Jan Mabuse (c. 1478 – October 1, 1532), the name adopted (from his birthplace, Maubeuge) by the Flemish painter Jan Gossaert, or Jennyn van Hennegouwe (Hainaut), as he called himself when he matriculated in the guild of St Luke, at Antwerp, in 1503.
We know nothing of his early life, but his works tell us that he stood in his first period under the influence of artists to whom plastic models were familiar; and this leads to the belief that he spent his youth on the French border rather than on the banks of the Scheldt. Without the subtlety or power of Van der Weyden, he had this much in common with the great master of Tournai and Brussels, that his compositions were usually framed in architectural backgrounds.
But whilst Mabuse thus early betrays his dependence on the masters of the French frontier, he also confesses admiration for the great painters who first gave lustre to Antwerp; and in the large altar-pieces of Castle Howard and Scawby he combines in a quaint and not unskilful medley the sentiment of Memling, the bright and decided contrasts of pigment peculiar to colored reliefs, the cornered and packed drapery familiar to Van der Weyden, and the bold but Socratic cast of face remarkable in the works of Quentin Matsys. At Scawby he illustrates the legend of the count of Toulouse, who parted with his wordly goods to assume the frock of a hermit.
At Castle Howard he represents the Adoration of the Kings, and throws together some thirty figures on an architectural background, varied in detail, massive in shape and fanciful in ornament. He surprises us by pompous costume and flaring contrasts of tone. His figures, like pieces on a chess-board, are often rigid and conventional. The landscape which shows through the colonnades is adorned with towers and steeples in the minute fashion of Van der Weyden. After a residence of a few years at Antwerp, Mabuse took service with Philip of Burgundy, bastard of Philip the Good, at that time lord of Somerdyk and admiral of Zeeland. One of his pictures had already become celebrated a Descent from the Cross (50 figures), on the high altar of the monastery of St Michael of Tongerloo.
Philip of Burgundy ordered Mabuse to execute a replica for the church of Middelburg; and the value which was then set on the picture is apparent from the fact that Durer came expressly to Middelburg (1521) to see it. In 1568 the altar-piece perished by fire. In 1508 Mabuse accompanied Philip of Burgundy on his Italian mission to the pope. And by this accident an important revolution was effected in the art of the Netherlands. Mabuse appears to have chiefly studied in Italy the cold and polished works of the Leonardesques. He not only brought home a new style, but he also introduced the fashion of travelling to Italy; and from that time till the age of Rubens and Van Dyck it was considered proper that all Flemish painters should visit the peninsula. The Flemings grafted Italian mannerisms on their own stock; and the cross turned out so unfortunately that for a century Flemish art lost all trace of originality.
In the summer of 1509 Philip returned to the Netherlands, and, retiring to his seat of Suytburg in Zeeland, surrendered himself to the pleasures of planning decorations for his castle and ordering pictures of Mabuse and Jacopo de' Barbari. Being in constant communication with the court of Margaret of Austria at Mechelen, he gave the artists in his employ fair chances of promotion. Barbari was made court painter to the regent, whilst Mabuse received less important commissions. Records prove that Mabuse painted a portrait of Leonora of Portugal, and other small pieces, for Charles V in 1516.
But his only signed pictures of this period are the Neptune and Amphitrite of 1516 at Berlin, and the Madonna, with a portrait of Jean Carondelet of 1517, at the Louvre, in both of which we clearly discern that Vasari only spoke by hearsay of the progress made by Mabuse in the true method of producing pictures full of mythological nude figures and poesies. It is difficult to find anything more coarse or misshapen than the Amphitrite, unless we except the grotesque and ungainly drayman who figures for Neptune. In later forms of the same subject--the Adam and Eve at Hampton Court, or its feebler replica at Berlin and Venus and Amor (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels) -- we observe more nudity, combined with realism of the commonest type.
Happily, Mabuse was capable of higher efforts. His St Luke painting the portrait of the Virgin in Sanct Veit at Prague, a variety of the same subject in the Belvedere at Vienna, the Madonna of the Baring collection in London, or the numerous repetitions of Christ and the scoffers (Ghent and Antwerp), all prove that travel had left many of Mabuses fundamental peculiarities unaltered. His figures still retain the character of stone; his architecture is as rich and varied, his tones are as strong as ever. But bright contrasts of gaudy tints are replaced by soberer greys; and a cold haze, the sfumalo of the Milanese, pervades the surfaces. It is but seldom that these features fail to obtrude. When they least show, the master displays a brilliant palette combined with smooth surface and incisive outlines. In this form the Madonnas of Munich and Vienna (1527), the likeness of a girl weighing gold pieces (Berlin), and the portraits of the children of the king of Denmark at Hampton Court, are fair specimens of his skill.
As early as 1523, when Christian II of Denmark came to the Netherlands, he asked Mabuse to paint the likenesses of his dwarfs. In 1528 he requested the artist to furnish to Jean de Hare the design for his queen Isabellas tomb in the abbey of St Pierre near Ghent. It was no doubt at this time that Mabuse completed the portraits of John, Dorothy and Christine, children of Christian II, which came into the collection of Henry VIII. No doubt, also, these portraits are identical with those of three children at Hampton Court, which were long known and often copied as likenesses of Prince Arthur, Prince Henry and Princess Margaret of England. One of the copies at Wilton, inscribed with the forged name of Hans Holbein, ye father, and the false date of 1495, has often been cited as a proof that Mabuse came to England in the reign of Henry VII; but the statement rests on no foundation whatever.
At the period when these portraits were executed Mabuse lived at Middelburg. But he dwelt at intervals elsewhere. When Philip of Burgundy became bishop of Utrecht, and settled at Castle Duurstede, in 1517, he was accompanied by Mabuse, who helped to decorate the new palace of his master. At Philip's death, in 1524, Mabuse designed and erected his tomb in the church of Wijk bij Duurstede. He finally retired to Middelburg, where he took service with Philip's brother, Adolph, lord of Veeren.
Van Mander's biography accuses Mabuse of habitual drunkenness; yet it describes the splendid appearance of the artist as, dressed in gold brocade, he accompanied Lucas of Leyden on a pleasure trip to Ghent, Mechelen and Antwerp in 1527. The works of Mabuse are those of a hardworking and patient artist; the number of his still extant pictures practically demonstrates that he was not a debauchee. The marriage of his daughter with the painter Henry van der Heyden of Leuven proves that he had a home, and did not live habitually in taverns, as Van Mander suggests. His death at Antwerp is recorded in the portrait engraved by Jerome Cock.