A monographic exhibition on the early Netherlandish painter Hugo van der Goes had been long overdue, and so Hugo van der Goes: Between Pain and Bliss was a notable event. Curated by Stephan Kemperdick and Erik Eising and beautifully staged in the Gemäldegalerie’s spacious central exhibition hall, this historic survey brought together paintings, drawings, prints, and manuscript illuminations by Hugo and his collaborators, followers, and copyists. It was accompanied by a handsome, well-illustrated scholarly catalogue, comprised of twelve essays written by the curators and other experts, along with forty-four catalogue entries.
As outlined in Kemperdick’s opening essay, Hugo van der Goes’s oeuvre presents numerous conundrums, mainly concerning its chronology and how it relates to the artist’s rather scant biography and short working career. First recorded as a master painter in Ghent in 1467, less than a decade later he became a lay brother at the Roode Klooster near Brussels, where he suffered a mental breakdown, according to his fellow brother Gaspar Ofhuys, and died in 1482/83. A major impediment to a comprehensive display of Hugo’s art is the fact that two of his most significant works – the Portinari Altarpiece in Florence (by “Ugo d’Anversa,” according to Vasari) and the Trinity Panels in Edinburgh – cannot travel. Their importance was signaled in the exhibition by life-size reproductions in a separate room towards the end, and by catalogue essays by Emma Capron and Lorne Campbell. One could not help but feel these works’ absence, but the curators must be congratulated on having amassed almost every other painting universally attributed to Hugo. The Gemäldegalerie is fortunate in already possessing two of them, the Monforte and Nativity altarpieces (cats. 2, 27); these were joined by the Death of the Virgin from Bruges (cat. 28), the Lisbon Saint Luke (cat. 8), and the Vienna Diptych (cat. 15), among other highlights. Key lost pictures were represented by early copies, like Gerard David’s miniature in the Breviary of Isabella of Castile (cat. 25.1) after Hugo’s second Adoration of the Magi. While offering a largely conventional account of his chronology, the display compellingly explored Hugo’s influences, impact, and remarkable abilities as a painter, while enabling visitors to assess the extent to which consensuses about his oeuvre hold true.
The show opened spectacularly with one of Hugo’s earliest works, the Monforte Altarpiece, displayed exceptionally with a painted reconstruction of its missing central extension attached to its upper side, the original having been sawn off at an unknown date. Recreated from the altarpiece’s numerous copies and derivations (including a previously unpublished drawing of ca. 1490-1500 [cat. 3.1]), the reconstruction restores the altarpiece’s inverted T-shape, transforming the viewer’s perception of the painting. Not only are the stable’s lofty proportions made apparent, but the sense of throngs of visitors coming from afar to see the infant Christ is amplified, with the magi’s entourage at the far left and the shepherds on the hillside in the center now echoed in the upper section by the angels ascending in small groups to join those gathered in the stable. So effective is this reconstructed extension that surely there is a strong case for making it a permanent addition to the altarpiece’s display.
Across from the Monforte Altarpiece, “Hugo’s Beginnings” were addressed. The Nuremburg humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote in 1495 that a great painter – taken to refer to Hugo – became melancholic because of his inability to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece, but the exhibition proposed that it was Rogier van der Weyden rather than Jan van Eyck who had the more profound impact on the artist’s formation. Rogier’s Middelburg Altarpiece, providing an instructive comparison with the Monforte Altarpiece opposite, was joined by his Lamentation from The Hague (cat. 1), whose elegant Magdalene figure inspired the head of her counterpart in the Portinari Altarpiece. Kemperdick speculates that Hugo may even have contributed to the Lamentation as a workshop assistant just before becoming a master in his own right in 1467.
The exhibition showed Hugo to be an accomplished portraitist, as discussed in Maryan Ainsworth’s catalogue essay, although he evidently lacked his contemporaries’ propensity for independent portraits. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s three male heads (cats. 14.1-3), attributed with varying degrees of confidence to Hugo or his circle, joined the Walters Art Museum’s autograph Man with Saint John the Baptist (cat. 13), probably the right panel of a diptych. Next to them was the Saint Hippolytus Triptych from Bruges (cat. 17), the central and right panels of which were painted by Dieric Bouts, but the left panel, portraying the patrons Hippolyte de Berthoz and Elizabeth Hugheins, was completed by Hugo following Bouts’s death in 1475. In the case of Hugo’s Vienna Diptych, for all its Eyckian and Rogerian influences, the work of Bouts appears to have impacted it too, as Eising argues in the catalogue. The exhibition offered the opportunity to consider both artists’ legacies with the inclusion of the Boston Saint Hippolytus Triptych (cat. 41), based on the Bruges triptych and made for the same patron, which was perhaps designed by Hugo towards the end of his life and completed by one or more of his Brussels followers thereafter.
