MANCHESTER, N.H. — Not much is known about Jan Gossaert, or about the subject of this painting —
except that they may well be one and the same. The not knowing is fine by me. Gossaert’s painting, which hangs in the permanent collection of the Currier Museum of Art, is so good that, in front of it, all the questions that traditionally animate portrait-fanciers — Does he resemble his father? Was his second cousin the king’s concubine? Did he inherit his grandfather’s gout? — simply fall away.
What an electrifying presence! With what haunting precision this small portrait expresses the urgency and pathos of being alive! How succinctly it conveys the silent, simmering anguish of knowing that we can never overcome our shared — and yet still acutely solitary — predicament: the insult of mortality. And with what dignity, what unlikely endurance, it meets us, 500 years after it was created.
I may be overreacting. But you only have to look at this man’s gaunt, bearded face, his quietly beseeching hand, the concerned, concentrated, slightly hurt look in his eyes — like a dog denied access inside, or an unjustly scolded child — to sense yourself in the presence of an image that has what I think of as “soul-stickiness” (my clumsy formulation). But something about the picture, for all its smooth and delicate detail, is gritty and adhesive, not frictionless. Not digital.
Gossaert, who was also known as Mabuse, after the town in the Flemish Lowlands he was from (Maubeuge), was born in about 1478 and died in 1532. He was a prolific artist, who worked for members of the Burgundian court over three decades. He became known for his sensuous, smooth-skinned nudes and striking portraits and religious pictures. (There are terrific paintings by him in the Museum of Fine Arts and the Worcester Art Museum).
From about 1508, he was in the service of Philip the Good’s illegitimate son, known as Philip the Bastard of Burgundy and Admiral of the Sea. This Philip, who took a keen interest in art, was sent as ambassador to Pope Julius II, and seems to have taken Gossaert with him.
Entranced by what he saw (the Italian Renaissance just clicking into high gear), Gossaert brought Italianate styles back to the north, in some ways diluting the idiosyncrasies of Northern European painting, but in other ways adding to its fascinations.
In this portrait, what’s striking is not only the intense realism of the man’s face, but the vivid contrast created by his rich red hat against the green background. The shadow cast by the hat helps clarify the space he occupies, enhancing the picture’s realism, tethering it in time.
Shadows, of course, are transient, just like living beings; but how incredible that this shadow, and the smaller ones that play across his face, have endured so long.