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Hugo van der Goes: 10 Things To Know

Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes played a crucial role in the development of Renaissance art. Just as he reached a pinnacle point in his career, he closed his workshop to join a monastery.

Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1480, via Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art
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Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1480, via Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art

Who is Hugo van der Goes?

Portrait of a Man, circa 1475, via The Met
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Portrait of a Man, circa 1475, via The Met

Hugo van der Goes is one of the most important painters in the history of Flemish art. His approach to form and color would inspire generations of painters across Europe, winning him a place in the canon of Renaissance art. But despite the fame and admiration, his life was far from easy… Read on to find out all you need to know about this Old Master.

10. His Early Years Are A Mystery

The Death of the Virgin, circa 1470-1480, via RijksMuseum Amsterdam
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The Death of the Virgin, circa 1470-1480, via RijksMuseum Amsterdam

Records and documentation were not a strength of 15th-century Flemish society, and consequently, little evidence survives about the early years of Hugo van der Goes. We do know, however, that he was born somewhere in or around Ghent, in roughly 1440.

During the Middle Ages, wool production had turned Ghent into an industrial city and a trading thoroughfare. Merchants from across Europe converged in Ghent, meaning that the young van der Goes would have grown up in an environment rich in cultural influences.

The first record of Hugo van der Goes appears in 1467, when he was admitted to the city’s painters guild. Some historians have speculated that he trained as an artist elsewhere before establishing himself as an independent master in his hometown, but there is no direct evidence for his education.

9. He Soon Became The Leading Painter In Ghent

Calvary Triptych, 1465-1468, via Wikiart
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Calvary Triptych, 1465-1468, via Wikiart

Soon after he joined the painter’s guild, van der Goes was commissioned by the Flemish authorities to produce a series of paintings celebrating civic achievements and occasions. One involved traveling to the town of Bruges to oversee the decorations for the wedding of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York. He would later be called upon once more to design ornamental finery for Charles’ victorious procession into the city of Ghent.

During the 1470s, Hugo became the undisputed leader in Ghentish art. Over the decade, he received many more official commissions from both court and church, and was regularly elected as head of the painter’s guild.

8. He Achieved International Success

The Monforte Altarpiece, circa 1470, via The State Hermitage Museum
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The Monforte Altarpiece, circa 1470, via The State Hermitage Museum

The most important works he painted during this period were two altarpieces: the Monforte Altarpiece, now held in Berlin, shows the Adoration of the Magi, while the Portinari Altarpiece, in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds.

The second masterpiece had been commissioned by the wealthy Italian banker, Tommaso Portinari, and was destined to arrive in Florence in the early 1480s. The fact that his name and paintings had traveled so far demonstrates what a brilliant reputation van der Goes had achieved.

7. The Portinari Altarpiece Was His Most Influential Work

The Portinari Altarpiece, c1477-1478, via The Uffizi Gallery
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The Portinari Altarpiece, c1477-1478, via The Uffizi Gallery

Like many devotional paintings produced in the 15th century, the Portinari triptych shows a nativity scene. It is distinguished from all others, however, by its clever layers of symbolism.

The altarpiece was designed for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, and this setting is reflected in its iconography. In the foreground sit bunches of flowers held in very specific containers. They are called albarelli, and were the jars used by apothecaries to store medicinal ointments and remedies. The flowers themselves were also known for their medicinal uses, linking the altarpiece inseparably with the hospital church where it would be displayed.

The side panels depicts members of the Portinari family, who funded the masterpiece and donated it to the church. van der Goes’ figures epitomize the typical Flemish style, with their somber facial expressions, slender forms and cool tones. He also created a sense of depth by layering the different figures and playing with distance. These innovations had the effect of making the Portinari Altarpiece a unique and spectacular masterpiece.

6. His Portraits Are Also Incredibly Important

Portrait of an Old Man, circa 1470-75, via The Met
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Portrait of an Old Man, circa 1470-75, via The Met

Just as important as his devotional paintings were his portraits. During the 15th century, the portrait genre was growing increasingly prominent, as influential figures sought to convey their status and immortalize their image. Although no single portrait by van der Goes survives, fragments from his larger works can give us a good idea of his style.

