Hugo Van Der Goes - Encyclopedia

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HUGO VAN DER GOES (d. 1482), a painter of considerable celebrity at Ghent, was known to Vasari, as he is known to us, by a single picture in a Florentine monastery. At a period when the family of the Medici had not yet risen from the rank of a great mercantile firm to that of a reigning dynasty, it employed as an agent at the port of Bruges Tommaso Portinari, a lineal descendant, it was said, of Folco, the father of Dante's Beatrix. Tommaso, at that time patron of a chapel in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova at Florence, ordered an altar-piece of Hugo van der Goes, and commanded him to illustrate the sacred theme of "Quem genuit adoravit." In the centre of a vast triptych, comprising numerous figures of life size, Hugo represented the Virgin kneeling in adoration before the new-born Christ attended by Shepherds and Angels. On the wings he portrayed Tommaso and his two sons in prayer under the protection of Saint Anthony and St Matthew, and Tommaso's wife and two daughters supported by St Margaret and St Mary Magdalen. The triptych, which has suffered much from decay and restoring, was for over 400 years at Santa Maria Nuova, and is now in the Uffizi Gallery. Imposing because composed of figures of unusual size, the altar-piece is more remarkable for portrait character than for charms of ideal beauty.

There are also small pieces in public galleries which claim to have been executed by Van der Goes. One of these pictures in the National Gallery in London is more nearly allied to the school of Memling than to the triptych of Santa Maria Nuova; another, a small and very beautiful "John the Baptist," at the Pinakothek of Munich, is really by Memling; whilst numerous fragments of an altarpiece in the Belvedere at Vienna, though assigned to Hugo, are by his more gifted countryman of Bruges. Van der Goes, however, was not habitually a painter of easel pieces. He made his reputation at Bruges by producing coloured hangings in distemper. After he settled at Ghent, and became a master of his gild in 1465, he designed cartoons for glass windows. He also made decorations for the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in 1468, for the festivals of the Rhetoricians and papal jubilees on repeated occasions, for the solemn entry of Charles the Bold into Ghent in 1470-1471, and for the funeral of Philip the Good in 1474. The labour which he expended on these occasions might well add to his fame without being the less ephemeral. About the year 1475 he retired to the monastery of Rouge Cloitre near Ghent, where he took the cowl. There, though he still clung to his profession, he seems to have taken to drinking, and at one time to have shown decided symptoms of insanity. But his superiors gradually cured him of his intemperance, and he died in the odour of sanctity in 1482.

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