Flemish primitives

Early Netherlandish painting refers to the work of artists, also known as the Flemish Primitives, active in the Low Countries during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance, especially in the flourishing Burgundian cities of Tournai, Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. The period follows the waining of the International Gothic style, beginning approximately with the careers of Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck in the early 1420s.Template:Efn-ua It lasts at least to the death of Gerard David in 1523;[3] many scholars extend it to the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1569, or the start of the Dutch Revolt in 1566 or 1568, or to the start of the 17th century. Early Netherlandish painting corresponds to the early and high Italian Renaissance but is seen as an independent artistic culture, separate from the Renaissance humanism that characterised developments in central Italy.[4] Because the works of these painters represent the culmination of the northern European Medieval artistic heritage and the incorporation of Renaissance ideals, it is categorised as belonging to both the Early Renaissance and Late Gothic.

The Early Netherlandish period coincides with the height of Burgundian influence in Europe. Driven by the success of the Burgundian duchy, the Low Countries became a political and economic centre, noted for crafts and the production of luxury goods. The paintings of the Netherlandish masters were often exported for the German and Italian markets. Aided by the workshop system, high-end panels and a variety of luxury crafts were for sale from markets as varied as commission from foregin princes to market fairs.Template:Efn-ua

The major artists of this period include Campin,Template:Efn-ua van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, Petrus Christus, Simon Marmion, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel.[5] These artists made significant advances in natural representation and illusionism, and their work often features complex iconography. Their subjects are usually religious scenes or small portraits, with narrative painting or mythological subjects being relatively rare. Landscape, although often lush and well described, was usually relegated to the background. The works consist mostly of panel paintings, which might comprise single panels or more complex altarpieces, usually in the form of hinged triptychs or polyptychs. In addition, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and sculptures were common luxury goods produced for the higher end of the export market.

Terminology and scope

A number of different schools of painting developed across northern Europe in the late 14th and early to mid 15th centuries. The domination of Gothic art in France gave away to the International Gothic era, which waned at the turn of the 15th century.[6] Broadly the term Early Netherlandish art applies to painters active during the 15th and 16th centuries,[7] in areas under the control of the Dukes of Burgundy and later the Habsburg dynasty. Modern art historians identify the era as beginning with Robert Campin, now almost certainly identified as the artist known as the Master of Flémalle, and in the strictest sense ending with the death of Gerard David. However the mid- and late 16th-century Netherlandish schools, including Masseys and Hieronymus Bosch, are frequently associated, although their style and approach is often dramatically different from the 15th-century tradition.[8]

The movement grew out of French courtly art established in the 14th century, but when the Burgundians dukes established centers of power away from Paris in the Netherlands, they brought with them a more cosmopolitan outlook. At the same time, a new generation of painters flourished in the areas under Burgundian control; painters who according to Otto Pächt, "created a native Netherlandish language of art."[9] A consolidating change in approach came with Jan van Eyck's use of oil as a medium to allow better manipulation of paint. His technique was quickly adopted and developed further by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. These three artists are considered the first rank and most influential of the early generation of Early Netherlandish painters. Their influence was felt across northern Europe, from Bohemia and Poland in the east, to Austria and Swabia in the south.[10]

The painters have been known by a variety of terms; "Late Gothic" and the "Flemish Primitives" are earlier designations,Template:Efn-ua especially in Dutch and German. "Primitives" in the context of 15th- and 16th-century art does not refer to any perceived lack of sophistication; rather it identifies the artists as the originators of a new tradition in painting, notably for the innovative handling of oil paint over tempera. Art historian Erwin Panofsky applied the term "Ars nova" ("new art") and "Nouvelle pratique" ("new practice"), thereby linking the movement with innovative composers such as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois favoured by the Burgundian court of the time.[11] "Late Gothic" emphasizes continuity with the Middle Ages,[4] while "Flemish Primitives" is a traditional art history term borrowed from the French that came into fashion in the 19th century.[8] Following the lead of Max Friedländer, Panofsky, Otto Pächt and other German-language art historians, English-language scholars typically describe the period as "Early Netherlandish painting" (German: Altniederländische Malerei). `

The artists


A number of the artists traditionally associated with the movement had linguistic origins that were neither Dutch nor Flemish in the modern sense. The Francophone van der Weyden was born Rogier de la Pasture.[12] The German Hans Memling and the Estonian Michael Sittow both worked in the Netherlands in a fully Netherlandish style. Simon Marmion is often regarded as an "Early Netherlandish" painter because he came from Amiens, intermittently ruled by the Burgundian court between 1435 and 1471.[8] The Burgundian empire was at the peak of its influence, and the innovations made by the Netherlandish painters were soon recognised across the continent.[13] By the time of his death, van Eyck's paintings were sought by wealthy patrons across Europe seeking to embellish their collections. Copies of his works became popular and circulated widely, resulting in the spread of the Netherlandish style to southern and central Europe.[14] Central European art was then under the dual influence of innovations from Italy and from the north. Often the influence was cross-bred, and the exchange of ideas between the Netherlandish and Italian artists lead to patronisation by significant figures such as Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, who commissioned works from both traditions.[15] Van Eyck and van der Weyden were both highly placed in the Burgundian court, with van Eyck in particular assuming roles for which an ability to read Latin was a necessity; inscriptions found on his panels indicate that he had a good knowledge of both Latin and Greek.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Turban 1433, possible self portrait. National Gallery, London.
Cornelis Cort, portrait of Rogier van der Weyden, 1572, Antwerp.

