second half of the 15th century Low Countries
silverpoint sketch by Gerard David
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Gerard David (c. 1460 – 13 August 1523) was an Early Netherlandish painter and manuscript illuminator known for his brilliant use of color. Only a bare outline of his life survives, although some facts are known. He may have been the Meester gheraet van brugghe who became a master of the Antwerp guild in 1515. He was very successful in his lifetime and probably ran two workshops, in Antwerp and Bruges. Like many painters of his period, his reputation diminished in the 17th century until he was rediscovered in the 19th century.
David’s surviving work mainly consists of religious scenes. They are characterised by an atmospheric, timeless, and almost dream like serenity, achieved through soft, warm and subtle colourisation, and masterful handling of light and shadow. He is innovative in his recasting of traditional themes and in his approach to landscape, which was then only an emerging genre in northern European painting. His ability with landscape can be seen in the detailed foliage of his Triptych of the Baptism and the forest scene in the New York Nativity.
Although many of the art historians of the early 20th century, including Erwin Panofsky and Max Jakob Friedländer saw him as a painter who did little but distill the style of others and painted in an archaic and unimaginative style. However today most view him as a master colourist, and a painter who according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked in a “progressive, even enterprising, mode, casting off his late medieval heritage and proceeding with a certain purity of vision in an age of transition.”
In his early work David followed Haarlem artists such as Dirk Bouts, Albert van Oudewater and Geertgen tot Sint Jans, though he had already given evidence of superior power as a colourist. To this early period belong the St John of the Richard von Kaufmann collection in Berlin and the Salting’s St Jerome. In Bruges came directly under the influence of Memling, the master whom he followed most closely. It was from him that David acquired a solemnity of treatment, greater realism in the rendering of human form, and an orderly arrangement of figures.
He visited Antwerp in 1515 and was impressed with the work of Quentin Matsys, who had introduced a greater vitality and intimacy in the conception of sacred themes.