(b ?Ghent, ?c.1440; d Rode Klooster, nr. Brussels, 1482). Netherlandish painter, one of the greatest and most individual of his period. 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. At about the same time he entered a monastery 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 survives of his illness written by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk at the monastery; Ofhuys was evidently jealous of Hugo and his report has been described by Erwin Panofsky as ‘a masterpiece of clinical accuracy and sanctimonious malice’. No paintings by Hugo are signed and the only work attributed to him on solid early evidence is his masterpiece, a large triptych of the Nativity known as the Portinari Altarpiece (c.1473–8, Uffizi, Florence). This was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, the representative of the Medici bank in Bruges, for the church of the Hospital of S. Maria Nuova in Florence, and its masterful handling of the oil technique made a powerful impact on Italian painters. 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 keen observation is his psychological penetration in the depiction of individual figures, notably the awestruck shepherds (his influence can be clearly seen in Ghirlandaio's Adoration of the Shepherds (Sassetti Chapel, S. Trinità), painted in 1485, two years after the Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence). Other works have been convincingly attributed to Hugo on the basis of similarity of style with his masterpiece. They include two large panels painted c.1478 for the church of Holy Trinity in Edinburgh: the Holy Trinity Adored by Sir Edward Bonkil (the provost of the church) and the Royal Family of Scotland (Royal Coll., on loan to NG of Scotland). His last work is perhaps the Death of the Virgin (Groeningemuseum, Bruges), a painting of remarkable tension and poignancy that seems a fitting swansong for such a tormented personality.
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)