IN the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova at Florence, founded by Folco Portinari, the father of Dante’s Beatrice, is preserved a large altar-piece by Hugo Van der Goes.
Tommaso Portinari, agent at Bruges for the house of the Medici and the most influential foreigner in that Flemish trading city, cherished a warm affection for his native Florence, and, among other generous acts, presented this votive picture to the hospital. It is in three sections, the central panel representing the adoration of the infant Christ by the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and three shepherds, and a numerous company of angels. The left wing of the picture shows the donor, behind whom are his two boys, with St. Anthony and St. Thomas ; and the right wing presents his wife and daughter with their patron saints, Margaret and Magdalen.
Of all the works produced by this able but unfamiliar painter, the St. Maria Nuova altar-piece, which is mentioned by Vasari, is the only authenticated one remaining.
Conway says of this triptych :
This picture of Master Hugo’s would be of untold value for one thing alone, even if it possessed no other virtues : it is the first picture that really makes us acquainted with the mediaeval peasantry. Nothing is more obvious than that the three shepherds are drawn from life. They are no ideal shepherds ; their horny hands, rough features, and gaping mouths, are proofs of a perfect veracity. The three men in this Nativity, or at all events two of them, are not creations issuing from the moral consciousness of any one. They are reflections of actual persons. Their bent figures tell of their laboring battle with the earth. Their hardened faces have been beaten into that rugged form by nights of exposure, frost, and storm. Whilst the world was going along in its noisy fashion with wars and revolutions, setting up of kings, political intrigues, and tremblings of hope and fear in the hearts of conspicuous but now for the most part forgotten men, peasants such as these were the real heat that kept the whole surface bubbling on the go. But for their careless and continuous labor, kings and feudal systems would have faded in a few days. Yet they are as unrecorded and unobserved (expect for some tyrannous statute of laborers or another) as if the fine gentry, the monks, and the merchants had really been the life at the heart of the whole body politic. Among the multitude of Golden Fleeced heroes, Hanseatic merchants, lords, counts, dukes, and popes, whose likenesses we possess, whose sayings we can know if we care to hunt them up, whose manner of living is recorded in minute detail, these three old shepherds are the only representatives of the far larger and more important body of “silent sufferers and silent workers who kept the world a-going.”
Van der Goes, probably born at Ghent about 1405, and a pupil of the Van Eycks, appears to have labored mostly in that city and at Bruges. At one time in his life he was afflicted with attacks of insanity, caused, according to one account, by an unrequited love, according to another, by religious melancholy, and retired to a monastery in or near Brussels. One of his fellow monks has left the following account of this episode in the artist’s life.
He says : “I was a novice when Van der Goes entered the convent. He was so famous as a painter that men said his like was not to be found this side of the Alps. In his worldly days he did not belong to the upper classes ; nevertheless, after his reception into the con-vent, and during his novitiate, the prior permitted him many relaxations more suggestive of worldly pleasure than of penance and humiliation, and thus awakened jealousy in many of our brothers. Frequently noble lords, and amongst others the Archduke Maximilian, came to visit him and admire his pictures. At their request he received per-mission to remain and dine with them in the guest-chamber. He was often cast down by attacks of melancholy, especially when he thought of the number of works he still had to finish ; his love of wine, however, was his greatest enemy, and for that at the stranger’s table there was no restraint. In the fifth or sixth year after he had taken the habit, he undertook a journey to Cologne with his brother Nicolas and others. On his return journey he had such an attack of melancholy that he would have Iaid violent hands on him-self had he not been forcibly restrained by his friends. They brought him under restraint to Brussels, and so back to the convent. The prior was called in, and he sought by the sounds of music to lessen Hugo’s passion. For a long time all was useless ; he suffered under the dread that he was a son of dam-nation. At length his condition improved. Thenceforward of his own will he gave up the habit of visiting the guest-chamber and took his meals with the lay brothers.”
Hugo died in 1482, his insanity having disappeared in the meantime.
The picture of the mad painter which we reproduce was painted by Emile Wauters in t872, and exhibited at the Brussels Salon, where it made an immediate sensation, and was purchased by the State for the Brussels museum.
Wauters, who is a pupil of Portaels and Gerome, was born at Brussels in 1846, and has devoted himself to the painting of portraits and of history. The museum of Liege possesses his ” Mary of Burgundy entreating the sheriffs of Ghent to pardon her councillors ; ” while on the staircase of the Brussels Hotel de Ville may be seen his ” Mary of Burgundy swearing to respect the commercial rights of Brussels, 1477,” and “The armed citizens of Brussels demanding the charter from Duke John IV. of Brabant.” An enormous panorama of “Cairo and the Banks of the Nile,” ” Sobieski and his Staff at the Siege of Vienna,” Serpent-charmers of Sokko,” “The Battle of Hastings,” and many other works, attest the talent and the industry of Wauters, whose extraordinary gifts have won him a multiplicity of medals and honors of various kinds.