In the history of artistic exchange between northern and southern Europe, Jan Gossart occupies a singular place. The first Netherlandish artist known to have drawn the antiquities of Rome, Gossart has long been famed for his southern journey and for having brought a knowledge of Italy to the Low Countries.
The seminal exhibition of “Flemish Primitives” held in Bruges in 1902 inaugurated the modern study of Gossart with the assertion that the artist was “so captivated by the Renaissance that he left behind all the traditions of his own school.” Although this supposed breach with the school of Jan van Eyck and the other early Netherlandish painters was hardly affirmed by his oeuvre, it became the basis for charting his artistic development. In the resulting narrative, Gossart’s trip to Italy marked his departure from Eyckian tradition and eager embrace of the models of classical antiquity.
In more recent decades, Gossart has experienced a renaissance of his own, encompassing important inquiry into the historical context of his works and a quiet revolt against the Italocentrism of prior scholarship. New research has shed light on the artist’s patronage in the courtly milieu of the Low Countries and on the stylistic plurality evident in his oeuvre. Increasingly, it has been acknowledged that an awareness of Italian models never compelled Gossart to abandon his native artistic inheritance.
Now the catalogue accompanying the recent exhibition on Gossart, which closed in January at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 6, 2010 – January 17, 2011) and has since traveled to London’s National Gallery (February 23 – May 30, 2011), offers a monument to over a century of scholarship and a foundation for future research. This impressive catalogue raisonné, replete with color reproductions of all of Gossart’s accepted works and with entries detailing technical findings, provenance, and bibliography, constitutes an invaluable resource for years to come, trumping the outdated 1965 catalogue of the only prior monographic exhibit devoted to Gossart.
Among the catalogue’s rich contributions Stijn Alsteens’ essay, “Gossart as a Draftsman,” (pp. 89-103), presents compelling arguments for expanding the corpus of drawings, and Nadine Orenstein’s “Gossart and Printmaking” (pp. 105-112), highlights the artist’s precocious and somewhat frustrated foray into etching. Matt Kavaler’s “Gossart as Architect” (pp. 31-43) delves into the painter’s portrayal of architectural ornament, illuminating the obsession of an artist who shirked landscape for the allure of marble and built structures. Maryan Ainsworth, who conceived the exhibition and edited the catalogue, contributes a fascinating essay on “Gossart’s Working Methods” (pp. 69-87), which represents a watershed in the study of the artist’s painterly technique and reveals his dexterity both in compositional design and handling of the medium.
In her chapters “The Painter Gossart in His Artistic Milieu’ (pp. 9-29) and “Observations concerning Gossart’s Working Methods”, Ainsworth also presents her new hypothesis that only one of Gossart’s presumed paintings after Jan van Eyck can now be placed firmly in his oeuvre: the Deesis modeled after the central figures of the Ghent Altarpiece. The panels depicting St. Donatian (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai) and the Virgin and Child in the Church (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, cat. 7) are attributed to Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen and to Gerard David, respectively; indeed, Ainsworth asserts that upon returning to the Low Countries, Gossart collaborated closely with David on a handful of paintings, including the Malvagna Triptych and the Adoration of the Magi (pp. 13-15).
Ainsworth’s notion of a “prestige collaboration” between Gossart and David has already met with some critique, most notably by Lorne Campbell at London’s National Gallery (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/jan-gossaert-the-adoration-of-the-kings-introduction). In conjunction with the opening of the exhibition in its second venue, Campbell has reasserted the longstanding attribution of the Adoration to Gossart alone and has emphasized the artist’s sophisticated dialogue, not with David but rather with his Netherlandish predecessor Hugo van der Goes. Questions of attribution aside, this discussion has significant implications for understanding Gossart’s artistic career in the wake of his Italian journey.
Ainsworth cites among the achievements of her scholarly team that they have “come to terms with Gossart’s so-called Eyckian phase and recognized that it has been much overstated in the past” (p. 6). Still, her own findings augment rather than diminish our perception of the artist’s local ties. The fact that after his sojourn in Italy Gossart – together with his patrons – continued to pursue Netherlandish artistic traditions confirms unequivocally that his study of Roman antiquity did not bring about a complete shift in direction within his oeuvre. Through his superior mastery of Eyckian technique, Gossart ensured his success among the Netherlandish nobility and distinguished himself from his artistic contemporaries just as much as through his knowledge acquired in Italy.
In this light, one might ask why the catalogue persists in giving pride of place to the Italian models behind Gossart’s works. While such models are certainly to be found in the artist’s oeuvre, we learn little from speculation over his debt to Andrea del Verrocchio’s Doubting Thomas (p. 199) or to a fountain illustration in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (p. 124), particularly when Gossart makes far more explicit reference to his fellow northerner Albrecht Dürer than he ever does to the work of any Italian artist.
Discussion of the mythological paintings for which Gossart is most famous also might have received a more nuanced treatment. The catalogue asserts that these paintings embodied the erotic identities of their patrons and were unproblematic in their sensuality. Yet as scholars of the Italian Renaissance have proved through long decades of debate over the meaning and function of mythological images, works in this genre are inherently, and often deliberately, wrought with tensions. In Gossart’s case, an essay teasing out subtle differences between the mythological works and his depictions of Adam and Evemight have proven especially productive, allowing for an exploration of the artist’s refined approach to the nude body. Only by acknowledging the complexities and larger historical significance of Gossart’s mythological paintings in their original context can we appreciate the exceptional achievement that they represent.
Overall, Ainsworth and her collaborators must be commended for providing us with this beautiful catalogue, which challenges us to look anew at Jan Gossart and at his pivotal role in shaping the course of sixteenth-century Netherlandish art.