Netherlandish painting in the 16th century can be seen as directly leading from that of the previous century in that it is marked by developments in existing techniques and styles. A break was not seen until Northern Mannerism developed in the later years of the century. Early and mid 16th century significant innovations include the growth of unidealised secular portraiture, the depiction of ordinary -as apposed to courtly- day to life, and the development of eloberate cityscapes and landscapes which were more than distant, background views. Espically from the mid-1500s, artists began to explore with creating the illusion of three dimentions with panel painting, with Geertgen tot Sint Jans a leading innovator.[16] Gerard David provided a link between the styles of Bruges (by the 1470s one of the largest and most importat cities in Europe)[17] and Antwerp, as he often travelled between the cities. He moved there in 1505 when Quentin Matsys was the head of the Antwerp painters guild, and the two became friends. Tellingly, David's style is more fluid than van Eyck's, showing less concern with a forensic approach. His lines are easier, he avoids diagonals in favour of a harmonious balance of verticals and horizontal strokes and tended towards deep and harmonious colouring.[18]

Albrecht Dürer emulated van Eyck's attention to detail and precision but focused on the secular.[19] The early Netherlandish masters' influence reached artists such as Stefan Lochner and the Master of the Life of the Virgin, who, working in mid-15th century Cologne, drew inspiration from imported works by van der Weyden and Bouts, who had already passed beyond the High Gothic.[20] New and distinctive painterly cultures sprang up with Ulm, Nuremberg, Vienna and Munich being the most important artistic centers around the start of the 16th century. Stylistic development, the move away from purely religious subject matter, the tendency towards specialisation, coupled with the development of new mediums changed the art of the region,[16] and saw a rise in demand for printmaking (using woodcuts or copperplate engraving) and other innovations borrowed from France and southern Italy.[10]

By the 16th century the techniques had become standard throughout northern Europe. In addition, painters had begun to enjoy a new level of respect and status; patrons no longer simply commissioned works but rather courted the artists themselves, sponsoring their travel and exposing them to new and wider ranges of influences. Hieronymus Bosch, active in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, remains one of the most important and popular of the Netherlandish painters. Yet he was anomalous in that he was not primilarly interested in realistic depictions of nature or human existence and was largely unconcerned with perspective. His better known works can be characterised by fantastical elements that tended towards the hallucinatory that may draw from van Eyck's hellscapes but are quite independant at the same time. Bosch diverted significantly from the humanism of art of the period, perhalps towards moralism and pessimism. Although his paintings, especially the triptychs, are amongst the most significant and accomplished of the late Netherlandish period, he followed his own muse and worked apart from the typical conventions of the time.[21][22] Pieter Bruegel the Elder followed Bosch's style, but was among the few to do so.

Technique and material

The innovations of Campin, van Eyck and van der Weyden instilled a tendency towards naturalism and realism in Northern European painting. These artists sought to show the world as it actually was,[23] and depict people in a way that made them more human-looking, with a greater complexity of emotions than had been previously seen. The first generation of artists took an interest in the accurate reproduction of objects (according to Panofsky they painted "gold that looked like gold")[24] and paid close attention to natural phenomena such as the fall of light and the play of shadow and reflection. They advanced past the flat perspective and merely outlined figuration of earlier painting in favour of three-dimensional pictorial spaces, while the position of the viewers and how they might relate to the scene became important for the first time. Van Eyck positions the Arnolfini Portrait for viewers as if they had just entered the room containing the two figures.[25] Advancements in technique allowed far richer, more luminous and closely detailed representations of people, landscapes, interiors and objects. The chief innovation came from the handling of oil paint.Template:Efn-ua The use of oil as a medium in Northern European painting can be traced to the 12th century, however until the 1430s egg tempera remained the dominant medium. Egg, when used as a binder, dries quickly and produces bright and light colours, but it is a difficult medium in which to achieve naturalistic textures or deep shadows.[26]

Oil allows smooth translucent surfaces, and can be applied in a range of thicknesses, from fine lines to thick broad strokes. It dries slowly and thus can be manipulated while still wet, giving the artist more time to add subtle detail[27] and allow hatching, wet-on-wet painting and achieve smooth transition of colour and tone as immeditary layers of paint can be better gradiated as the paint drys. In addition oil allows differentiation between degrees of reflective light, from shadow to bright beams[28] as well as minute depictions of light effects through use of transparent glazes.[29] This new freedom in controlling light gave rise to more precise and realistic depictions of surface textures, seen notably in van Eyck's portrayals of light falling on jewellery, wooden floors, rich textiles and household objects.[30][31]

The majority of the works were painted on wood rather than the less expensive canvas.Template:Efn-ua The wood was usually oak, often imported from the Baltic region, with the preference for radially cut boards which are less likely to warp. Typically the sap was removed and the board well-seasoned before use.[32] The common use of wood allows for dendrochronological dating, while the particular use of Baltic oak gives clues as to the artist's location.[33] The panels generally show very high degrees of craftsmanship. Lorne Campbell notes that most are "beautifully made and finished objects. It can be extremely difficult to find the joins."[34] Many of the frames were altered, repainted or gilded in the 18th and early 19th centuries when it was common practice to break apart hinged Netherlandish pieces so they could be sold as genre pieces. A majority of the surviving panels are painted on both sides, often with the reverse bearing family emblems, crests or ancillary outline sketches. In the case of single panels, the markings on the reverse are often wholly unrelated to the obverse and maybe later additions, or as Campbell speculates "done for the artist's amusement".[32] The practice of painting each side of a panel had a practical basis in that it prevented the wood from warping.[35]

Glue was often used as an inexpensive alternative binder to oil, in a technique usually known by the German term tüchlein. Although a large number of works using this medium were produced, few survive today, mainly because the perishability of the linen cloth to which the pigment was usually applied, as well the solubility of the hide glue from which the binder was derived.[36] Well-known and relatively well-preserved – though substantially damaged – examples include Matsys' c. 1415–25 Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine[37] and Dieric Bouts' c. 1440–55 Entombment.[38] The paint was generally applied with brushes, but sometimes with thin sticks or brush handles. The artists often softened the contours of shadows with their fingers, at times to blot or reduce the glaze. Typically the frames of hinged works are engaged, in that they were constructed before the individual panels were worked on.[34]

