An Elderley Couple by Jan Gossaert

An Elderley Couple by Jan Gossaert (C.1520)

Yesterday I told you I had been to London to visit some art galleries and I talked about the Dulwich Picture Gallery.   I also mentioned I had been to the National Gallery to see the Jan Gossaert exhibition.   This was a wonderful exhibition with an exceptional collection of his paintings.  Today and tomorrow I would like to focus on two of the paintings which were on display.

My Daily Art Display today is An Elderley Couple painted by Gossaert circa 1515-1520.  This is an oil on parchment laid down on canvas work.  It is thought that the artist used parchment as this medium is fine and smooth and allows the artist to include fine detailing.  It is the only known double portrait painted by Gossaert.  This painting demonstrates Gossaert’s mature style and combines Italianate fundamentals and Flemish naturalism.  We have before us two people depicted in a bust-length pose against a dark green background.  The light in the painting emanates from the upper left corner and manages to highlight their facial features.   Who are these people?   Nobody seems to have put names to the faces.  By the clothes they wear, we must assume that they are wealthy, not noble but of the merchant-class.  Their heads almost seem too large for their bodies but by doing this Gossaert makes us concentrate on their faces.

Looking at their faces, would you say they looked a happy couple?  I wouldn’t.  To me, they exude more an air of resignation than contentment.   I don’t detect any signs of happiness in their expressions.  I don’t see any suggestion of interaction between the couple.  In many ways it is a sad portrait.  As you look at the couple you hope that your relationship with your partner will not end up like theirs.   The man’s face has an uncompromising look and the woman looks gloomy almost miserable and for my mind exudes an air of acquiescence and subservience which is emphasised by the way she is positioned behind the man.   She seems somewhat downtrodden and I have the feeling that she would walk a few steps behind this man when they were out and about.   Note how her eyes are cast down.  Her mouth curves slightly downwards which gives her the unhappy appearance.   Her white head-dress is reflected on her cheek and chin and casts a shadow across her forehead. 

The man’s face is wrinkled and we can see a  silvery stubble on it.  His neck is scrawny with age and the sinews of the neck seem strained.   His silvery hair rests upon the soft fair of his coat.  The fingers of his left hand are wrapped tightly around the silver top of his cane whilst his left hand grasps the fur collar of his coat.   He wears a black cap, on the front of which is a gold badge with two nude figures and a cornucopia.  The nude couple were probably Mercury, the god of trade and Fortuna the goddess of fortune and prosperity and could be the badge of some merchant society of which the man is a member.  His lips are pressed tightly together.  His face looks sunken.  His skin appears worn and tired.  His cheeks are hollow, which suggests he has lost many of his teeth.  However having noted his physical facial failings, it has to be said that he has a determined look.  I believe he still wields power in his business and probably in his relationship with his wife.

I wonder what the couple made of their portrait.  Have they just accepted that life has almost passed them by or do they believe that they look dignified?   This is almost a vanitas painting in which we are reminded of our own mortality.  Like it or loathe it, if I had been the man in the painting, I don’t think I would have it on prominent display in my house !

Tomorrow I will show you the gem in the Gossaert exhibition which I found totally mesmerising.