Feel the force of Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance at the National Gallery

By Holly Isaac | 28 February 2011
An image of an oil painting showing Renaissance Italian figures in glamorous robes with a child in the middle
Jan Gossaert, The Adoration of the Kings (1510-15)© National Gallery
Exhibition: Jan Gosssaert’s Renaissance, National Gallery, London, until May 30 2011

Jan Gossaert, a native of Flanders, was one of the most astonishing and accomplished artists of the Northern Renaissance. This archetypal Old Master changed the course of Flemish art, going beyond the tradition of Jan van Eyck and blending it it with an antique Italian style.
This major exhibition, the first dedicated to him more than 45 years, is a glorious collection of more than 80 sumptuous works revealing one of the Renaissance's comparatively lesser known artists. Works by his contempories are also exhibited to illustrate the artistic milieu of which he was a part.

Gossaert made his name painting for wealthy and extravagant members of the Burgundian court, including Philip of Burgundy and Margaret of Austria. In autumn 1508 he travelled to Italy with Philip of Burgundy on a diplomatic mission, making him the first northern artist to travel to Rome and make sketches of antique sculpture.

An image of an oil painting of a man in a cloak and black cap from the Renaissance period sitting at a writing desk writing in a book with a quill
Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz Snoek?) (circa 1530)© Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Here he sketched the most famous monuments and sculptures of ancient Rome and soon acquired a repertoire of classicaly inspired motifs which he was to use repeatedly in his paintings.

One of the stars of the collection is Adoration of the Kings (1510-15), an intensely coloured depiction of Christ’s birth which makes extraordinary use of perspective and attention to detail.

Gossaert shows off his mastery of extravagant spatial effects and command of architectural composition in a small alterpiece, Agony In The Garden Of Gethsemane, a depiction of a melancholy moonlit landscape and a backlit angel.

The story of Adam and Eve fascinated Gossaert, and he would return to the theme time and time again.He explored the erotic nature of their relationship in some exceptional paintings, including one of the earliest examples, Adam and Eve (1510 ), combining realism with eroticism. The painting of their soft skin is remarkable.

But the most compelling paintings depict mythological nudes which hint at carnal pleasure. His idealised forms are voluptous and seductive, yet also sculptural and painted to look like marble.

Philip of Burgundy was a fan. Despite being a churchman he was notoriously licentious and dismissed any idea of clerical chastity with laughter. His appointment as Bishop did nothing to curb his interest in erotic art.

An image of an oil painting of the goddess Venus, showing her as a figure standing on a plinth holding a cold instrument
Venus (circa 1521)© Pinacoteca dell'Accademia dei concordi e del seminario vescovile, Rovigo
He commissioned many such works of art from Gossaert, including Venus (1521), who doesn’t even hide her modesty with a fig leaf.

In the same room lies a small painting of Venus and Cupid (1521) which has an arched wooden frame with an inscription in Latin lamenting the difficulty of controlling love.

In the latter part of his career, Gossaert received commissions from the exiled King Christian of Denmark, whom he portrayed in a magnificent drawing with the coats of arms of his lost territories, positioned in the portrait room here.

Gossaert also painted his young daughter Dorothea (circa 1530) holding an inverted armillary sphere – a symbol that her world has been turned upside down.

It’s a startling picture, and the pearls and sphere are so three-dimensional that you want to reach your hand out to touch them, just to make sure that they really are painted.

Other portraits in this room show his amazing ability to represent the lifelike appearance of his subjects, including Portrait of a Merchant (circa 1530), starring a sitter who could only be outstared by the Mona Lisa herself.

The room also features illusionistic portraits in which Gossaert plays intriguing spatial games, including trompe l’oeil. Here you will see the most dramatic use of fictive frames with subjects placed in front of painted portrait frames.

They seem to step out from the the frame to meet the viewer, and this is perhaps Gossaert’s greatest gift. Seeing this show could make you jump.
  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm Friday). Admission £5-£11 (free for under-12s). Book online.
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