Craft structure


Painters were protected by guilds which maintained laws and rules controlling production, export markets, and raw material supplies. The guilds maintained different sets of regulations for panel painters, cloth painters sculptors and book illuminators.[39] Overall, panel painters enjoyed the highest level of protection, and even in the higher end of the market, the patron has little say in the design of the final product.[40] Given this, acceess to the guilds was difficult. A master had to serve an apprenticeship in the region, in addition they were required to show proof of citizenship, which could be obtained either through birth, long residence, or by purchase.[41] The first generation of artists were literate, well-educated and mostly from middle-class backgrounds.[42][43] A number were financially successful and much sought after in the Low Countries and by patrons across Europe.[44] Van der Weyden sent his son to the Old University of Leuven, while many, including David and Bouts, could afford to donate large works to the churches, monasteries and convents of their choosing. Van Eyck was a valet de chambre at the Burgundian court and had easy access to Philip the Good, who later employed Gossart.[44] Van der Weyden was a prudent investor in stocks and property, Lucas Cranach managed a trade in pharmaceutical goods, Mathias Grunewald in pigments. Bouts was highly commercial minded and married the heiress, Catherine "Mettengelde" (Catherine 'with the money').[45][46] Vrancke van der Stockt diverted his earnings into investments in land.[42]


In the workshop system, typically the masters were responsible for the overall design and for painting the focal portions of the work such as the face or hands of the figures, or the embroidered parts of the clothing. The more prosaic sections were sometimes left to assistants; in many works it is possible to discern abrupt shifts in style. If the master was secure enough financially, he could dedicate his workshop to the production of copies of his commercially successful works, or on new compositions based on his designs.[47] In this case, the master would usually produce the underdrawing or design. Because of this many surviving works are today attributed to workshops or followers.[48] A workshop kept patterns and prepainted panels to sold directly to the public.[49] The masters' workshops typically consisted of a family home with lodging for apprentices who were either earning their entry into the painters' guild or fully trained journeymen artists who had not yet paid the dues required to establish their own workshop.[50]


The consolidation of the ducal households created a large class of courtiers and functionaries who emulated ducal trends. Some gained enormous power and commissioned paintings to display their wealth and influence, as evidenced by

By the 1400s, the merchant and banker classes were in the ascendancy, and the Low Countries attracted patronage from the Baltic coast, the north German and Polish cities, the Iberian Peninsula, and cities such as Venice, Milan and Florence,Template:Efn-ua as well as the powerful families of England and Scotland.[54] The early to mid-14th century saw a large increase in international trade and domestic wealth, leading to enormous increase in the demand for art works. These were sold through a developing international trade specialising in luxury goods. The mid-15th century first saw the development of art dealership as a profession; at first masters acted as their own dealers, attending fairs where they could also buy frames, panels and pigments[50] until it became a purely commercially driven activity dominated by the members of the mercantile class.

Netherlandish painting was driven by market demand. By the 1460s orders came directly from patrons as far as Naples and Florence.[55] Specific works were not usually produced on commission; more often the masters anticipated the formats and images most sought after and would produced designs later developed into specific paintings by members of their workshop. Prototypes were sold at regularly held fairs, or the buyers could visit workshops, which tended to be clustered in certain areas of the major cities. In addition the master were not unafraid of displaying on their front windows, inviting the patrons to have their likeness added as a donor in the final work. This was the typical mode for the thousands of panels produced for the middle class - city officials, clergy, guild members, doctors and merchants. However for the top end of the market, the process was very different.[56] The Burgundian dukes tended towards extravagance.[55] Philip the Good followed the example set earlier in France by his great-uncle John of Berry by becoming a strong patron of the arts commissioning a large number of art works.[57] The Burgundians were seen as tastemakers across Europe and their appreciation in turn drove demand for the highly luxurious and expensive illuminated Manuscripts, gold-edged tapestries and jewel bordered cups. Their appetite for finery trickled down through their court and nobles, to the people who for the large part in the 1440s and 1450s commissioned local artists in Bruges and Ghent. While Early Netherlandish paintings were not so heavily lined with gold that they had intrinsic value, they were perceived as being of the first rank of European painting. A 1425 document written by Philip the Good explains that he hired a painter for the "excellent work that he does in his craft" (pour cause de l'excellent ouvrage de son mėtier qu'il fait).[55] Jan van Eyck painted the Annunciation while in Philip's employ, and Rogier van der Weyden became the duke's portrait painter in the 1440s.[57]

Less expensive cloth paintings (tüchlein) were more common in middle-class households, but records show a strong interest in domestically owned religious panel paintings.[58] Maryan Ainsworth of the Metropolitan Art Musuem believes the merchant class commissioned a significant number of devotional panels, often smaller pieces, and those frequently emphasising specifically requested themes, images and motifs.[59]

Campbell notes that the works that were exported tended to have had a higher survival rate.[60] Wealthy foreign patronage and the development of international trade afforded the established masters the chance to build up workshops with assistants.[50] Although first rank painters such as Petrus Christus and Hans Memling found patrons among the local nobility, they catered specifically to the large foreign population in Bruges. Christus received as many as 50 percent of his commissions from Italians, and to do so he "adjusted his style to suit them".[41] Memling "cornered the market in portraiture" for the foreign market and he too altered his style.[41] Painters not only exported goods but exported themselves. Foreign princes and nobility strove to emulate the opulence of the Burgundian court and so hired painters away from Bruges. The Duke of Urbino hired Joos van Gent in c. 1473, and Isabella I of Castile – who owned a collection of 300 paintings – hired Michel Sittow to enter her service.[61]


The Netherlandish artists are primarily remembered for panel paintings, yet their output included a wide variety of luxury goods, including tapestries, carved retables and illuminated manuscripts. Outside of painting, the demand for art from the region extended to scuplture, stained glass, brass objects and carved tombs, the later most famously by artists such as Michael Colombe.[62] According to art historian Susie Nash, the region led the field in almost every aspect of movable visual culture, "with specialist expertise and techniques of production at such a high level that no one else could compete with them."[62] The Burgundian court favoured tapestry and metalwork, which are well recorded in surviving documentation, with considerably fewer exant documentation for panel paintings,[58] which were apparently less suited to itinerant courts. Wall hangings and books functioned as political propaganda and as a means to showcase wealth and power, whereas ducal patrons commissioned fewer portraits. Those that were commissioned functioned to document lines of succession, such as van der Weyden's portrait of Charles the Bold; or for betrothals as in the case of van Eyck's now lost betrothal portrait of Isabella of Portugal.[63]

