There is one image — and only one — that remains with me after looking carefully at the Jan Gossaert exhibition at the Met two days ago. A portrait of an elderly couple. Why has this one painting completely overwhelmed all the others by Gossaert and his contemporaries?
There are several reasons that come to mind almost immediately. Some point to the anomalous character of the composition and subject matter. An Elderly Couple is the only double portrait in the show and the only known double portrait by Gossaert. Why are these two — man and woman — pictured together? Are they husband and wife? I assume they are. It seems somehow self-evident.
But here’s another reason for my fascination. The identity of the sitters has never been established. No one knows who they are or why Gossaert painted them.
These facts alone would not add up to much, I suspect, if it were not also the case that the artist has taken such extraordinary care with every aspect of composition and detail. Not in a showy or self-aggrandizing way, but rather with the utmost sensitivity, warmth, love, and respect for the man and woman memorialized in this particular painting.
What we see are two older people dressed nicely, in ordinary clothes, but likely their best.* There is something “common” about them, about their intimate presence to the viewer. They occupy the foreground. There is nothing else in the picture — nothing between them and us. No distance. No assertion. No confrontation. The man, his lips tightly pursed, looks upward to his left. The woman, pale grey but with a quiet determination and beauty, looks downward to her right. The man clutches his long fur collar and holds firmly the top of his walking stick.
There is a badge on the front of his hat on which we can barely make out the image of a young couple, nude, with a cornucopia. On the fur collar and the straps hanging loosely from his hat you see several strands of grey hair fallen from his head. At first this struck me as a slightly excessive display of virtuosity. Too clever, but easily forgiven, I thought. But now, looking at these loose strands, they take on a subtle vanitas quality, playing off the vitality of the youthful couple displayed on the hat.
Gossaert has lavished the rendering of the elderly couple with a kind of longing and poignant skill. The large room at the Met is filled with other portraits by Gossaert of the powerful, influential, and wealthy. Some are painted intelligently and with great facility. Others are done well enough, but clearly uninspired. In this large group, among the northern european elite of the sixteenth century, the elderly couple stands out — shines. These two individuals and their image come from another place.
*In Lorne Campbell’s essay on the NGA website, he points out that the man’s clothing suggests wealth. “His silver-topped staff and his fur-lined purple gown show that he is prosperous. The cap, with its two trailing ribbons, is of a type found fairly frequently in North Netherlandish portraits; it was perhaps a North Netherlandish fashion to wear such hats, which might conceivably have come to denote a certain status.” [tq, 3 Aug 13.]