Gerard David was a manuscript illuminator and a painter from the Early Netherlandish art scene, best known for his vibrant use of colour and his narrative style. Not much is known about the artist, and, although he was belittled by art critics and historians, after his reputation faded in the 17th century, new light has been shunned about his innovative works during that period, when rediscovered in the 19th century.
Gérard David is now seen as one of the most innovative artists, after Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), showing a keen interest for the brilliance of oil paint and the storytelling from Italians. He, along with others, worked in a period of transition between Medieval times and the Northern Renaissance. He took as much from the first Netherlandish masters, as he took from Italian Renaissance.
While during David’s life, Bruges was in the center of European trade of luxurious items, which greatly benefited from its close economic relationship with Italy, Genoa in particular. Italian merchants who lived in the city commissioned many paintings from Netherlandish artists, especially altarpieces. Bruges saw an overwhelming search for painting commissions from all over the world, the key factor for the diffusion of Flemish art in every continent. However, by the time of David’s death, Bruges popularity had declined, and Antwerp was then the new political and commercial center.
North Renaissance: It was established by the development of oil paint, linear and aerial perspectives (already in use before reaching Italy), the opulence of draperies, landscapes and richness of color, the portrayal of religious subjects with earthly and hard-edge precision contributed to the reinvigorated art form. Its unsettling dispassionate directness, conveyed in its figures, is also very different from Italian Renaissance.
There is not much documentation about the artists, other than the artist’s commissions, making most of the details from his early life a result of speculation. However, it is known that Gerard David was born in a province called Oudewater, in today’s Utrecht. It is believed David may have been born between 1450 and 1460, a claim that is based on the artist’s self-portrait in Virgin among the Virgins (c. 1509), where he appears to be around fifty years old. The first time he was mentioned in documentation, was in 1484, when he was admitted in the Corporation of Imagemakers and Saddlers as a free master, in Bruges. Some evidence suggests that he previously spent some time in Haarlem, where he trained under Albert va Outwater (1444-1475), and Leuven, in the workshop of Dieric Bouts (1415-1475). This can be tracked down by visible influence of Bouts and other Haarlem painters on the composition of the Nativity(1480s). It is also believed that David travelled to Italy too, between 1470 and 1480, where he assimilated characteristics from the Italian Renaissance. He would move to Bruges in 1483, and joined the Guild of Saint Luke the next year. Ten years later he became the leading painter in Bruges after the death of Hans Memling (1430-1494). In 1496 the artist married Cornelia Cnoop (1450-15th/16th century) – the daughter of the goldsmith’s guild’s dean – and became the guild’s dean in 1501.
Self Portrait and Portrait of Cornelia Cnoop – details of Virgin among the Virgins (c. 1509).
By 1506, David was a very prestigious artist at the pinnacle of his career. That year he received an altarpiece commission for the abbey church of San Girolamo della Cervara, in Linguria, The Cervara Altarpiece. This polyptych encompassed seven paintings, including The Annunciation panels, and it is known as one of the largest pieces of Netherlandish art, making it one of David’s most successful works. From that point on, the artist received many commissions. There is also reason to believe that David may have been the Meester Gheeraert van Brugghe, the artist who joined the Antwerp guild as a master in 1515. With this action, he was able to expand the selling of his works, while remaining in Bruges for the rest of his life. Around 1519, David ran into a disagreement with one of his apprentices, Ambrosius Benson (1495-1550), over paintings and drawings the artist held as payment for Benson’s debt towards him, ending in the incarceration of the artist, after the case was brought to court. David had many Italian patrons, such as Vincenzo Sauli, banker and diplomat, and died on 13 August 1523, having been buried in the Church of Our Lady at Bruges.
Reconstruction of the Cervara Altarpiece (c. 1506).
David started his career under the apprenticeship of Dieric Bouts, Albert van Oudewater, and Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1465-1495), artists who had a great impact on his style. However, he took his art a step further and showed great skill at employing brilliant colours. The artist’s early works combine both northern and southern Netherlandish styles. There is evidence that he worked as a panel painter as well as a manuscript illuminator as well, at the early stages of his career. The execution of the Holy Face panel (c. 1485-1490) and his contributions to the Breviary of Isabella of Castille, for example the Nativity (c. 1497), are proof of that. David became not only a leading painter during the height of his career, he was also very sought after for his mastery at manuscript illumination, having painted many important miniatures such as theVirgin and Child on a Crescent Moon (c. 1497), in the Rothschild Prayerbook.
Holy Face (c. 1485-1490).
