The Master of 1499 (active Ghent? ca. 1490–1520)
Two wings from a triptych showing the Annunciation, with scenes of the Nativity and a kneeling donor accompanied by standing Saints on the reverse, ca. 1500
oil on panel
46 1/4 x 16 3/4 inches
117.5 x 42.5 cm
These panels are the wings, or shutters, of what was originally a triptych. Painted by the Master of 1499, an attribution supported by Till-Holger Borchert, these panels are a remarkably rare survival from the workshop of Hugo van de Goes and are especially important for their trompe l’œil grisaille exterior scenes representing The Annunciation which are of exceptional quality.
Connections with Hugo van der Goes
When they first came to scholarly attention at the time of their conservation in 1979–82, their similarities both to the work of the Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes and to the anonymous Master of 1499 were correctly noted. Many of the figures refer to those depicted in Hugo’s work, indicating that our painter had access to workshop patterns of which he was able to make free use. He was, nevertheless, also receptive to Hugo’s use of colour for subtle visual and symbolic effect, and his careful choice of primary and secondary tones reveal an intimate knowledge of Hugo’s working methods and chromatic interests that is not likely to have been conveyed through pattern models alone.
Perhaps the most immediate connection our panels offer with Hugo’s work is the composition of the Annunciation scene, which suggests a knowledge of the exterior wings of the Portinari Altarpiece (fig. 1), Hugo’s largest and most ambitious work, commissioned by Tomasso Portinari for his family’s chapel in Florence and completed by 1478. The figure of the Virgin diverges from Hugo’s example, and was instead executed with recourse to a preparatory drawing now in the British Museum (fig. 2), which was also utilised for a small diptych by the Master of 1499 now in Berlin (fig. 3).
An elusive artist
The Master of 1499’s recurring tendency to paint low-set mouths, heavy lidded eyes and almost hourglass facial profiles that emphasize the forehead can be traced on all four of our panels’ paintings. The faces of Saint Jerome and the bishop saint who stand behind our kneeling donor appear very like those of a triptych in the Royal Collection (figs. 5-6), particularly perhaps the figures of Saint Bruno and Saint Dominic. The Royal Collection triptych also shares our painter’s idiosyncratic treatment of hair, learnt, it would seem, from Hugo to suggest hanging whirls at the ends of long locks. Moreover, both commissions share their remarkable and highly distinctive treatment of the fictive marbled niches in which our two grisaille figures are set, with a russet colour used behind the Virgin and a green for the angel (fig. 6).
Other parallels between the work of the Master of 1499 and our wing panels – including the figure of the Virgin from a Holy Family now at the KMSK in Antwerp (fig. 7).
Iconography and function
A note on the construction
The triptych to which these panels belonged had become divided by the 1980s and was briefly re-united (fig. 9) before the private sale in 2018 of the central panel. Although the elements of the triptych were all original and belonged together, the central panel seemed different in handling to some scholars and so the triptych was once again separated.
We are indebted to Till-Holger Borchert for his observations on these panels. They are requested to be included in the upcoming Hugo van der Goes exhibition in Bruges and Berlin in 2022. ❖