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An Artist Every Costumer Should Know: Gerard David

If you do sixteenth century costume, you probably love Holbein and Hilliard. You love/hate/generally-have-a-complex-emotional-relationship-with Bruegel. (Really, Pieter? You’re going to show me all those seams and still make the dress as hopelessly dowdy as possible? What’s with the hate, man?) You might not know Gerard David. His name doesn’t get bandied about in costume circles as much as some others, and that’s just a gosh darned shame. Because, truly, if you’re interested in the transitional styles between medieval and Tudor, Gerard is a fellow you need to know…

Wikipedia has a fair amount to say about Gerard David, but the bare minimum of biographical information you need to know is that he was active in the Netherlands around the turn of the 16th century.

What you really, really need to know is that the man had a brilliance for noticing and depicting details of clothing.  He’s responsible for what has to be the single most useful painting ever if you’re trying to track down the history of the armscye and set-in sleeve:

Gerard David's Deposition
Deposition (or Lamentation), Gerard David, 1515-1520, Oil on Oak, National Gallery of London (Image sourced from:

Here’s the first amazing thing about David’s work: he shows seams. The green dress shows a seam at the top of the shoulder and around the visible portion of the armscye. The blue dress shows the bottom of the seam where the sleeve is set in. (Admittedly, this is more obvious in the book I’m looking at, which is Paintings in the National Gallery, London, by Bulfinch Press, English-language translation © 2000, Little, Brown, and Company. In this work, the painting is referred to as the Lamentation, though this seems to be the only place it’s named as such.)

The Marriage at Cana
Gerard David, The Marriage at Cana, c. 1500, Oil on wood Musée du Louvre, Paris (Image sourced from:

The second amazing thing about David’s work is the sheer variety of clothing styles that he portrayed. The Marriage at Cana, for example, shows one woman in a very spanish/italian style of the turn of the 16th century, contrasted with the northern styles of most of the rest of the women.  There’s variety in the northern styles portrayed, both in dress and in headgear.  (There are a considerable variety of dress styles in the Deposition, as well.)

You can find many more of David’s works, as well as some wonderful closeups, at the Web Gallery of Art.

As a general note on using religious art as source material for costume study, you have to be pretty careful. There’s a strong tendency amongst artists to portray holy folks in fashions earlier than their actual era. It’s not uncommon to see a painting combine contemporary fashions with far older pieces.  The more out of date the fashion on a particular figure, the holier they are likely to be.  It’s not uncommon in the 1400s-1600s to see a religious scene full of people in draped robes and loose gowns, with a grouping of figures in totally contemporary fashion just sort of hanging out. The contemporary figures are generally the donors (or donor’s family) who commissioned the work.  Gerard David does, particularly, tend to portray the Madonna in loosely fitted clothing of an earlier era. Fortunately, he seems to prefer contemporary fashions most of the rest of the time.


  1. Mathilde
    Mathilde January 24, 2011

    Loads of positive costuming karma to you! I took a peek at his WGA pages and found a fantastic outfit on the young woman at the foot of the cross in “Crucifixion” (1515).

  2. […] they started being curved. I was expecting that to be after 1515 or so, based on the piecing in Gerard David‘s Deposition. But no, much to my complete annoyance, there are a lot of examples of curved […]

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