Nativity, in the Breviary of Isabella of Castille (c. 1497)
When in Bruges, he followed the work of Hans Memling, an artist he admired and posed a big influence on him. David learned how to portray human form more realistically and naturally, with a touch of dignity and elegance in the way he arranged his figures. It is believed that Memling was the one that steered David into acquiring this more polished style, along with the elegance of the city. His figure became more serene, in delicate poses, with gentle gestures and soft expressions. These changes can be seen in panels such as Saint John the Baptist; Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1485-1490) and in the Crucifixion (c. 1495). By this point, David also starts to pay more attention to detail, and especially nature. His landscapes became more intricate, with foliage full of detail, landscapes he carefully matched according to the scene illustrated. Many of his drawings have also survived, drawings whose elements have been copied into known works from illuminators and painters many years after his death.
Saint John the Baptist; Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1485-1490).
Crucifixion (c. 1495).
Recto: Studies of ten heads and two ears (c. 1498) | Study of heads (c. 1505-1510).
In 1515, the artist traveled to Antwerp, where he saw the work of Quentin Matsys (1466-1530), and was fascinated by the intimacy and vivacity of the religious subjects. Both artists proved to be essential in conserving the Northern tradition against the Southern Europe’s Renaissance tendencies. Expanding his business to Antwerp and as the leading artist in Bruges, David was flooded with commissions. In order to support that large demand, David started streamlining his works, and applying subtle adjustments in the painting themes, to fit the changing tastes of his clients.The paintings which showcase the artist’s style most significantly: the The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (c. 1505-1510), the Annunciation (1506); and above all, the Madonna with Angels and Saints, most commonly known as The Virgin among the Virgins (c. 1509) – all painted before he visited Antwerp. The impact of that city’s style would only be visible by the end of David’s life, in panels such as the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1520), a subject very popular at the new economic European hub, showing the exoticism of the luxurious fabrics and other items.
The artist known works depict sacred themes, in its majority, marked by a distinctive ethereal and timeless serene atmosphere. David carried this feeling in his paintings through the brilliant knowledge of light and colour – an understanding of the subtleties of colour, light and dark. He achieved a tangible level of realism in his altarpieces and portraits, showing a precision in detailing objects and faces, presented in a modest and solemn manner, with the most subtle of expressions. And went a step further with his treatment of the landscape, showing the intricate detailing of each tree, of each of its leaves, the precision in the buildings perspective, and overall construction of the backgrounds, showcased in Nativity (1480s), Baptism (c. 1502-1508) and Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (c. 1505-1510). Furthermore, his open and relaxed landscapes always communicate a feeling of calm, poise and harmony with nature and God.
Detail from Nativity (1480s) | Detail from Baptism of Christ (1502-1508).
Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard (c. 1505-1510).
Even though his works possess great detail, they often lack anatomical accuracy of certain parts of the body. However, he more than compensates that through his application of rich and subtle colors, delicately combined together, also present in his exquisite illuminations. David’s ambitious projects led him to experiment with new forms of expression and style, which he discovered on his travels. His style of painting shows a distinctive influence of Bouts, particularly from the 1480s forward, and the chiaroscuro technique, along with the storytelling side of Italian style, from his visits to Liguria and Lombardy. Examples of this are: Virgin and Child with Four Angels (c. 1505-1510) and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (16th century) – a work that shows David’s innovative take on the subject, portraying the Virgin as a human being, instead of an icon. This made him one of the forerunners in Antwerp (even when he worked from Bruges).
Virgin and Child on a Crescent Moon, in the Rothschild Prayerbook (c. 1500-1520).
The artist was greatly influenced by the realism of Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464), by Dieric Bouts (1415-1475) and by the Italian Renaissance. These are reflected in David’s mature style, in the intense expression of emotion, through symbolic gestures and the dignifying treatment of the figures, also influenced by the general feel of the city of Bruges and its most prominent painters. His style is well marked by Dieric Bouts and Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1460-1490) influence, something clear in one of his many nativity scenes and portrayal of saints, where the doll-like figures pay close resemblance to Bouts treatment of human form. The refined style of Hans Memling (1430-1494) is believed to have had a big impact on David’s way of painting, having converted to more elegant composition, upon his arrival at Bruges. He also referenced the Italian style in his assimilation of the storytelling point of view on painting, and through the use of chiaroscuro. There is also an influence of other of his contemporaries. One specific case can be clearly seen in his version of the Virgin and Child with Four Angels (c. 1505-1510), which pays a special and astonishing resemblance to the one from Master of the André Virgin, created a few years earlier, a work that seems to be inspired in Petrus Cristus(1410-1475) version.
Saint John the Baptist (c. 1470) by Dieric Bouts | Saint John the Baptist (c. 1485-1490) by Gerard David.
