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Jan Gossart: a Momentous Expedition

As a singular exhibition at the Met shows, Rome helped set the Old Master on the road to transformation.

November 21, 2010|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Reporting from New York — Today, when change is rapid, tastes are seasonal and information arrives by the nanosecond, it can be difficult to fathom an artist like Jan Gossart (circa 1478-1532). A gifted 16th-century follower of Jan van Eyck, perhaps the most brilliant painter of Northern Europe's early Renaissance, Gossart changed the way art looked in his influential corner of the world. He did it more deeply, more profoundly than any other artist in the region of the Burgundian Netherlands -- but it didn't happen overnight.

In fact, the transformation took decades.

An eloquent -- and exceedingly rare -- exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here shows how the change took place. "Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance" is the first survey of the under-acknowledged artist since 1965 and the first in the U.S. It's a quietly thrilling event.

The show opens with Gossart's painting of "The Holy Family," thought to have been executed around 1510 in the immediate aftermath of his fateful trip from Antwerp to Rome. Gossart joined a large entourage accompanying Philip of Burgundy on a sensitive diplomatic mission to see Pope Julius II. What he also saw when he got there were paintings, sculptures and prints that, after his return home, would definitively change the future of Northern European art.

Rome's classical antiquity, with roots in ancient Greece, was on just about every artist's mind. Antique sculptures were being exhumed, imported or given pride of place throughout the city, in public places and private collections.

Artists absorbed its lessons. In new work, simplification of form became essential. Painted illusion of volume saw figures projected forward in space. Mastery of perspective yielded a sense of grandeur. Pagan mythology joined Christianity as a subject.

Gossart arrived in Rome on Jan. 14, 1509. Michelangelo had already begun work on the Sistine Ceiling. Raphael was busy painting frescoes in a suite of Vatican reception rooms. Whether the German genius Albrecht Dürer visited Rome is not known for certain (he did go to Venice and Bologna in 1506), but examples of his brilliant graphics were highly prized there.

The Northern artist took it all in. He even stayed on after Philip returned home to the Netherlands in June, his diplomatic mission accomplished. Gossart finally followed, settling in the province of Zeeland along the Atlantic coast, where he began to seek commissions.

And, as the beautiful panel painting of "The Holy Family" shows, few of the classical traits so important to the flourishing Roman Renaissance turned up in the work he began to make, except in the most tentative ways.

The Virgin, Joseph and the Christ child occupy an elaborate Gothic space, an enclosed palace garden that signals Mary's inviolable chastity. The garden looks like a fantasy out of a medieval tapestry.

Space is cluttered, bodily proportions elongated, garments arrayed with ornamental care. Light is crystalline, as if refracted through a prism, and color is jewel-like. Wavering contour lines add nervous energy.

Look closely and classical hints do appear. The trio of sculptural nudes holding aloft a fancy Gothic fountain behind Joseph might derive from the three graces, the Greek goddesses of charm, beauty and creativity revived by the Italian Renaissance. Overall, though, the painting is firmly rooted in the established tastes of an earlier era.

And why wouldn't they be? Gossart may have been rocked back on his heels by the ancient art and new Renaissance painting and sculpture he encountered in Rome, but that doesn't mean his northern patrons would want something different from what they already knew and loved. Humanist principles were slowly seeping into the Burgundian Netherlands, and Gossart's art was one vehicle for their steady if tentative arrival.

The first painting encountered in the exhibition that displays classical tendencies in a forthright way is "Venus and Cupid," which shows the Roman goddess of love restraining her impish son from withdrawing an erotic arrow from his quiver. Venus and Cupid are mother and son, but they are not the chaste Virgin Mary and the redemptive Christ Child. Gossart painted this pagan pair, posed in a shallow space between two stately columns, like sculptures in a niche, in 1521 -- nearly a dozen years after his trip to Rome.

Earlier classical impulses will be found in Gossart's work (the show's installation emphasizes themes rather than strict chronology). Yet, just as it took him and the rest of Philip's entourage almost three months to travel the nearly 1,000 miles from Antwerp to Rome, with numerous stops along the way, it would take years for the journey's deepest artistic impact to be widely felt in Northern Europe's shifting society.

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