Jan Gossaert, An Elderly Couple, about 1520. National Gallery, London.
Today’s painting is one that I have loved for years, but rarely get to speak about, so it was a great pleasure to see it in the National Gallery’s exhibition The Ugly Duchess, about which I will be talking this Monday, 17 April at 6pm. The subtitle of the exhibition is Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, and the couple we will be looking at are not exactly beautiful, but neither is the painting in any way satirical – even if we could approach it with a subtle sense of humour. This begs the question, ‘why is it included?’ Well, you’ll either have to go to the Gallery, or come along on Monday to find out (although there are hints below)! The phrase ‘small, but perfectly formed’ could have been coined for this exhibition. Every work plays a vital role, the ideas are expressed clearly and succinctly, and there is no padding with irrelevant art: a lecturer’s dream. In subsequent weeks I will give a mini-history of early modernism, with an Impressionist (Berthe Morisot in Dulwich), some Post-Impressionists (After Impressionism at the National Gallery), and, following on from the last works exhibited in the latter, abstraction (Piet Mondrian and Hilma af Klint at Tate Modern) – details via these links, and on the diary, of course.
So what is it I like about this painting? Its directness and apparent honest, the precision of depiction, and the wealth of telling details. A brilliance of technique, inevitably, with exact descriptions of texture and form, resulting from a masterful disposition of light and shade, a superb control of colour, and a penetrating analysis of character. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of this is an accurate portrayal, as we don’t even know who this couple were, let alone if they looked – or behaved – anything like they appear to. But Jan Gossaert, that great and still neglected master of early 16th Century Netherlandish painting, convinces us that they did. I for one certainly believe him, and believe in this grumpy elderly man – soberly, but wealthily dressed – and his plain and respectful (if not entirely submissive) wife.
There is no flattery here, I think, nor is it caricature, but a direct and uncompromising description of an aging face. The determined closure of the mouth, with bottom lip projecting and upper curling in suggests that many, if not all of the teeth have gone. There are wrinkles, if not large bags, under the hollowed eyes, thoughtful lines between the brows, and slightly sagging jowls. He’s not in a bad shape, for what we might presume to be his age, but there is no vanity here – he hasn’t even bothered to shave for his portrait. The stubble is grizzled, and the hair grey. Strands have fallen out: one hangs down the left side of the neck while a second curls over the fur collar. These details alone put the portrait high in my ranking. Although the act of being portrayed implies a certain regard for posterity, we, the viewers, are not especially important to the sitter: he does not match our gaze, but looks upwards, to the right, as if there is still more to be achieved in what remains of his life.
His achievements so far? It’s hard to say, but a certain wealth. The thick fur collar, which he grasps as if to bring it to our attention, must have cost a fair penny. The subtly decorated walking stick, with its carefully depicted, finely-etched silver top, presumably didn’t come cheap either. But there is no excessive adornment: no rings on the fingers, for example, which are clean, with neatly cut nails, and which are beautifully articulated. Each one is different – look at the phenomenal care with which Gossaert has traced the fall of light and shade on every joint, defining every knuckle and arthritic swelling.
The artist’s skill at the depiction of light is also evident in the portrayal of the wife, notably in the shadow cast across her forehead by her plain white headdress. This nevertheless allows the definition of her right eye socket (on our left) thanks to a small passage of apparently reflected light which traces its outline. Her eyes are downcast, looking to our left, and her slightly protruding lips show that, unlike her husband, she still has her teeth. Her simple jacket has a thin fur lining, and is modestly clasped over her chest (certainly in comparison with The Ugly Duchess, as we shall see on Monday) over a simple white chemise. There is apparently no adornment at all, although her headdress was originally pinned in place by two gold pins. Sadly these were covered many years ago – for no apparent reason – by an unknown picture restorer. The headdress disappears behind the husband’s left shoulder: she is slightly behind him, as she has been for many years, one assumes.
The merciless depiction of the couple’s age is only heightened if we look at the one prominent piece of elaboration in the entire painting: the man’s hat badge.
It depicts a naked couple – man and woman – who gaze into each other’s eyes. The man’s arm appears to be around the woman’s shoulders, and they walk along together, almost as if in a dance. Their show of unity, and their physical form – however sketchily rendered on this tiny scale – couldn’t be a stronger contrast to the Elderly Couple, helping to make the painting as a whole a striking portrayal of the passage of time, if not exactly a memento mori. The naked man holds a staff, and the woman a cornucopia – a horn of plenty. It is not entirely clear who they are, but they could be Mars and Venus, gods of War and Love respectively, which would cast a whole new light on the aging man and woman. Alternately, they could be Mercury and Fortuna, ‘the gods of trade and prosperity’ (I am quoting from Lorne Campbell’s exemplary catalogue of Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings in the National Gallery – the entry for this painting is online, if you click on that link). The latter seems more likely to me, as the man was clearly enriched by trade, but does not appear to be blasé about his good luck. Evoking Mercury and Fortuna would seem entirely appropriate. It implies that the man’s prosperity is not only the result of a successful business strategy, but also reliant on good fortune – which he is not about to risk with an unnecessary display of finery.
All in all the couple behave as they should, and certainly in compliance with all the gender stereotypes of the era. The man is at the front, in charge, and looking up and out towards whatever the future has to offer. By means of contrast, the woman is in his shadow (even if her white headdress makes her presence clear), just behind his shoulder, and looking modestly down. They may not appear to communicate, but there is some sense that they are part of a shared enterprise. And they know their place. In the UK we drive on the left side of the road. Back in the day, it would have been the man who drove, with his fair lady in the passenger seat to his left. Why should this be? Well, everyone was, or was supposed to be, right handed, and with the gentleman to his lady’s right, it meant that he could easily draw his sword and defend her. Not the usual response to road rage, I know, but that is where the relative positions in a car come from. Or for that matter, from the Last Judgement (see Giotto’s version, for example, in Day 38 – Enrico Scrovegni). The blessed are at Christ’s right hand, the damned at his left: the ‘right’ is the better place to be, and so it is the perfect position for the man. Looked at from our point of view – as if looking through the windscreen of a car – that means that the man should be on the left and the woman on the right, just as they are. The man is in the driving seat in this painting. As I said above, they know their place – unlike The Ugly Duchess. But more about that, as I’ve also said before, on Monday.