Jan Gossaert is the first artist from the Low Countries of which it is known that he travelled to Rome in order to study classical art. Although the influence of this stay is not immediately seen from his art, he had a significant influence on his contemporaries and he is often viewed as the first Renaissance artist or ‘Romanist' from the Low Countries. His most important patron is Philip of Burgundy, though he also received commissions from Margaret of Austria, Charles V, Adolf of Burgundy and Mencía de Mendoza. More or less, half of his oeuvre consists of portraits, the genre in which he was exceptional and repeatedly yielded results.
Jan Gossaert is born in Maubeuge. This birth year is deduced from a portrait drawing by Reinier Snoy of Gouda, on which it states that the creator "Malboius" was 50 years old in 1528. That this here deals with Jan Gossaert can be deduced from the latinised name Malbodius, which he used in the later stages of his life. Karel van Mander also later confirms in his Schilder-boeck (Painter Book) that Gossaert comes from Maubeuge. The drawing by Gossaert's hand is no longer known, though Arnold Buchelius describes in 1623 the drawing that he had seen with his own eyes.
In 1503, "Jennyn van Henegouwe" is registered as master within the Antwerp St. Lucas guild. That this concerns Jan Gossaert can be surmised by his place of birth, Maubeuge, which is in Henegouwen.
About the period that precedes this, nothing is known. From written sources it is, however, asserted that Gossaert was raised in Bruges. Brussels and Antwerp are also named as places of development. No evidence exists for any of these suppositions.
The master "Jennyn van Henegouwe" took on Hennen Mertens (possibly Jan Mertens) in 1505 and in 1507 Machiel in't Swaenken as pupils.
To this early period of Gossaert's life, only a few drawings can be connected that he signed with IIENNING.OSAR (The Mystical Marriage of St. Catharine, Statens Museum of Art, Copenhagen) and ANWER IENNI (Caesar Augustus and the Tiburtine Sibyl, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin). Paintings from this period have not survived. The drawings make it clear that the artist worked in the style of the Antwerp Mannerism in this period.
On 26 October 1508, Gossaert departed from Mechelen in the entourage of Philip of Burgundy, the youngest bastard son of Philip the Good and admiral of the navy, to Rome, where they arrived on 14 January 1509. During the diplomatic mission, it was Philip's task to resolve the disputes of opinion with the Pope concerning the naming of the high clergymen. According to Gerrit Geldenhouwer-the biographer of Philip of Burgundy-Gossaert recorded the antique monuments for the art-loving prince. As such, Gossaert is the first artist from the Low Countries who travelled to Rome and studied the classical and Italian arts. From a report on 22 June 1509 to Margaret of Austria, it seems that Gossaert was the only one of the participants of the mission who remained behind in Rome in order to further work on the sketches for Philip. It is not clear how long Gossaert remained in Rome. Two of the sketches that he made in Rome are his Colosseum (Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin) and Standing Hercules (previously collection of Lord Wharton, London).
A certain "Janin de Waele" is registered in the brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady in Middelburg. It is uncertain if here it deals with Jan Gossaert or "Jennyn van Henegouwe". Philip of Burgundy established himself after his return from Rome in Castle Souburg, nearby to Middelburg. It is uncertain if Gossaert was in service of Philip at that moment. In any case, he is free to take on assignments from others.
No information is known from this period. There are no dated works and few signed works that have been placed in this period. It is interesting to note that the influence of his Rome trip is not found in these works, nor is the Antwerp Mannerism any longer emphatically present. According to most researchers, amongst others, The Adoration (National Gallery, London), the Malvagna Triptych (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palermo), the Doria Diptych (Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome) and Saint Luke paints the Virgin (Narodni Galerie, Prague) are attributed to this period.
In this period, Gossaert may have met the Venetian artist Jacopo De'Barbari at Castle Souburg. In the biography of Philip of Burgundy, Geldenhouwer gives the impression that these artists had worked together on works of art for this residence, however, there is nothing known with certainty.
Geldenhouwer calls them the Apelles and Zeuxis of their time.
It is possible that in 1513, Gossaert stayed at the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen and there he met Antonio Siciliano, the commissioner of the Doria Diptych.
According to a recent hypothesis [Ainsworth 2010], Gossaert worked together with Gerard David in this period. David's hand is recognised in the left panel of the Doria Diptych, in The Adoration and in the Malvagna Triptych. For the right panel of the Doria Diptych, Gossaert may have collaborated with a landscape artist.
In March, Gossaert receives 15 pounds paid out for his contribution to the designs of the triumphal carriage for the mourning service of Ferdinand of Aragon. The triumphal carriage, according to Geldenhouwer, is designed in close consultation with Philip of Burgundy. It is possible that two sketches can be connected with the triumphal carriage of men decked out in military garb (Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden and Staedelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main).
Gossaert travels with Philip to Brussels in order to attend the services. There he receives the assignment from Charles V to paint two portraits of Eleonora of Austria.