Religious paintings were commissioned for royal and ducal palaces, for churches, hospitals, convents, and for wealthy clerics and private donors. Civic authorities, too, commissioned paintings for public buildings, often with secular scenes or scenes from the Last Judgement. The middle-class and burghers bought, owned and commissioned paintings. Campbell states the demand from the middle-class was vastly important and should not be overlooked. Less expensive cloth paintings were more common, but records show a strong interest in domestically owned panel paintings.[58] There was considerable cross-over; van Eyck and Christus are both thought to have worked on manuscripts, while van der Weyden designed tapestries, though few survive.[64][65] The Netherlandish painters were responsible for many innovations, including the advancement and popularity of the diptych format, the conventions of donor portraits, the crystallising of new conventions for Marian portraits, and through works such as van Eyck's c. 1435 Madonna of Chancellor Rolin and van der Weyden's 1435-40 Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, laying foundations for the development of landscape painting as a separate genre.[66] Although the religious iconography used by the Netherlandish painters is often complex, layered and abundant, a common misunderstanding is that it is obscure. In fact many of the symbols appear repeatedly and come from contemporary motifs of Christian myth, especially portraits of the Virgin with the Child and scenes from the Life of Christ.[67]

When an artist chose to include an iconographical element that would not have been commonly known to the well-educated, the tendency was to make the reference explicit by surrounding it with more popular symbols.[68] The vast majority of surviving Netherlandish art is ecclesiastical. In a world closely tied to the liturgy and sacraments, art functioned to decorate and according to Huizinga "fill with beauty" the devotional life and intended to be a part of daily routine. Altarpieces were highly sought after and lavishly decorated. The level of decoration was determined by the subject: by their nature, more sacred subjects were depicted with the greatest possible amount of beauty.[69]

Triptychs and altarpieces

Northern triptychsTemplate:Efn-ua and polyptychs were widely popular across Europe from the late-14th century, with the peak of demand lasting until the early 1500s. During the 1400s they were the most widely produce format of northern panel painting. They were preoccupied with religious subject matter with most commissions intended for use in liturgical settings.[70] The earliest northern examples are compound works incorporating engraving and painting; usually two painted wings that could be folded over a carved central corpus.Template:Efn-ua[13] That hinged works could be opened and closed served a practical purpose. The interior images visible on religious holidays when the more prosaic and every day outer panels were be replaced by the lush interior panels.[71] The first generation of Netherlandish masters borrowed many conventions from 13th and 14th century Italian altarpieces.[72] Although triptychs were commissioned by German patrons from the 1380s, large-scale export did not begin until around 1400.[13] Few of these very early examples survive.[73] Polyptychs were producted by the more accomplised masters. They greater scope for variation and a greater number of possible combinations of interior and exterior panels that could be viewable at any one time. The Ghent altarpiece, completed in 1432, is known to have had different configuration for weekdays, Sundays and church holidays.Template:Efn-ua.[71]

The the conventions for pre-1400 Italian triptychs were quite rigid, with the the central panel's mid-ground populated by members of the Holy Family, with saints, angels and donors positioned on the wings. These early works, especially from the Sienese or Florentine traditions, are overwhelmingly characterised by images of the enthroned Virgin, set against a gilded background. The wings usually contain a variery of angels, donors and saints, but there is never direct eye contact or rarely a narrative connection with the central panel figures.[74] Netherlandish painters adapted many of these conventions, but subverted them almost from the start. Van der Weyden was especially innovative, as can be seen from his 1442-45 Miraflores Altarpiece and c. 1452 Braque Triptych, both of which contain members of the Holy Family on the wings. The latter is notable for the continuous landscape connecting the three inner panels.[75]

The scale of demand for Netherlandish altarpieces outside of the Burgundian lands is evident from the many surviving examples found in churches in northern Germany and across southern Europe. Till-Holger Borchert describes how "these splendid altarpieces reflect a refined culture of representation for purposes of prestige which, in the first half of the fifteenth century, only the workshops of the Burgundian Netherlands were capable of achieving."[76] By the 1390s, Netherlandish altarpieces were exported mostly from Brussels or Bruges. The popularity of Brussels altarpieces lasted until around 1530, when the output of the Antwerp workshops became more favoured, in part because they were able to produce at a lower cost by allocating different portions of the panels between specialised workshop members, a practice Borchert described as an early form of division of labour.[76]

From the 1590s Hieronymus Bosch painted at least sixteen triptychsTemplate:Efn-ua the best of which subverted existing conventions. These works evidence a number of innovations, including a move towards a more secular approach, and a stronger emphasis on the exterior, which now were more complex and painterly, and less disconnected from the interior panels. Further he unifed the scenes in the inner panels and reject the convention of showing .[70] After Mannerism came to the fore in the mid-1500s, the Netherlandish multi-panel paintings fell out of favour and were considered old-fashioned, while iconoclasm deemed them unfavourable or offensive,[77] when many of those kept in the Low Countries were destroyed, with most extant examples found in German churches and monasteries.[13] As secular works grew in demand, triptychs were often broken up and sold as individual works, especially if a panel or section contained an image that could be passed as a secular portrait. In some instances, a panel would be cut down to only the figure with the background over-painted so that "it looked sufficiently like a genre piece to hang in a well-known collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings."[77]


