Portrait of a Merchant (Jan Jacobsz. Snoek?), c. 1530, oil on panel, 63.6 x 47.5 cm. Washington DC, National Gallery of Art

Flemish Renaissance painting is known for its sharp focus on reality. The first great master of oil painting, Jan van Eyck (active 1422, died 1441), was widely admired in his day for his ability illusionistically to reproduce the seen.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife, 1434, oil on panel, 82.2 x 60 cm, London, National Gallery

In the famous Arnolfini Double Portrait in London (1434) he anticipated fairly directly Hamlet’s description of art as the ‘mirror of nature’ by placing a convex mirror on the wall behind the couple. In it are visible two people who have just entered the room, but not the artist himself, who ought to be standing between the two couples : where we, the viewers, stand. Van Eyck, we understand from the inscription above the mirror, “was there,” five hundred years before Kilroy.

The Roman naturalist Pliny describes how the legendary Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasios held a competition to determine who was better able at rendering the real. Zeuxis painted a grapevine so true to life that a flock of birds attempted to eat the grapes. He then asked Parrhasios to remove the curtain hiding his picture. Parrhasios revealed that the curtain was the picture, and Zeuxis had to admit defeat.

Van Eyck and Shakespeare thus inscribe themselves in a central tradition in Western art. And they are aware of Parrhasios’ curtain: van Eyck emphasizes his presence at the creation of his painting and thereby reveals it as a construction, and Shakespeare has Hamlet wonder at the ability of the actor, performing in what is an obvious fiction, to make the Trojan Queen Hecuba come alive for the viewer. It is through awareness of the work’s artifice that we grasp most strongly its closeness to reality. The Arnolfini couple is depicted in a fictive space that mirrors a recognizable reality, but is ultimately born of van Eyck’s imagination.

Van Eyck’s follower Jan Gossart (active 1503, died 1532), also called ‘Mabuse’ after his natal town Maubeuge, was the subject of a major retrospective in New York and London (where I saw it) from 2010 to early 2011. He works quite consciously in this Northern European tradition for artistic self-reflection. In these postmodern times, where our intersubjective constitution of meaning has become a central issue and truth a relative concept, his challenge to our distinction between truth and art is an inspiring proposition.

The Portrait of a Merchant (c. 1530, illustration at top) was the centerpiece of a room devoted to Gossart’s portraits; probably the part of his work that speaks to us most directly today. The man is dressed in luxuriously ample clothes and surrounded by objects signaling his profession: quill pens and sealing wax, gold scales and loose change; a neat inkwell; correspondence scrupulously archived in a hanging system, carefully “miscellaneous drafts” and “miscellaneous letters”; a dagger. He looks at us reservedly but not dismissively, momentarily interrupted. We sit across from him, at his desk, perhaps with a business proposal.

It is an animated portrait, executed with a real sense of presence. Only upon further scrutiny does one remark how much of a construction it is. This kind of “professional portrait” was an established genre, but the arrangement was quite new at the time: the sitter is presented inside a narrow, almost camera obscura-like space for us to view. This device is common to several painters of Gossart’s generation, and perhaps most notably appears in the work of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98:1543) whose unforgettable Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam in the Louvre is but the best-known of a number of portraits conceived in this manner.

The tension between the natural and the staged is also apparent in Gossart’s narrative pictures. As court painter to Duke Philip of Burgundy he went to Rome in 1508:9 as part of a diplomatic delegation. He spent much of his time there orienting himself among the antique statuary and monuments, many of which he recorded in his sketchbooks. These sketches became foundational to his further work, which developed as a synthesis of Italian idealism and Flemish naturalism.

Jan The Adoration of the Kings, 1510-15, oil on panel, 177.2 x 161.3 cm. London, The National Gallery

His altarpiece of the Adoration of the Kings, probably painted for the Church of St. Adrian at Geraardsbergen around 1510:15, is a lavish example of this. He illuminates this familiar scene by the light of day and devotes the scrupulous level of attention to every detail: from the wart on the cheek of the kneeling Caspar, on the right, to the hawkweed and thistle growing between the cracks in the foreground tile. The gifts presented by the kings are described with goldsmith’s understanding of metalwork while the clothing worn by the figures affords the artist an opportunity to showcase with tactility a range of the finest textiles of the time. The surrounding architecture demonstrate his interest in antique form, composed as it is of disparate architectural samples : it makes one wonder how familiar Gossart was with the work of the great North Italian painter Andrea Mantegna’s (c. 1431-1506) similar, if more historically aware, sense of architectonic structure and his ability to render convincingly materials such as clay, marble, and granite.

