Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity


Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity
By Maris Anne Bass
Princeton University Press – £37.95

”It contends that Gossart participated in a local renaissance – the revival of alternative ”Netherlandish” antiquity – through his antiquarian engagement with Eyckian painting, his selective use of Italian and ancient models, and his involvement in the recovery of the region’s ancient history.”

Being half Dutch, I’ve always had a penchant for Dutch painting and to a certain degree, Jan Gossart’s work is no exception. His testimonial, nigh majestic nudes alone, remain somewhat ahead of their time, even by today’s standards. But what particularly drew me to this more than engaging and rather wonderful book, is the fact that it challenges previous interpretations of Gossart’s many influential works.

One of these is its re-evaluation of the foregone conclusion that the Dutchman’s patrons did not slavishly imitate Italian Renaissance models, but instead, sought to contest the very idea that the all encompassing Roman past (and mere presence) instilled an Italian monopoly on antiquity.

Indeed, by drawing on many previously unused primary sources in Latin, Dutch, and French, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity offers a turbulent, yet altogether fascinating new understanding of both the painter himself and the history of northern European art itself.

Convincingly put together with a mixture of very high quality black and white/colour reproductions, the book’s four chapters and 153 pages (excluding Notes & Bibliography) are an education as well as an inspiration.

Already in the very first chapter ‘The Embodied Past’, authoress Maris Anne Bass (who is Assistant Professor at the Art History and Archaeology Department of Washington University in St. Louis) states: ”Gossart was obsessed with bodies, and with the representation of bodies in space. His most iconic works, whether mythological or religious in subject, all explore the extreme juxtaposition of enlivened figures within realms of cool stone architecture or intricate foliate ornament. Even his portraits set against monochrome backgrounds present their figures emerging, sometimes as if breaching the boundaries of their framesa.”

To my mind, this gives readers something to think about almost immediately, simply because of the compelling clarity of exploration.

This leads me to agree with Ethan Matt Kavaler of The University of Toronto, who has been quoted as saying: ”This remarkable and original book greatly advances our understanding of northern European humanism and its relation to art in the early modern period – a central and longstanding problem in art history. Creatively researched and compellingly written, this interdisciplinary study will have wide appeal.”

This is essentially the first real in-depth historical study of Jan Gossart (ca. 1478-1532), surely one of the most important painters of the Renaissance in northern Europe. It’s a book which provides so much more than just a richly illustrated narrative of the Duth artist’s life and art.

As mentioned at the outset, Bass illustrates how Gossart’s paintings were an integral part of a large(r) cutural effort throughout the Netherlands, which did much to ”to assert the region’s ancient heritage as distinct from the antiquity and presumed cultural hegemony of Rome.”

To a large extent, this is immediately addressed, if not wholeheartedly substantiated in the book’s Introduction: ”The early modern Low Countries and the image of its history were profoundly shaped by a sense of scale. The region’s cultural achievements, and attendant local pride, have always swelled beyond the limits of its small geographical domain […]. The presumption of causality between the two pillars of Gossart’s fame – his Roman drawings and his mythological paintings – has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of his engagement with antiquity […]. This book sets out to rehabilitate Gossart’s mythological works in the milieu of their creation by investigating not only the artist’s intimate courtly environs but also place within the intellectual culture of the early sixteenth-century Low Countries.”

To semi-quote Dagmar Eichberger (University of Trier and University of Heidelberg): ”With great enthusiasm and erudition, Marisa Anne Bass situates Jan Gossart in the intellectual network of his Netherlandish patrons and thoroughly investigates the literary output of the humanist circles that he and his patrons moved in.”

Totally original as well as lavishly illustrated, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity is as idiosyncratically informative as it is occasionally spellbinding.

David Marx


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