The Netherlandish diptych format were widely popular in Northern Europe from the mid-15th century to the early-16th, typically as less expensive and more portable altarpieces,[78] and originated from in conventions in Books of Hours. These were adapted by van Eyck and van der Weyden on commission from members of the House of Valois-Burgundy,[79] later refined by Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling and later Jan van Scorel. Diptychs were usually near miniature in scale and some emulate medieval "treasury art" – small pieces made of gold or ivory. The tracery seen in examples such as van der Weyden's Virgin and Child reflect tracery similar to that seen in ivory carving of the period.[80] They consisted of two equally sized panels, either bound or more often joined with flexible hinges,[81] which allowed the panels to be opened like a book and meant they could be viewed in an opened or closed views.[82] Typically the images were thematically linked but moreover diptychs are distinct to pendants in that they are physically connected wings and not merely two paintings hung side-by-side.[83]

Their source imagery can be repetitive; many versions of a small range of religious scenes can be found; including numerous depictions of The Virgin and Child,[84] reflecting the Virgin's contemporary popularity as a subject of devotion.[85] The inner panels mainly consisted of donor panels placed alongside portraits of saints, or the Virgin and Child.[79] They often provided a means for secluded devotion and the panels frequently included commissioned donor portraits, often of husbands and their wives.[83] The donor would nearly always be shown kneeling in full or half length, with hands clasped in prayer. The vast majority of donors were male; Andrea Pearson ascribes this to the fact that women were encouraged to pay devotion in private spaces rather than public. Closing the wings protected the image on the inside and made the outside images, often a crest of arms, became visible.[79]

The development and commercial worth of diptychs has been linked to a change in religious attitude in northern Europe in the 14th century, when a more meditative and solitary attitude to devotion – exemplified by the Devotio Moderna movement – grew in popularity. Private reflection and prayer was encouraged and the usually small scale diptych fitted this purpose. It became popular amongst the newly emerging middle class and the more affluent monasteries across the Low Countries and northern Germany.[85] In many instances the diptych would have been commissioned not only for purposes of devotion, but also to acquire a symbol of wealth and status.

Late 20th century technical examination show significant differences in technique and style between the panels of individual diptychs. The former may be a result of the workshop system; the more prosaic passages were often completed by assistants. The latter, according to historian John Hand, is because the divine panel was usually from a general design offered on the open market, with the donor panel added after a patron was found.[86] As with Netherlandish altarpieces, the majority of diptychs were later broken apart and sold as single "genre" panels.[77] Today few intact examples survive. Panels were separated for a number of reasons: in the workshop system the panels were interchangeable and the religious panels may have been paired with newly commissioned donor panels. Later, as the Burgundian nobility dispersed widely throughout Europe, panels were separated and taken across long distances. During the Reformation, religious scenes were removed from diptychs; and burgeoning art markets capitalized on diptychs by separating panels.[87]

Single devotional panels

Paintings and adornments served an important aid in the religious life to those who could afford them. Prayer and meditation were a means to gain protection from the holy family or favourite saints in the pursuit of salvation.[88] To move quickly from limbo to heaven, prayer was the most obvious means and freely available, while the wealthy might substitute prayer in the commission of churches, their extensions, artworks, or devotional pieces.[88] Vast numbers of Virgin and Child paintings were produced, with original designs widely copied and exported. Many of paintings were based on Byzantine prototypes of the 12th and 13th century, of which the Cambrai Madonna is probably the most well known,[89] with the traditions of the earlier centuries absorbed and re-developed as a distinctly rich and complex iconographical tradition.[88]

Devotion to Mary grew from the 13th century, mostly forming around the concepts of the Immaculate Conception and her ascension into heaven. In a culture that venerated the possession of relics as a means to bring the earthly closer to the divine, Mary could have left no bodily relics, thus assuming a special position between heaven and humanity.[90] By the early 1400s, Mary had grown in importance within the Christian doctrine that she was most commonly seen as the most accessible intercessor with God. The Byzantine idealisation of Marian Icons as well as the concept of purgatory was at its height, and it was thought that the length each person would need to suffer in limbo was proportional to their display of devotion while on earth.[91] The cult of Mary reached an apex in the early 15th century, while incidences around the Life of Christ, especially of his infancy, or from the 16th century, centred around portrayals of the Man of Sorrows, were popular subjects for painters.[92]

The veneration that developed around Mary led to high demand for works depicting her likeness, and, from those who could afford them, donor portraits, often in the diptych format. Van der Weyden innovated with his half length Marian portraits which echoed in style and colour the Byzantine icons then popular in Italy as "miracle" working paintings. The format became extremely popular in the north, and his innovation is a major contributing reason for the emergence of Marian diptychs as an enduring Early Netherlandish format.[93]


Before 1430 secular portraiture was a rarity in European art, and usually reserved for betrothal portraits or family commissions.[94] The format was considered a lower art form, and a vast majority of surviving pre-16th century portraits lack attribution.[63] Large numbers of single devotional panels showing saints and biblical figures were being produced, but depictions of historical, known individuals did not begin until the early 1430s. Van Eyck was the pioneer;[95] his seminal 1432 Léal Souvenir is one of the earliest surviving examples and emblematic of the new style in its realism and acute observation of the small details of the sitter's appearance.[96] Van der Weyden developed the conventions and was arguably more influential on the following generations of painters. Rather than merely follow van Eyck's meticulous attention to detail, van der Weyden focused on providing more abstract and sensual representations. He was highly sought after as a portraitist, yet there is a noticeable similarity in his portraits, likely because he used and reused the same under-drawings that met a common ideal of rank and piety. He then added finishing touches to highlight the facial characteristic and expressions of the particular sitter.[97]

Petrus Christus adapted the technique of setting figures against naturalistic as opposed to flat and featureless backgrounds.[98] In his 1462 Portrait of a Man, now in the London National Gallery, Bouts went further and added a room, complete with a window that looks out at a landscape.[99] In the 1500s, the full length portrait became popular in the north. This was a format practically unseen in 1400s northern art, although it has a tradition in Italy going back centuries, most usually in fresco and illuminated manuscripts.[100] Full length portraits were reserved for depictions of the highest echelon of society, and were associated with princely displays of power.[101] Of the second generation of northern painters, Hans Memling became the leading portraitist, taking commissions from afar as Italy. He was highly influential on later painters and is credited with inspiring Leonardo's positioning the Mona Lisa in front of a landscape view.[102] The French artist Jean Fouquet was similarly influenced by van Eyck and van der Weyden, while in Germany their influence can be seen in the works of Hans Pleydenwurff[103] and Martin Schongauer amongst others.[104]