The composition is organized according to the principles of central perspective with the vanishing point appropriately placed in the face of the Madonna. Mountains offset the horizon in a cool blue haze and angles hover weightlessly in the sky, slightly backlit, but apart from that the depth of field is encompassing, with everything in sharp focus. There is something disembodied about this clarity : the painting appears like a simulation of reality, arranged like a diorama. As in the portrait of the merchant we are dealing with a constructed reality, which gains its credibility from painstakingly orchestrated, seemingly naturalistic artifice.

Portrait of Christian II, c. 1523, pen and brown ink on paper, Paris, Institut Neerlandais

In 1523 the Danish king Christian II arrived in the Netherlands to stay in temporary exile. His brutal campaign in Sweden had failed, the Jutland nobility had turned its back on him, and he now sought the protection of his queen’s aunt, the Archduchess Magaret of Austria, governor of the Netherlands. That year, Gossart executed a finely rendered, drawn portrait of the fallen king, which somewhat disturbingly shows a coolly proud man, flinty of heart.

The following year he also painted portraits of the king’s children, whom Christian had left with Margaret when he traveled back to Denmark. One picture presumably shows the oldest princess, Dorothea, at ten years of age (c. 1530). She is sumptuously dressed in velvets and wears fine pearl. She holds in her hand an armillary sphere, i.e. a model of the heavens with the Earth at the center. In symbolic reference to her disrupted life, she has turned it upside-down and gestures to one of its outer rings at a point around 56 degrees above the Equator : or at Copenhagen, her home.

Portrait of a Princess (Dorothea of Danmark?), c. 1530, oil on panel, 38.1 x 28.9 cm., London, The National Gallery

Gossaert here employs a device that he used increasingly in his late portraits: he paints the girl in front of a picture frame. This break in the naturalist logic of the picture surface emphasizes how lifelike the portrait is : the princess appears as if she had stepped out of the picture : while simultaneously making evident its nature as construction : she is still contained within the painting’s actual frame, portrayed in half-length with her elbows cropped at its edges. Accentuating this dichotomy further, her head is modeled three-dimensionally while the lines described by her dress and jewelry are drawn flatly on the surface.

Gossaert is aware of the significance of Parrhasios’ curtain. By imitating the world around him and at the same time exposing what he is doing, he makes us aware of reality and invites us to think about how we understand it.

St. Luke Painting the Madonna and Child, c. 1520-22, oil on panel, 109.5 x 82 cm., Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

His picture of the patron saint of painters, the Evangelist Luke, further investigates this issue. Gossaert follows iconographic tradition in depicting Luke painting the Madonna and the Child. Renaissance convention normally had the pair depicted in concrete terms, as if they were sitting for Luke, but Gossaert instead chooses to paint them as a glowing apparition, accompanied by angels dancing in a puff of cumulus. The painter works from observation, but essentially draws upon the images it creates in his mind. Gossaert here seems intent on illustrating the relation between inner and outer vision: the artist interprets his impressions in order to make of them art. As Van Eyck suggests the work of art is created because he is there.

Review originally published in Danish in Weekendavisen, week 21 2011.


  1. It has been brought to my attention by a colleague in the know that the Portrait of the Princess is very unlikely to be of Christina of Denmark. In fact, the girl has been plausibly identified as Isabella of Portugal (Sterk 1980), whom Gossaert is apparently documented to have potrayed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was planning to marry her.

    The exhibition catalogue acknowledges this, but dismisses it in favor of the interpretation I appropriated here. The problems with this is that it depends on the armillary sphere — an instrument that represents the heavens, not the Earth and therefore cannot show the longtitude of Denmark. Also, the sphere was the emblem of Isabella’s father Manuel I. Also, the girl is sumptuously dressed in a way one wouldn’t expect from a Northerner, much less the daughter of a bankrupted and disgraced king.

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