In the first decades of the 16th century Jan
Gossaert rose to become one of the most celebrated artists of northern
Europe. Hailed as ‘the Apelles of our age’ by contemporaries,
he was credited with being among the first to bring the antique and Italian-inspired
nude to the Low Countries. He worked for the most illustrious patrons
of his day and painted mythological subjects on a grand
scale, often with unambiguous eroticism. Gossaert travelled to Italy, but his response
to its art was never one of slavish emulation.
His deep understanding of the subjects, technique and illusionism
of his native painting tradition remained an essential part of his work.
Gossaert’s defiance of easy categorisation has, in the past, led him to be overlooked.
Now, in the first exhibition dedicated to him in over 40 years,
the technical brilliance and arresting power of this highly individual artist is being
reassessed. Gossaert was born towards the end of the 1470s
in the town of Maubeuge which is why he often signed himself Mabuse,
or Malbodius in Latin. At this time Maubeuge was part of the Burgundian
Netherlands. This territory covered the entire Low Countries,
including the lands that today make up Belgium in the south
and the Netherlands in the north. And within its borders, in the southern regions
of Flanders and Brabant, stood many of the greatest and most wealthy
trading cities in Europe. We know little of Gossaert’s early career,
but it seems that by his mid-20s he was practising as a master painter in Antwerp.
In this city, it was observed, painters and sculptors
outnumbered bakers two to one. And Gossaert could easily have remained here,
and prospered, for the rest of his life.
But his talents soon brought him to the attention of the ruling court
in the city depicted in this tapestry Brussels. And there, no less a person than Philip, Bastard
of Burgundy the illegitimate son of Duke Philip the Good
– and admiral of the fleet, took Gossaert into his service.
Philip, recorded here in an anonymous drawing, was part of the highly cultured court that
gathered around Margaret of Austria, the Regent of the Netherlands.
Philip shared Margaret’s taste for Italian and antique art
a passion he was able to indulge to the full when Margaret sent him on a diplomatic mission
to Rome in October 1508. Gossaert went with him and among the sketches
he made was this study of the celebrated antique sculpture
of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot – the so-called Spinario.
When compared with the original, Gossaert’s pen drawing
gives the figure a kind of knobbly muscularity, while the surrounding sketches concentrate
on the lavish decoration of Roman sandals and
helmets. Under Philip’s instruction, Gossaert’s attention,
it seemed, was fixed on recording ancient rather than
contemporary Roman art. The art historian Sue Jones tells how, back
home, this fascination with antiquity endured. Sue Jones: In the winter of 1511 there was
unusually heavy snowfall in Brussels and the city staged a snow festival
consisting of no fewer than 110 snow figures which were located at different points throughout
the city. Outside Philip of Burgundy’s residence stood
a figure of Hercules. We don’t know what the snowman looked like,
but we do have a drawing that Gossaert made after an ancient Roman statue of Hercules
which probably gives us a fairly good idea. It certainly wouldn’t have looked like a modern
snowman more like a snow sculpture than a snowman.