In this year Gossaert also paints his first dated painting Neptune and Amphitrite (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) for Philip. The unconventional mythological subject, the way in which the nudes are presented with great emphasis on the individual muscles and the classical architecture give the artwork an unmistakable Renaissance character. Karel van Mander later calls him one of the first artists to have brought the proper manner of painting to the Low Countries.
From 1516 on, Gossaert only uses the latinised name "JOANNES MALBODIUS".
Philip of Burgundy becomes Bishop of Utrecht. He leaves Castle Souburg and establishes himself in castle Wijk bij Duurstede. He remains living there until his death in 1524. Gossaert relocates along with him and receives various assignments for the decoration of this castle. Gossaert receives assignments that result from the new function of his patron. The artist probably designs two seals (the grand seal and the seal "ad causas") and is involved with two projects for the Cathedral of Utrecht.
In this year, Gossaert paints Hercules and Deianira (The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham) and Diptych of Jean Carondelet (Musée du Louvre, Paris). In the former painting, Gossaert uses the innovations that he had employed in Neptune and Amphitrite. In the diptych he follows a more conservative route.
According to Mander, Jan van Scorel becomes a pupil of Gossaert. However, he must not have abided long with the master, because-as Van Mander reports-Gossaert lived a too profligate life that cost Van Scorel lots of money and even put him in a life-threatening situation. It is likely that the information that Van Mander provided in not completely correct. Scorel was probably no pupil of Gossaert, though perhaps he visited him. In 1518 Scorel left for Italy.
In 1520, Albrecht Dürer describes an altarpiece that was painted by Jan Gossaert for the Premonstratensian Abbey of Middelburg. From this trip to the Zealand city that Dürer made especially to see the multi-panel shows the great recognition and fame of the artwork and of the artist. Karel van Mander also writes about the work: "Among his very many works his [Gossaert] most important and famous was the high altarpiece in Middelburg/ a very large piece with double shutters which, when opened, one had to support with trestles on account of their size..." Given that Dürer saw the multi-panel in 1520, it must have been painted before that time. The altarpiece went lost during a fire that broke out in 1568.
On behalf of Gossaert, Gerrit Geldenhouwer inquires after Frans Cranevelt about a formula for making an acid with which copper plates could be etched. Probably influenced by the visit of Albrecht Dürer to the Low Countries, Gossaert experiments with etchings and the art of prints. By his hand, there are still four or five prints and five prints known after his design. The still-known prints that are attributed to Gossaert with certainty are made with iron rather than copper plates.
Gossaert works for Margaret of Austria. He restores various paintings. In this period he stays with the sculptor Conrad Meit, the court artist of Margaret of Austria and lives in Mechelen. Meit had a great influence on Gossaert's portrait art.
From this period come the many presentations of Madonna and Child. From these same compositions there are various versions known.
Philip of Burgundy dies. Gossaert thus loses his most important patron. In the period that Gossaert was in the service of the bishop he becomes very famous according to Van Mander. The artist continues to receive many commissions from high-ranking figures, such as, inter alia, by Adolf of Burgundy, King Christian II of Denmark, Henry III of Nassau and his wife Mencía de Mendoza. For Adolf of Burgundy he paints the portrait of his wife Anna van Bergen as Mary with her son on her arm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Lucas van Leyden visits Gossaert in Middelburg. Together they visit Mechelen, Ghent and Antwerp.
Gossaert paints Danaë (Alte Pinakothek, Munich; dated and signed IOANNES MALBODIVS PINGEBAT 1527). This is the only mythological work that Gossaert made after the death of Philip of Burgundy.
From the same period come different works of art with the same composition, which brings to light an interesting aspect of Gossaert's oeuvre. With the exception of the two pupils who had studied with "Jennyn van Henegouwe" in Antwerp and Jan van Scorel, who according to Van Mander remained for a brief time with Gossaert, there are no extant documents that clearly indicate whether the artist had a fixed workplace. On the basis of the various versions of the same composition, many authors have come to the conclusion that the artist must have had a workplace in this last period of his life. The large difference in quality and likewise differences in composition, however, seem to indicate that these copies were not made under Gossaert's supervision.
From 1530 until his death Gossaert receives a quarterly subsidy from the marquise Mencía de Mendoza. It is exceptional that an artist received such an annual stipend.
The most recent work that has survived is Madonna and Child in Landscape (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio). It is dated 1531.
Jan Gossaert dies between 12 September and 13 October 1532. This can be deduced from documents in which Mencía de Mendoza paid out a portion of his annual stipend.
Already in the 16th Century, Gossaert was recorded by various authors in their writings (Dominicus Lampsonius, Lodovico Giucciardini, Giorgio Vasari, Marcus van Vaernewijck and Johannes Molanus). All of them assert that the artist brought the Renaissance to the Low Countries and mention his great notoriety.
Anne van Oosterwijk