Drawings, the subject of Stephanie Buck’s catalogue essay, featured prominently, notably the Oxford Jacob and Rachel (cat. 6) and the Windsor Christ on the Cross (cat. 7.1), both on colored grounds and given to Hugo himself. Collectively, the exhibited drawings provided additional perspectives on Hugo’s work, and that of early Netherlandish painters more generally, by affording glimpses of subjects rarely preserved in extant paintings. The Oxford drawing is one example, but others included the Allegory of Beauty and Virtue (cat. 34), seemingly a unique depiction of an entremet, the kind of banquet display seen at courtly festivities (like those for Charles the Bold’s wedding to Margaret of York in 1468, to which Hugo contributed), and the Hunting Party in front of a Grave (cat. 33), which may represent a lost allegorical painting commissioned by Maximilian of Austria, who appears in the drawing (and reportedly visited the painter at the Roode Klooster). Other than, possibly, the Washington Saint George drawing (cat. 35), designs for glass roundels, a number of which derive from Hugo’s style and compositions, were absent from the show, although several Ghent-Bruges manuscript illuminations, also indebted to Hugo’s work, were included.
While much of the subject-matter in Hugo’s extant painted oeuvre is conventional, his art is habitually characterized as eccentric or in some way unsettling. Certainly, the exhibition was punctuated with arresting moments: the ox’s eye, with its two catchlights, that gazes directly at the viewer in both the Berlin Nativity and Lisbon Saint Luke; the strands of Eve’s hair trapped in the claws of the memorably malevolent serpent in the Vienna Diptych. But the show also left one struck by Hugo’s extraordinary virtuosity as a painter, capable of rendering phenomena like the backlit hand of the Monforte panel’s middle magus, illuminated by the reflected glow from his golden cup. Hugo was a formidable colorist too, as demonstrated by the daring palette of the recently cleaned Death of the Virgin, or the sumptuous blacks and purples of the donors’ attire in the Saint Hippolytus Triptych. The exhibition confirmed him to be an innovator, especially as a pioneer of the half-length narrative close-up – like his endlessly replicated Large Descent, the subject of more than a hundred copies (effectively conveyed in the show by a strip of small reproductions of them extending from floor to ceiling). A detailed drawing of ca. 1500 (cat. 19.1, the model for Hieronymus Wierix’s engraving, cat. 19.2) faithfully records Hugo’s composition, and the damaged Tüchlein from Oxford (cat. 18) may be a fragment of the original work. Many of his followers and copyists produced these glue tempera paintings on linen, as did Hugo himself, as shown by his well-preserved Virgin and Child from Pavia (cat. 11). One of the show’s most intriguing Tüchlein was the workshop Virgin and Child from Kassel (cat. 12), the background of which was reworked in Florence in ca. 1500, a testament to Netherlandish cloth paintings’ enormous popularity in Italy.
As Till-Holger Borchert discusses in his catalogue essay, Hugo must have had a sizeable workshop and the exhibition concluded with a selection of works by its presumed members, the most talented of whom was the Master of Moulins (Jean Hey), represented by the Autun Nativity (cat. 37), his most Hugo-esque work. The juxtaposition of a Virgin and Child drawing from Dresden with The Phoebus Foundation’s Virgin and Child with Saints with its exposed underdrawing (cats. 38.1-2) showed them to be by the same artist, another likely alumnus of Hugo’s shop, as was the Master of 1499, represented by his small Annunciation diptych (cat. 40), whereas the unknown painter of an exquisite Lamentation from Grenada (cat. 39) seems to have been an independent follower.
Ofhuys’s famous account of Hugo’s mental illness, first published by Alphonse Wauters in 1863, has tended to color interpretations of the artist’s work, and the exhibition’s subtitle – Between Pain and Bliss – might suggest that his psychological distress and its impact upon his art would be the show’s major theme. This was certainly addressed, in Bernhard Ridderbos’s catalogue essay and in the final room, which featured Ofhuy’s manuscript (cat. 44) alongside the melodramatic The Madness of Hugo van der Goes (1872) painted by Émile Wauters, Alphonse’s nephew. Overall, though, the exhibition commendably allowed Hugo’s highly impressive art to speak for itself; in doing so, it did the artist – and his modern audience – a great service. Its organizers deserve our thanks.
Trinity University, San Antonio