Gossaert, JAN, called MABUSE from Maubeuge in Hainaut; Flemish painter; b. about 1472; d. at Middelburg about 1533. Nothing is known of him till after the age of thirty. In 1508 he went to Rome with the embassy of Philip of Burgundy, Admiral of Holland and Abbot of Middelburg, sent to Julius II by the Archduchess Marguerite. The visit occupied a year. On his return, Mabuse remained in the service of Philip, who had become Bishop of Utrecht. Perhaps he also accompanied him to Copenhagen (1515). This prince was a collector, a lover of the beautiful, especially of elegant villas, fountains, and ornamental waterspouts. After his death in 1524 Mabuse entered the service of Adolphus of Burgundy, Marquess of Veere. He lived at his court, sharing his friendship and that of Christian of Denmark, a prisoner of the Archduchess, always enjoying the liberality and goodwill of the great, and leading the free life of the artists of the country from Van Eyck to Van Dyck. The tales of Van Mander dealing with his manners and pranks must be regarded as trivial gossip. He had married Marguerite de Molenaer, by whom he had two children, Pierre, who was a painter like his father, and Gertrude, who married the painter, Henri van der Heyden.
The career of Mabuse is divided into two distinct periods by his visit to Rome. During the first period he is merely a noteworthy painter of the school of Memling and Gheeraert David. Good examples of this style are the panels of Antwerp, the “Holy Women returning from the Sepulchre”, and the picture, incorrectly called “The Honest Judges“, which represents the centurion and his escort descending from Calvary. These are beyond doubt the two wings of a lost “Crucifixion”. The execution is bold, the painting compact and smooth, but the faces are wooden and slightly grimacing, the emotional portrayal being weak. What is most striking is the power of touch, the carving of the faces as with a chisel, the almost sculptural effect. They recall those clumsy Gothic groups of painted wood, so popular in the countries of the North during the fifteenth century. At Rome, on the contrary, he formed an entirely different conception of beauty, or rather he obtained an insight into absolute beauty. The revelation did not come to him through modern artists. In 1509 not one of the great works of Michael Angelo or Raphael was yet completed. But all Italy was filled with enthusiasm for the monuments of antiquity. Mabuse devoted his whole sojourn to studying and copying for Philip of Burgundy the ruins of Rome. The first result of this journey was a change in his decorative scheme, to which we owe the architectural backgrounds, the colonnades, the palaces, the visions of a world of marble with magnificent pediments, which raise their noble outlines in his pictures. It is plain that all this archaeology is quite destitute of scientific value. It is nevertheless of extreme importance, since it was by no mere chance that the great beginners of the Renaissance movement—Brunellesco, Alberti, and Bramante—were architects. It was through them that the world of Vitruvius dethroned the Gothic world. With architecture the whole system of the arts altered its principles, and was reorganized on a rational basis and a monumental scale.
This revolution is readily apparent in the works, of Mabuse. Statures grow taller, forms expand to preserve their proportion with the heroic scale of the decorative scheme; the nude banishes the flowing draperies; color becomes thin; edges begin to merge into less rigid lines; the palette fades and assumes the cold tones of fresco. Mabuse’s chief work, the triptych of the “Descent from the Cross” in the church of the Premonstratensians at Middelburg, which Darer admired in December, 1520, was unfortunately burned in 1568. But the triptych of Prague, “St. Luke painting the Blessed Virgin” (1515), and above all the “Adoration of the Magi” of Howard Castle (Earl of Carlisle), with its twenty figures of life size, its animation, its breadth of conception, its vibrating life, enable us to understand the emotion produced in the Flemish school by such original conceptions. It was in fact the grand historical style of painting that Mabuse brought to his countrymen. As a decorator and as author of cartoons for tapestry (“Legend of Herkenbald”, Brussels) he retains, nevertheless, mingled with the taste of the Renaissance something of the flamboyant imagination displayed in the cathedral of Brou. He seems less happy in his easel pictures, above all in the treatment of mythological subjects, which he was the first to treat and to spread throughout the North. His “Amphitrite” at Berlin (1516), his “Danae” at Munich (1527), his “Lucretia” at the Colonna Gallery are paintings at once awkward and affected, unnatural, almost ridiculous. All the splendid sentiment of paganism escapes him. Yet it was this portion of his work which most impressed his contemporaries, and Guichard, as well as Van Mander, lauds him as the first to emancipate Flemish art from theology and transport it to the wholly natural sphere of humanism.
Finally, Mabuse was a portraitist of considerable importance. The “Children of Christian of Denmark” at Hampton Court, the “Carondelet” at the Louvre (1517), and the “Monk” at the same museum, are pieces of a vigor that has never been surpassed. The outline of the model here attains a relief comparable to high relief. The painting is in a silver tone, thin, almost without shadows. The design is less incisive but quite as accurate as that of Holbein. The “Virgins” of Mabuse are also portraits; the best, those of the Louvre and of Douai, already portray the beautiful Flemish type, the fleshy oval, the transparency of the skin, which subsequently constitute the uniform grace of the Madonnas of Rubens. The spiritual beauty of Memling is absent; the charm is that of a beautiful woman. The nimbus has lost its significance; the ideal nature is expressed only by a sweeter model and a more resplendent light. Mabuse’s historical importance is very great. Although he trained no pupils, his influence was felt by all. At Flanders he pointed out the way of the future, the path of the Renaissance. He had the good fortune to be the first-comer, and to be preserved from the excesses of unintelligent and ridiculous imitation into which his successors fell, e.g. the Heemskirks, the Floris, and Martin de Vos. What he most lacked was feeling, true inspiration. He falls far below the exquisite poetry of Massys, but he realized much more clearly the trend of art. If his master-piece, the picture at Howard Castle, were not almost inaccessible to the general public, it would be seen that Rubens, throughout the sixteenth century, had no greater precursor in his country.