Portrait is an original Gossart

Restoration has revealed that Portrait of a Man, a painting in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) that had previously been attributed to a follower of Jan Gossart, is in fact by the Flemish Master himself. Portrait of a Man has been in the Royal Museum collection since 1841. It was bequeathed to the museum by Florent van Ertborn, alongside work by, among others, Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and Jean Fouquet.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recently requested a loan of Portrait of a Man for the exhibition Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance. (It ran from 6 October to 17 January 2011 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The show subsequently travelled to the National Gallery in London)

The panel was however in a very poor condition. The original was barely visible through the thick layers of yellowed varnish, discoloured retouches and overpainted background. Maryan Ainsworth, curator of the forthcoming exhibition, however, felt strongly that the typical characteristics of Gossart's handling and execution could be identified there. She suggested that the picture be cleaned and restored. Because of other priorities and scheduling difficulties at the KMSKA, the staff suggested that the picture be treated at the Metropolitan Museum. The result of the treatment by associate conservator Karen Thomas is quite amazing. Cleaning has brought out the original colours, contrasts and plasticity of the painting. Now that the quality of the portrait is fully apparent, Ainsworth, a Gossart expert, has been able to confirm that the work is by the Master himself. The portrait from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp adorned the streets of New York as part of the campaign for the exhibition.

The portrait is oil on arched panel and measures 61 by 45 cm (24 x 18 in.). It represents the bust of an unknown man turned three-quarters to the left. He is dressed in the fashion of the early 16th century: black hat, loose-fitting white shirt and golden yellow tunic under a black cloak. On the basis of the coat of arms on the right, the figure was for a long time believed to be Frank van Borselen, the fourth husband of Jacqueline of Bavaria. However, this identification is incorrect, because the coat of arms was a later addition to the painting. After cleaning, it had become particularly obtrusive. As it was poorly painted and deemed to detract from the spatial quality of the composition, it was decided in consultation that it should be overpainted. This way, it has been preserved as a historical document, but without interfering with the portrait's monumental and spatial illusion.

Jan Gossart was a pivotal figure between the late mediaeval tradition of Jan van Eyck and the Baroque art of Peter Paul Rubens. He was the first artist in the Low Countries to depict erotic nudes in historical and mythological scenes. Gossart, called Mabuse after his city of birth Maubeuge in the County of Hainaut, was born around 1478. In 1508 he became one of the first artists to travel to Rome to study painting and the antiques. Upon his return the following year, he introduced the Italian Renaissance to the Netherlands. Unlike the Antwerp mannerists, he went beyond adopting its ornamental motifs and actually understood the Renaissance "spirit".