Within the European context as a whole, the Netherlandish artists were responsible for the move away from the profile view, popular since Roman coinage and medals, towards the less formal and engaging three-quarters pose. At this angle, more than one side of the face is visible as the sitter's body —almost but not quite—directly faces the viewer, while the a portion of the head, usually from around the far ear, is not visible. The three-quarters pose gives a better view of the shape and features of the head and allows the sitter to look out towards the viewer. Van Eyck's 1433 Portrait of a Man is an early example, and is all the more notable as it is likely van Eyck himself who stares out at us.[105] Yet the gaze of the sitter rarely engages the viewer. Although there is direct eye contact between subject and viewer, normally the look is detached, aloof and uncommunicative, perhaps to reflect the subject's high social position. There are exceptions, typical in bridal portraits or in the case of potential betrothals, where the object of the work is to make the sitter as attractive as possible. In these cases the sitter was often shown smiling, with an engaging, fresh and radiant expression designed to appeal to her intended.[106]

Around 1508 Albrecht DürerTemplate:Efn-ua described the basic function of portraiture as "preserving a person's appearance after his death".[107] During the 1400s portraits were objects of status, and served to ensure that the individual's personal success and wealth was recorded and would endure after death. Most portraits tended to exclusively show royalty, the upper nobility or princes of the church. However the new affluence in the Burgundian Netherlands saw a wider variety of clientele, as members of the upper middle class were now able to afford to commission a portrait, or very often, commission a religious work in which their likeness was inserted.[108] For this reason we know more about how the people of the region looked and dressed since any time since the late Roman period. Whereas European art had been preoccupied with idealised representations of saints and biblical figures, the early Netherlandish painters began to paint faces with a high degree of individuality; faces that for the first time stare out confidently at the viewer.[109] The portraits were not usally executed with the subject sitting for the artist for long periods. Typically a series of preparatory drawing were be made, used to flesh out the final panel. Very few of these drawings survive, the most notable extant example is van Eyck's study for his Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati.[101]

Illuminated manuscript

During the early to mid-1400s, illuminated books were considered a higher form of art than panel painting; their obvious painterly, decorative and luxurious qualities served as a means to display the patron's wealth.[110] They represented high craft and their ownership conferred notions of wealth, status and taste. Illuminated books were ideally suited as diplomatic gifts or offerings to commemorate dynastic marriages.[111] Masters would often produce single leaf illustrations to be almost randomly inserted into precious books, as a means for the master to display and advertise his skill.[112] From the 12th century specialist workshops in monasteries (in French libraires) had produced books of hours, psalters, prayerbooks, histories, romances, poetry and, at the lower range, a wide range of moralizing pamplets. By the 14th century, the largely Gothic works coming from Paris were the major source of supply, but from the mid-15th century, Ghent, Bruges and Utrecht dominated the market in northern Europe. English production, once of the highest quality, had greatly declined, and relatively few Italian manuscripts were exported. A number of factors led to this popularity, especially the tradition and expertise that had devoloped in the region over the last two hundred years following monastic reform and the growth in the number and prominence of monasteries, abbeys and churches, a great number of which were producing lavish and highly intricate liturgical texts as early as the 12th and 13th centuries.[112]

There was considerable overlap between panel painting and illumination, and significant commissions were often shared between several different masters, with more junior painters, many women, assisting, especially in producing the elaborate border decorations.[112] Because of this, and as these artists rarely signed their work, it is often difficult to attribute works to specific artists, and the identities of some of the most signifiant illuminators of the period are lost to us. They are now referred to by Notnames, that is names of convenience used to distinguish anonymous masters based on their major works, location, the most distinctive feature of their work, or the theme or iconographical element they are best associated with.[113][114]

Paris was overtaken as an important center of production in the 1440s, with the emergence of Bruges and Ghent. This was in part due to the increasing mastery of naturalism achived by the artists working there,[115] and also to the patronage of Philip the Good, who by his death had collected over 1,000 illuminated books.[116][117] Netherlandish artists found increasingly inventive and innovative ways to highlight and differentiate their ability from manuscripts produced in surrounding countries, including elaborate page design and devising ways to relate scale and space. They explored the interplay between the three essential components of a manuscript; border, miniature and text.[118] A striking c. 1467-80 example is the Nassau book of hours by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy in which the borders are decorated with illusionistic, outsized objects such as flowers and insects. These elements achieved their effect by being broadly painted, as if scattered across the gilded surface of the miniatures. This technique was continued by, amongst others, the Flemish Master of James IV of Scotland,[119] known for his innovation in the layout of his pages. Using various illusionistic elements, he often blurred the line between the miniature and its border, frequently using both in his efforts to advance the narrative of his scenes.[120]

The Limbourg brothers's work marks perhaps the high point of "manipulative realistic imagery" with their ornate "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry". Later the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy explored the same mix of illusionism and realism.[120] The Limbourg brothers' career ended just as van Eyck's began, when both the brothers and their patron, Jean, Duke of Berry, died, most likely of plague.[121] Jan van Eyck is thought to have contributed to the "Turin-Milan Hours" as the anonymous but superior artist known as Hand G.[122] A number of illustrations from the period show a strong stylistic resemblance to Gerard David, though it is unclear whether they are by his hand or followers.[123]

The export market had long been important to the Netherlandish illuminators, with many works designed specifically for the English market. Following a decline in domestic patronage after the 1477 death of Charles the Bold, Philip the Good's son, the export market became more important, and illuminators responded to the difference in taste by producing more lavish and extravagantly decorated works tailored for the first rank of foreign notability, including James IV of Scotland and Eleanor of Viseu.[124] The arrival of print in the 16th century devalued illumination as books became far more accessible and commonplace.[116]


