Alongside recent studies on Hieronymous Bosch, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden, this French-language monograph on Hugo van der Goes is the fourth published by Fonds Mercator to focus on an early Netherlandish artist. Like the others, it is lavishly and extensively illustrated, with approximately 400 images – over 300 of them in color. Including its cardboard slipcover, the book weighs in at over eight pounds and measures 13 x 10 inches, posing significant physical challenges to the in-bed reader. For those undaunted, it does offer rewards – among them the opportunity to behold through fine color reproductions and details the production of one of the fifteenth century’s most talented and misrepresented artists. This volume constitutes a good alternative to seeing Hugo’s paintings and drawings in person and, since a monographic exhibition on the artist is unlikely anytime in the near future, this is not a bad way to assess the artist’s oeuvre at one sitting. There is less to recommend the volume’s text, though it does offer a comprehensive overview of the artist’s biography, work, and critical reception.
The book is divided into four sections. The first and briefest outlines the historiography of the artist’s name, reputation, and archival legacy. Elisabeth Dhanens succinctly reviews the fame earned by Hugo among his contemporaries and the various trails, many of them misleading, forged by historians in later centuries. It would have been helpful, and interesting to readers, I think, to include here at least a brief assessment of the kind of criticism that has been used to evaluate Hugo’s work – criticism that has tended to use the artist’s mental illness as its primary interpretive tool. The book’s second section reconstructs the artist’s biography, dividing his life into Ghent and post-Ghent stages. The author’s longstanding focus on this important city is here both informative and deserved. Dhanens uses her knowledge of the local culture to address Hugo’s social milieu and contacts with Ghent’s artists and guild, of which he became a master in 1467. Though there is little information brought to light here that has not already been published in earlier bibliographic sources, the author’s personal approach does bring an engaging coherence to Hugo’s life. Some readers might be turned off by the use of what amounts to novelistic language, such as in the section heading “Hugo van der Goes amoureux,” but, as Dhanens rightly points out, Hugo was probably the first Netherlandish artist to whom such language was applied, albeit posthumously.
The volume’s third and fourth sections function together as a catalogue raisonné of sorts, the former discussing works that have been lost or that were recorded in archival documents and texts, the latter analyzing the artist’s surviving oeuvre. Each work or commission is discussed independently. Reflecting a welcome trend in catalogue scholarship, the categories or topics addressed for each work are not always the same, but are determined according to the particular demands of the commission. Thus, while Dhanens addresses the dating of the Fall of Man and Lamentation panels (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) at some length, about which there has been wide disagreement, this is not her primary concern for paintings on which there is either general agreement or little evidence to support a reliable date. Hugo’s short career, furthermore, makes the pursuit of a secure chronology particularly problematic. A useful appendix collects all the published documents pertaining to the artist’s life and work, while some technical evidence – plans, x-rays, and infrared photographs – are interspersed among the footnotes.
The book does a measured job of addressing the artist’s distinctive style and avoids the kind of direct emotive interpretation that has unfortunately dogged much of Hugo’s legacy. Dhanens does not ascribe to the belief that the characteristics of Hugo’s compositions and figures – in particular, the intensely saturated color scale and darkly delineated facial features – are due to a disturbance in the artist’s psychological make-up. She does, however, settle on vaguely romantic interpretation of the artist’s work. In the final entry, the author identifies as a self-portrait the apostle dressed in red seated in the central foreground of the Death of the Virgin (Groeningemuseum, Bruges), believed to be one of the artist’s late works, if not his last surviving work. The figure does indeed look out at the viewer in the tradition of many self-portraits, but then so does the apostle dressed in black at the very left edge of the composition. What makes one a self-portrait and the other an anonymous apostle is not easy (for this reader) to grasp. The suggestion seems motivated as much by the desire to find an aged counterpart to the presumed self-portrait of a youthful Hugo van der Goes in the Monforte Altar (Germäldegalerie, Berlin) as it is by the nature of the portrayal or the inherent character of the painting. Dhanens ends the book wondering whether the apostle’s hand resting on a book is the same one that executed the masterpieces illustrated on the previous pages. This amounts to a sort of interpretive middleground or limbo. I was left wishing Dhanens had decided to take a clearer stance on one side or the other: either to suggest a direct connection between Hugo’s condition and his art or to interpret his work as an understandable and explicable reflection of the fervent spiritual and devotional practices common during the artist’s lifetime.
A non-specialized audience may best appreciate this monograph. For those interested in a critical assessment of the work of Hugo van der Goes – his style, technique and chronological development – Jochen Sander’s 1992 book on the artist is the best source. Those looking to familiarize themselves with the beauty of Hugo’s creations and an engagingly personal review of his career would do well to pick up a copy of this book. Be warned, though, it’s heavy.