different way of "seeing" religious painting as to content. The Netherlandish painters seem to have been in love with angels--rare in the south but quite plentiful up north. Likewise, linear perspective seems to have bedeviled painters of religious works in the north long after having been assimilated in the south. David's massing of virgins (top) would have seemed pointless to Italian Renaissance painters. The Bible mentions no such congregation. David twice painted nativities with the Christ child lying out nude on the ground on his mother's cloak while two tiny angels worship the child (above, left). He also depicted, more than once, Mary breastfeeding her young son, an act that would have likely been an affront to Italian art tastes.

The Judgment of Cambyses, part 1. 1498, Gerard David. Sisamnes is arrested.
Along the same line, though actually not religious works, one of the most interesting (and strange) examples of David's creativity is his The Judgment of Cambyses, a diptych (two panels) commissioned by the alderman for the Bruges City Hall, and painted in 1498. The panels depict the story of the Persian Judge, Sisamnes, who was punished for corruption by being literally "skinned alive." Notice the difficulties with perspective in the first panel (above), while the second panel (below) seems way too cold and unemotional. The Italians would have made it a bloodbath. It was likely intended as a reminder (or threat) to the city aldermen to remain uncorrupted.

The Judgment of Cambyses, part 2, 1498, Gerard David.
Relax, this is gonna hurt a little.


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