Sacra Conversazione with Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Catherine of Alexandria, and Barbara (1479) by Hans Memling | The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine or The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (1505-1510) by Gerard David.
Virgin and Child under an Arch (c. 1450-1455) by Petrus Christus | Virgin and Child with Four Angels (c. 1500) by Master of the André Virgin | Virgin and Child with Four Angels (c. 1505-1510) by Gerard David.
Even though Gerard David was previously considered to be mediocre painter with an archaic style, nowadays, he is seen a master colourist, considered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to have a “progressive, even enterprising” style, “ casting off his late medieval heritage and proceeding with a certain purity of vision in an age of transition.” His take on Italian arrangement of the figures, its storytelling, was transposed to the works of his contemporaries, like Quentin Matsys (1466-1530) and Joos van Cleve (1485-1541). Some of his apprentices accomplished great success as well: Albert Cornelis (1475-1532), Adriaen Isenbrandt (1490-1551) and Aambrosius Benson (1495-1550). However, David seems to have influenced other of his contemporaries at some level, artists like Jan Mabuse (1478-1532) and Joachim Patinir (1480-1524). Now, considered to be the last great Netherlandish painter of the Early Northern Renaissance, his work marks the evolution of devotional practices and the transformation of taste in clients in the Netherlands. His great progressive tendencies and reformed landscape painting, set his style apart from others and set the pace for Netherlandish future generations.
Crucifixion (c. 1495) by Gerard David | The Crucifixion (after 1515) by the Workshop of Quentin Matsys.
Among all the works David has produced, very few remain in Bruges: The Judgment of Cambyses (1498), The Flaying of Sisamnes (1498) and the Baptism of Christ (c. 1502-1508) in the Groeningemuseum, and the Transfiguration (1520) in the Church of Our Lady. The rest are scattered around the world, including the United States, Italy, France and Portugal.
Artist: Gérard David Title: Crucifixion Date: c. 1495 Medium: Oil on wood Size: 52.5 x 37.5 cm Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Saint John the Baptist; Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata Date: c. 1485–1490 Medium: Oil on wood Size: 45.7 x 16.8 cm (left), 45.4 x 16.5 cm (right) Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Holy Face Date: c. 1485–1490 Medium: Tempera and gold leaf on parchment that has been trimmed and laid down on thin walnut Size: 9 x 5.4 cm Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Nativity Date: 1480s Medium: Oil on wood Size: 47 x 34 cm Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Triptych of the Descent from the Cross Date: 1518-1523 Medium: Oil on oak panels Size: 204 x 125 (width of the wings: 55 cm) Location: Museu de Arte Sacra do Funchal, Portugal
Artist: Gérard David Title: Virgin and Child with Four Angels Date: 1510-1515 Medium: Oil on panel Size: 63.2 x 39.1 cm Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Virgin and Child on a Crescent Moon (from the Rothschild Prayerbook) Date: c. 1500-1520 Medium: Illumination Size: 228 x 160 cm (overall – manuscript) Location: Christie’s, New York
Artist: Gérard David Title: The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard Date: c. 1510–1515 Medium: Oil on canvas, transferred from wood Size: 90.2 x 31.4 cm Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Adoration of the Magi Date: c. 1520 Medium: Oil on wood Size: 69.2 x 72.1 cm Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: Virgin among the Virgins Date: 1500s Medium: Oil on panel Size: 118 x 212 cm Location: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, Rouen, France
Artist: Gérard David Title: Study of heads Date: c. 1505-1510 Medium: Silverpoint on paper Size: 9.4 × 9.7 cm Location: Czartoryski Museum, Kraków
Artist: Gérard David Title: Studies of ten (?) heads and two ears (recto) Date: c. 1498 Medium: Metalpoint on prepared paper Size: 13.3 x 9.5 cm Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Artist: Gérard David Title: Studies of three figures and a head (verso) Date: c. 1498 Medium: Black chalk on paper Size: 13.3 x 9.5 cm Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Artist: Gérard David Title: Nativity, in the “Breviary of Isabella of Castille” Date: c. 1497 Medium: Illumination Size: 81 x 58 cm Location: British Museum, London
Artist: Gérard David Title: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt Date: 16th century Medium: Oil on panel Size: 81 x 58 cm Location: Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium
Artist: Gérard David Title: Annunciation, from the Cervara Altarpiece Date: 1506 Medium: Oil on wood (2 pannels) Size: 79.1 x 63.5 cm (Angel); 79.1 x 64.1 cm (Virgin) Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
Artist: Gérard David Title: The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor Date: 1505-1510 Medium: Oil on panel Size: 81 x 58 cm Location: National Gallery, London