JOOS van Wassenhove
St Augustinec. 1474
Oil on wood, 119 x 62 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, was both a distinguished condottiere and a cultivated humanist. In 1473, he decided to build an enormous new palace, for which he had commissioned a design from the Dalmatian architect Luciano da Laurana. Artists came from all over Italy - sculptors from Venice, specialists in marquetry from Florence - to work on the decoration. One room at the top of the building was intended to serve as his "studiolo" - a quiet retreat, remote from the bustle of the court, where the Duke would be able to read, write and meditate. Since he could not find a painter anywhere in Italy who knew how to work in oils, he sent for a Flemish artist to decorate this private space. This artist would seem to have been Joos van Wassenhove (Justus of Ghent).
What we do know for certain is that after Justus had painted the Communion of the Apostles for the Brotherhood of Corpus Domini, he went on to play a key part in the making of twenty-eight portraits of famous men for the studiolo. These pictures depict great philosophers, famous poets and doctors of both the Greek and Roman Churches. Today they are divided between the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino and the Louvre in Paris. Justus was also long believed to have been the painter of the Portrait of Duke Federico and His Son and of The Duke and His Son Listening To a Lecture, which are at Hampton Court, but it is now agreed that these two paintings are clearly not his work.
Justus's style during the years he spent in Ghent was probably very close to that of Rogier Van der Weyden in his use of figures based on popular types. Skeletal bodies, forced stationary poses, and a light and subtle palette ranging from wine-red to hyacinth blue and acid green are all characteristic of his art at that period. When he moved to Urbino, he abandoned neither his earlier manner nor the Flemish concern for realism, but adapted them to these monumental works, incorporating influences from both Italian art and the humanist ideas that circulated at the Duke's court.
The portraits he executed for the ducal palace, although works of some historical importance, do not really bear comparison with the perfection in this genre of his great Italian contemporaries. Justus appears to have had assistance in his work on these paintings from certain Tuscan painters and even from Spanish artists who were residing in Urbino at the time. Some authorities have gone so far as to describe him as a mere assistant himself, attributing the true paternity of these works to Melozzo da Forli or Giovanni Santi, artists whose names are now largely forgotten, or to the Spaniard Pedro Berruguete, who - as we know played an important role in decorating Federico's hideaway. However, the fourteen paintings in the Louvre have recently been examined using laboratory techniques, which have established that they are all drawn in a way that is typically Flemish and that two of them, the portraits of St Jerome and St Augustine, are entirely by Justus's hand.