During the mid-15th century, tapestries were perhaps the most sought after visual product in Europe. Commercial production excelled from the early 1400s across the Netherlands and northern France, especially in the cities of Arras, Bruges and Tournai. The perceived technical ability of these craftsmen was such that, in 1517, Julius II sent Raphael's cartoons to Brussels to be woven into hangings.[125] They played a central political role as diplomatic gifts, especially in their larger format, as seen in the surviving example handed to Philip the Good at the Congress of Arras in 1435, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[62] Their practical use results from their portability; textiles provided easy to put together environments for conducting religious or civic ceremonies.[126] Their value is reflected in their relative positioning in contemporary inventories, where they are typically found at the top of the record. Then they are usually ranked in accordance with their colouring or material, with white and gold considered at the first mark. Philip the Good was a leading patron, as was Jean de Berry who owned 19, and Mary of Burgundy, Isabella of Valois and Isabeau of Bavaria all held substantial collections. Charles V of France had fifty-seven, of which sixteen were white.[127]

Most of the commercial organisation centered on weaving. Looms were active in all the major Flemish cities, in most of the towns and in many of the villages, a fact that allowed the region to sub-contract and thus produce such a high output. Commissions could be farmed out and distributed across a large number of weavers.[128] The designs, or cartoons (klein patroons in Flemish, petit patrons in French), were typically executed on paper or parchment, and usually put together by qualified painters. They were then sent, often across a great distance, to weavers. Because cartoons could be re-used, craftsmen often worked on source material that was decades old. Yet as both paper and parchment are highly perishable, few of the original cartoons survive.[129]

The looms were outside the guild hierarchy and often depended on a migrant workforce. Their commercial activity was driven by a entrepreneur, usually a trained painter. This entrepreneur would locate and commission patrons and stock cartoons, and provide the raw material, which often had to be imported, and included wool, silk, and sometimes gold and silver.[130] He interacted directly with the patron, agreeing to the design both at the cartoon and final stages. This was often a difficult business and necessitated delicate management; in 1400 Isabeau of Bavaria pointedly rejected a completed set by Colart de Laon[128] having earlier approved their design, to de Laon's - and presumably his commissioner's - considerable embarrassment.[129]

Because northern tapestries were designed by painters, their formal conventions are closely aligned with the conventions of panel painting. This is especially true with the later generations of painters of the 16th century, those that produced panoramas of heaven and hell. Harbison describes how the intricate, dense and overlaid detail of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights resembles, "in its precise symbolism ... a medieval tapestry".[131]


Landscape was a secondary concern for the first generation of Netherlandish painters. Geographical settings were rare and when they did appear they usually consisted of glimpses through open windows or arcades. Even then they were rarely if ever based on any identifable location. The settings tended to be largely imagined, designed to suit the thematic thrust of the panel. Because most of the settings contained commissioned donor portraits, very often the landscapes were tame and controlled, in harmony with the warm idealised interior setting. In this, the northern artists lagged behind their Italian counterparts, who had already segued interior and exterior pictorial spaces, and were placing their paintings within actual, closely described landscapes.[132] Yet some of the northern lanscapes are highly detailed and notable in their own right, including van Eyck's unsentimental c 1430 Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych and van der Weyden's widely copied 1435-40 Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin. This changed towards the end of the 15th century, led in part by an emphasis on more secular subject matter and a waning in the dominance of religious iconography.[16] At the same time still life, for similar reasons but less successfully, also became a genre in its own right.

The later northern artists applied the 1400s dictum of representing 'things as they actually are' to nature. In part this was due to the rising affluence of the region's middle class, many of whom had now travelled south and seen countryside noticeably different to their own "flat" homeland. At the same time, the later century saw the emergence of specilisation and a number of masters focused on detailing landscape, most notably Konrad Witz and Joachim Patinir.[133] In general, innovations in this aspect of painting came from artists living in the Dutch regions of the Burgundian lands, most notably in Haarlem, Leiden and 's-Hertogenbosch. And yet the significant artists from these areas did not slavishly reproduce the scenery before them; in subtle ways they adapated and modified their landscapes to reinforce the emphasis and meaning of the panel they were working on.[132]

Relationship to the Italian Renaissance

The emerging style in the north developed almost simultaneously with the early Italian Renaissance. While advancements in Italy were borne from the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman traditions, imbued with the new found doctrine of humanism, the northern painters doctrine was built on elements of recent Gothic tradition. The philosophical and artistic traditions of the Mediterranean were not part of the northern heritage, to the extent that many elements of Latin culture were actively disparaged.[109]

The role of Renaissance humanism was not as pronounced in the Low Countries as it was in Italy. Local religious trends had a strong influence and their influence can be seen in the subject matter, composition and form of many late 13th and early 14th artworks.[85] While devotional paintings—espically altarpieces—remained dominant in Early Netherlandish art,[109] secular portraiture became increasingly common both in northern and southern Europe as artists freed themselves from the prevailing idea that portraiture should be restricted to saints and historical figures. In Italy this development was tied to the ideals of humanism;[134] in the Low Countries it was tied to the rise of a somewhat vain and affluent merchant class.

Italian influences on Netherlandish art are first apparent in the late 1400s, when some of the painters began to travel south. By then Mannerism was the predominant style in Italy, a reason why a number of later Netherlandish artists became associated with, in the words of art historian Rolf Toman, "picturesque gables, bloated, barrel-shaped columns, droll cartouches, 'twisted' figures, and stunningly unrealistic colours—actually employ[ing] the visual language of Mannerism".[109] As in Florence, where banking and trade led to numerous private commissions, wealthy merchants commissioned religious paintings for private devotion (often including themselves in the form of donor portraits) as well as secular portraits. Additionally, the presence of the Burgundian court in Urbino and other Italian cities allowed court artists to flourish. Painters were increasingly aware of their position in society: they signed their works more often, painted self-portraits, and became well-known figures because of their artistic activities.[42]

The Northern masters were much admired in Italy, and Friedländer argues that they exercised a stronger influence over 15th-century Italian artists than vice versa. exclusive north to south influence first appeared in the scholarship of Friedländer and was supported by Panofsky;[135] By the early 16th century the reputation of the northern masters was such that there was an established trade in works, although many of the paintings or objects sent south were by lesser artists and not of a very huigh quality.[136] Innovations introduced in the north that were adopted in Italy included the setting of figures in domestic interiors and the viewing of an interior from multiple vantage points through openings such as doors or windows,Template:Efn-ua[137] Hugo van der Goes' Portinari Altarpiece played an important role in introducing Florentine painters to trends from the north, and artists like Antonello da Messina probably came under the influence of northern painters working in Sicily, Naples and later Venice.

