The exhibition on Jan Gossart organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, London, celebrates a Netherlandish painter of the early sixteenth century who is little known except by historians, yet deserves wider attention. He not only introduced a new appreciation of classicism to the art of northern Europe, thereby bringing it closer to the concerns and achievements of the Italian Renaissance, but he produced remarkably beautiful and complex portraits and mythological and biblical paintings.
Gossart was one of the first northern painters to travel to Rome to study, and possibly the first Netherlandish artist to make paintings of mythological subjects, populated with figures whose anatomy and poses show the influence of classical and Italian art. Entitled “Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance,” the exhibition emphasizes the painter’s interest in secular narratives, voluptuous nudes, and the sculptural three-dimensionality of his figures.
As a young man Gossart went to Rome in 1508–1509 in the entourage of Philip of Burgundy, the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, who was there to negotiate with Pope Julius II on behalf of Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands. Gossart spent about seven months in Rome, and although only a few drawings from the trip survive, they show the enormous change he underwent there. His pictures from before this time were rendered in a fussy and picayune manner; they are airless and cluttered with ornate detail. Even when depicting classical subjects, such as The Emperor Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, they have the look of late Gothic manuscript illuminations, and show no knowledge of Greco-Roman culture.
The drawings he made in Rome, some at Philip’s request, are completely different in character. One depicts the Colosseum; another three are studies of classical sculpture. In what might be the earliest of his Roman drawings to survive, he copied the famous bronze statue called the Spinario, of a boy removing a thorn from his foot. In this study Gossart’s line is hesitant and the depiction of form and shadow unsure, with the result that the sculpture looks lumpy and misshapen. But in another, presumably later, drawing he made in Rome, based on the statue called Apollo Citharoedus (showing Apollo playing a lyre), he described the details of the anatomy with delicate webs of fine lines, carefully rendering light and shade as they fall across the statue. The mastery of technique and the glow of inspiration are apparent in this beautiful sheet, as well as in the study he drew of the colossal bronze Hercules of the Forum Boarium.
Upon his return to the Netherlands in 1509, Gossart lived in Middelburg, a town near Philip’s castle in Souburg (and not too far from Bruges and Antwerp). His paintings of the next…
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