Hugo van der
(b. ca. 1436, Bruxelles, d. 1482, Bruxelles)
|The greatest Netherlandish
painter of the second half of the 15th century.
Nothing is known of his life before 1467, when he became a master in the painters' guild at Ghent. He had numerous commissions from the town of Ghent for work of a temporary nature such as processional banners, and in 1475 he became dean of the painters' guild. In the same year he entered a priory near Brussels as a lay-brother, but he continued to paint and also to travel. In 1481 he suffered a mental breakdown (he had a tendency to acute depression) and although he recovered, died the following year. An account of his illness by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk at the priory, survives; Ofhuys was apparently jealous of Hugo and his description has been called by Erwin Panofsky 'a masterpiece of clinical accuracy and sanctimonious malice'.
No paintings by Hugo are signed and his only securely documented work is his masterpiece, a large triptych of the Nativity known as the Portinari Altarpiece (Uffizi, Florence, c.1475-76). This was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, the representative of the House of Medici in Bruges, for the church of the Hospital of Sta Maria Nuova in Florence, and it exercised a strong influence on Italian painters with its masterful handling of the oil technique. There is a great variety of surface ornament and detail, but this is combined with lucid organization of the figure groups and a convincing sense of spatial depth. As remarkable as Hugo's skill in reconciling grandeur of conception with keep observation is his psychological penetration in the depiction of individual figures, notably the awe-struck shepherds. The other works attributed to Hugo include two large panels probably designed as organ shutters (Royal collection, on loan to National Gallery of Scotland). His last work is generally thought to be the Death of the Virgin (Groeningemuseum, Bruges), a painting of remarkable tension and poignancy that seems a fitting swansong for such a tormented personality.