Van der Goes used intricate brushstrokes and an acute understanding of light and shadow to create incredibly lifelike images. Almost always set against a plain background, his figures stand out and draw the viewer’s attention. Their expressions are animated but not dramatic, combining the calm atmosphere traditionally evoked in Flemish art with the increasing concern for emotion and experience that came with the rising tide of Humanism.

5. He Suddenly Made A Life-Changing Decision

Panel from The Trinity Altarpiece, 1478-1478, via National Galleries Scotland 
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Panel from The Trinity Altarpiece, 1478-1478, via National Galleries Scotland

Just as he reached the pinnacle of his artistic career, van der Goes made a sudden and shocking decision. He closed down his workshop in Ghent to join a monastery near modern-day Brussels. Since he failed to leave any personal writings, art historians can only speculate as to what prompted this abrupt change, some attributing it to his feelings of inadequacy compared to the other great painters of the time.

Even though he had abandoned his workshop, however, van der Goes did not give up painting. At the monastery, he was allowed to continue working on commissions and was even granted the privilege of drinking red wine.

A 16th-century document records that he received visitors in his new lodgings to sit for portraits, among them the young Archduke Maximilian, who would go on to be Holy Roman Emperor. He also left the monastery from time to time to complete projects across Flanders, valuing works in the city of Leuven and completing a triptych for St Salvator’s Cathedral in Bruges.

4. He Played A Key Role In The Development Of Flemish Art

Panel from The Trinity Altarpiece, 1478-1478, via National Galleries Scotland
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Panel from The Trinity Altarpiece, 1478-1478, via National Galleries Scotland

Hugo van der Goes is widely regarded as one of the most unique talents of early Flemish art. Undoubtedly inspired by the work of van Eyck, he emulated his rich use of colour and understanding of perspective. Analysis of his altarpieces show that van der Goes was an early adopter of linear perspective, using a vanishing point to create lifelike depth.

In his treatment of the human body and face, van der Goes moves away from the stationary and two-dimensional style of his predecessors, bringing them to life with a sense of feeling and motion. This was a trend that would catch on in the subsequent decades and become more prominent in Netherlandish art during the 16th century.

3. He Suffered From Mental Illness

The Fall of Adam, after 1479, via Art Bible
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The Fall of Adam, after 1479, via Art Bible

In 1482, van der Goes was on a trip to Cologne with two other brothers from the monastery when he suffered a severe bout of mental illness. Declaring that he was a condemned man, he entered into a deep depression and even attempted suicide.

His companions hurriedly brought him back to the monastery, but his sickness continued. A later source suggests that he may have been driven mad by his desire to surpass Jan Van Eyck’s masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece. Sadly, van der Goes died shortly after returning to the monastery, leaving several works incomplete.

2. He Inspired Countless Future Artists Across Europe

Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1480, via Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art
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Adoration of the Shepherds, circa 1480, via Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art

As well as his Flemish peers and followers, Hugo van der Goes also gained a reputation among artistic circles in Italy. It may even have been the presence of his work in the country that led Italian painters to start using oils rather than tempera.

The Portinari Altarpiece traveled through Italy from the south before reaching Florence, giving a range of aspiring painters that chance to examine this foreign treasure. Among them were Antonello da Messina and Domenico Ghirlandaio, who were inspired by van der Goes’ masterpiece. In fact, these artists emulated his work so convincingly that one of van der Goes’ paintings was long attributed to da Messina.

1. His Work Is Incredibly Rare And Highly Valuable

The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis, undated, via Christie’s
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The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis, undated, via Christie’s

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Hugo van der Goes’ work has been lost over the centuries. Fragments of larger pieces survive, as do copies made by eye-witnesses, but his original artwork is incredibly rare. As a result, it is also extremely valuable, and so in 2017, when an incomplete painting attributed to van der Goes went under the hammer at Christie’s New York, it sold for $8,983,500 from an estimate of $3-5million indicating a high demand.

Such a staggering sum reflects the importance of this early Flemish painter. Even though he came to a sorry end, Hugo van der Goes holds an immortal place in the history of art, particularly due to the impact he had on the Italian Renaissance, despite never having set foot in the country.


Mia Forbes
About the Author

Mia Forbes

Mia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.


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