The paintings and drawings Jan Gossaert made for Philip IV of Burgundy and other patrons related to the sixteenth-century Burgundian court reveal the crucial role the artist played in weaving classicism and ancient themes into his own Netherlandish culture. Similarly Gossaert’s emulation of paintings by his fifteenth-century predecessor, Jan van Eyck, conveys his important contribution to the evolution of the Netherlandish tradition. Despite Gossaert’s significant place in Northern Renaissance art, there has been no monograph on him since Max Friedländer’s volume in 1972. Nor has there been an exhibition devoted to his work since that in Bruges and Rotterdam in 1965. In light of this historiography, Ariane Mensger’s book, Jan Gossaert: Die niederländische Kunst zu Beginn der Neuzeit, is a welcome addition to the scant Gossaert literature. Mensger’s book, a published version of her 2000 dissertation from the University of Heidelberg, summarizes in one volume all the research conducted on Gossaert to date, making it a handy resource for any scholar of the period. Along with recent articles by Matt Kavaler, Eric Jan Sluijter, Hans Van Miegroet, Larry Silver, Lorne Campbell, Maryan Ainsworth, and others, Mensger’s book begins to readdress Gossaert’s transitory role between Netherlandish and Italianate art.
The book is divided into eleven short, thematic chapters with black and white illustrations. Mensger begins with three chapters discussing Gossaert’s response to the Netherlandish tradition and his imitation of Jan van Eyck. She moves on to address his classicizing style and treatment of antique subject matter, providing a brief examination of his patrons, such as Philip IV of Burgundy and Margaret of Austria. Under a chapter entitled the ‘Expansion of Genres,’ she studies Gossaert’s treatment of religious subjects, such as Adam and Eve, and his portraits. The sensual as an artistic subject is discussed in another chapter, which looks at his well-known mythological painting, Venus and Cupid, in Brussels. Mensger concludes by examining the self-consciousness of Gossaert’s artistic practice, as seen in his St. Luke Painting the Virgin in Vienna.
Although the book is thematic in nature, it does not provide an in-depth analysis of Gossaert’s paintings and drawings themselves, but instead gives a cursory discussion of most of his work as it relates to Mensger’s chosen themes. Unfortunately, this format results in a rather superficial analysis of the artist’s work, and many questions still remain. For Mensger, Gossaert’s stylistic pluralism conveys an artist caught between two different artistic traditions. Gossaert’s imitative copies of his fifteenth-century predecessor, Jan van Eyck, are seen in contrast to his works that experiment with a classicizing style and subject matter. Yet this opposition often overlooks the ways in which Gossaert appropriated motifs from both Netherlandish and Italianate traditions to create a hybridization of these two styles. Thus even when Gossaert’s work appears most Italianate, such as in his monumental Neptune and Amphitrite in Berlin, it remains entirely Netherlandish with its detailed treatment of musculature, nipples, and body hair. As such it seems more fruitful to explore how the artist self-consciously turned tradition into innovation rather than how he opposed them. Understanding Gossaert’s stylistic pluralism (his archaism and classicism) as part of the same humanistic project, which adapts and amends the past to fit the needs of the present, might have served Mensger better. With this conceptual approach, she would perhaps have been able to open new channels of discussion instead of rehearsing old ones about stylistic pluralism.
Due to Mensger’s format, she is also not able to expand upon the many interesting themes she raises. For example, Mensger rightfully points out Gossaert’s somewhat ambiguous treatment of sensual subjects, such as the painting of Venus and Cupid. Due to the inscribed frame that chastises Cupid for the harm he inflicts with his arrows, Mensger, like others before her, sees a moralizing undertone in the painting. Yet because the frame is removeable, Mensger emphasizes that the viewer was also to enjoy the sumptuous depiction of Venus’s nude body as she playfully wrestles with Cupid. Although she understands the painting as both moralizing and erotic, a further visual analysis and a detailed discussion of patronage would have been necessary to discuss the function of this ambiguity. Furthermore, Mensger assumes Gossaert’s mythological nudes were considered shocking in their sensuality, which overlooks why humanist patrons, such as Philip IV of Burgundy and Philip of Cleves, commissioned the paintings in the first place. If Mensger looked at broader cultural traditions of the period, such as court literature and poetry, she would have been able to provide a deeper and more nuanced reading of Gossaert’s sensual aesthetic.
For the general reader, Mensger’s book is incredibly valuable, especially with her comprehensive bibliography. The specialist desires a more in-depth study, however. Mensger’s articles on Gossaert, such as the one that appeared in Pantheon in 2000, clearly prove her ability to provide a more thorough analysis of her subject. One hopes that in her future articles on the artist Mensger will continue to expand the themes she only touched upon in her book.
The J. Paul Getty Museum