Jan Gossart, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Jan Gossart (1478-1532) straddled the medieval world and the Renaissance, segueing comfortably between spirituality and humanism according to the demands of his patrons. He conflated Christian reverence with pagan references, depicting Adam and Eve in the manner of Venus and Mars. A single altarpiece contains gothic and classical extremes: the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin beneath the diaphanous tracery of a flamboyant arch on an outer panel. Inside, John the Baptist poses beneath barrel vaults modelled on the antique.

Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance, at the Metropolitan Museum, proffers the painter’s genius in all its protean glory. This first American survey devoted to Gossart has corralled 50 of his 63 extant panels, many spruced up for the occasion. There are prints and drawings too, along with works by forerunners and contemporaries – some excellent, some merely mediocre. It’s a supremely scholarly exhibition, teeming with compare-and-contrast exegeses and falling intermittently into dullness. But it also successfully pleads the case of an odd, underrated luminary who linked the ethereal grace of Van Eyck to Rubens’ cascades of flesh.

Gossart’s beginnings are obscure, but he surfaced in Antwerp in the 1490s painting in a late medieval style that brimmed with filigreed architecture, labyrinthine draperies and crowds of elaborately outfitted figures. It was an intricate, even fussy fashion, which Gossart soon abandoned. In 1508, he accompanied Philip of Burgundy on a diplomatic mission to Rome, and beheld antique monuments that were just finding their way out of the ground. The physicality of the ancient world came as a revelation, and Gossart avidly sketched what he saw.

A remarkable sheet of drawings records his obsessions: two unmatched Roman sandals copied from colossal statues, a fancifully decorated helmet, a couple of lion heads and, in the centre, a drawing of the “Spinario”, the celebrated Hellenistic bronze of a nude youth removing a thorn from one foot. Cool, white stone takes on the idiosyncrasies of real muscles, tendons and joints, and a sculpted boy becomes astonishingly lifelike. At this critical stage in his career, Gossart figured out how to inflect the classical ideal towards realism without sacrificing plastic heft. He continued to draw inspiration from sculpture and also tried to transcend it by injecting breath, blood and colour.

For his patron Philip of Burgundy, Gossart produced indelible blendings of southern idealism and northern verisimilitude. “Hercules and Deianira” (1517) perch in a marble niche, legs ravelled into an erotic knot. She resembles an animated statue, her marmoreal skin setting off the hero’s sun-darkened limbs. Gossart captures the couple at a felicitous moment in their ill-fated relationship. Hercules has temporarily cast aside his club, and gazes with evident satisfaction into his new wife’s eyes. She sees his ardour and raises it with a trace of tenderness.

Gossart brought the same steamy intensity to Adam and Eve. Their lust preoccupied him, and each time he painted the couple he raised its ferocity to levels that probably shocked his conservative audience. Though he tackled the Fall of Man many times in paint, it’s a drawing from the Chatsworth collection that stands out as his most radical statement. Adam’s features are slack as he rests his head on Eve’s breast, grasping her waist with the limp desperation of a drowning man. His body is knobby and tangled; hers soft and pliant. He submits to sin and wallows in it; she seems oblivious to evil altogether. His lumpy, all-too-human frame epitomises northern realism. Her curvy contrapposto incarnates Latin perfection.

The last and best room of the Met’s show represents the apotheosis of Gossart’s idiosyncratic career. In one poignant double portrait, an “Old Couple” shares a canvas much as they may have shared their life – with ambivalent intimacy. They seem to inhabit separate psychological universes. He is the confident extravert, with a ruddy complexion, upward gaze and resolute mouth. Her papery skin and downcast eyes convey an inward disposition, while the frown-lines around her mouth and between her brows intimate a habitual discontent.

Gossart’s late portraits have the quality of costumed marbles, of three-dimensional figures barely contained within their prison of frame and plane. In a portrait of Anna Van Bergen, the love of unblemished beauty that he acquired in Italy collides vibrantly with his devotion to clear-eyed honesty. The forces of idealisation and literalness resolve, not in the woman’s face, which is plump and vacant, but in her halo of material possessions: downy ermine sleeves, dazzling golden belt and luxuriantly glinting pearls. She may be nothing much to look at, but you shall know her by her stuff.

These tensions make the Met’s exhibition exciting because they show a painter struggling with allegiances to modes of seeing that were not, after all, so mutually exclusive. Gossart surely didn’t think of himself as a transitional figure, but it’s not hard to believe that each time he raised his first brush in the morning, he asked himself what the world was going to look like to him by the end of that day.

‘Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance’, until January 17.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.