Destruction and dispersal

During the schism of the Protestant Reformation and the European wars of religion of the 16th century, known as the Beeldenstorm in the Netherlands, thousands of religious objects and artifacts were destroyed. These included paintings, sculptures, altarpieces, stained glass windows, crucifixes; any object that had religious or iconographical imagery and was as "overtly luxurious" was considered idolatrous.[138] The reformers objected less to the ideals for which the imagery stood, and more to the manner in which they were commissioned and worshiped.[139] Outbreaks of reformist iconoclasm reoccurred across much of Northern Europe from 1520 for about 130 years.[140] In 19 August 1566, the outburst that had swept through the Netherlands reached Ghent. It was witnessed by the historian and chronicler Marcus van Vaernewijck (1518–69) who saw the Ghent Altarpiece "taken to pieces and lifted, panel by panel, into the tower to preserve it from the rioters".[141] One of the most significant losses was a polytriptych by van der Weyden, The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald, which is today known only from a tapestry copy, but had been compared in scale and impact to van Eyck's Ghent altarpiece.[142]

As a result, few artworks – even from the major painters – survive. Of van Eyck's work between 22 to 24 paintings can confidently be attributed, though this number continues to be challenged and revised. With Petrus Christus, the number is much less. And there is no reason to believe these painters were not prolific. In general, the works that did survive were those that were either commissioned for export to Italy or Spain, where they were in high demand, or those that were looted by foreign armies before the worst of the outbreaks of iconoclasm had ended.

A great number of the artworks were commissioned by clergy for their churches,[73] and were ordered by design, that is to fit within an overall existing framework and thematic design. An idea of how this might have looked can be seen from both van Eyck's Madonna in the Church and van der Weyden's London Exhumation of St Hubert. In van der Weyden's description we get an insightful look into the appearance of pre-reformation churches and the manner in which images were placed or hung so that they resonated with other paintings or objects. According to art historian Nash "any one would necessarily be seen in relation to other images, repeating, enlarging, or diversifying the chosen themes". Because iconoclasm targeted churches and cathedrals, this original context of any individual work is now lost, and with it we lose insight as to any intended meaning.[138]

The historical record is very poor, and to this day even the major artists remain clouded in obscurity, with only bare outlines of the lives of even the major painters known, while attribution of specific painting remains an ongoing, contentious and shifting issue. There are a number of contributing factors to this situation. Documents were lost in the burning of municipal buildings, while a great many archives were destroyed in bombing campaigns in the two world wars, and a great many of those works for whom records and descriptions survive are themselves lost or destroyed.[143] The keeping of records in the region was anyway inconsistent and very often the export of works by even major artists was, owing to the pressures of commercial demand, produced quickly and its shipping not notarised.[144] The surviving documentation tends to come from inventories, wills, payment accounts, employment contracts and guild records and regulations.[145]

Establishing the names of Netherlandish masters and attributing specific works has been difficult. The practice of signing and dating works is rarely seen in the region until the 1420s,[146] and the inventories of collectors, while often fantastically and elaborately detailing the works in their possession, did not tend to attach much importance to recording the name of the artist or workshop that produced them.[147] A great many early Netherlandish masters have not been identified, and are today know by names of convenience, or Notnames. Typically these pseudonyms are applied after commonality is established for a grouping of works, of which a similarity of theme, style, iconography, biblical source or physical location can probably be attributed to one individual or workshop. Groupings of works under a given notname can often be contentious; in specific cases art historians have argued that the reality may be a group or school of artists working under a common influence or commercial demand.[144] This situation is complicated by the fact that some artists who were known by pseudonyms are now identified, albeit sometimes controversially as in the case of Campin who is today usually, but not always, associated as the Master of Flémalle.[148]

Many of the unidentified late 14th and early 15th century northern artists were of the first rank, but because they have not been attached to any historical person, have suffered from academic neglect. It is probably a truism to say that, as Susie Nash put it, "much of what cannot be firmly attributed remains less studied".[144] Some art historians believe that this has led to a lack of caution in connecting works with historical persons, and that such establishments often hangs on thin threads of circumstantial evidence. The identities of a number of well known artists have been founded on the basis of a single signed, documented or otherwise attributed work, with similar works sharing close style or within a geographical range also attached to that name. Examples include Hugo van der Goes, Campin, Stefan Lochner and Simon Marmion.[149]

A further difficulty comes from the lack of surviving theoretical writing on art, or recorded opinions from any of the major artists. Dürer, in 1512, was the first artist of the era to properly set down in writing his theories of art, followed by Lucas de Heere in 1565 and Karel van Mander in 1604, at the end of his life.

A more probable explanation for the absence of theoretical writing on art outside Italy is that the northern artists did not yet have the language to describe what they valued in images, or saw no point in trying to explain in writing what they had achieved in painting. An irony is that surviving 15th century appreciations of contemporary Netherlandish art is exclusively written by Italians, the best known of which include Cyriacus Ancona in 1449, Bartolommeo Fazio in 1456, and Giovanni Santi in 1482.[150]


With the advent of Mannerism in the mid-1500s, the Early Netherlandish painters fell out of favour. During the 16th century royal art collections grew in prominence. Mary of Hungary and Philip II of Spain were the first modern royals to seek out Netherlandish painters, and both shared a preference for van der Weyden and Bosch. By the early 17th century no collection of repute was complete without Northern European works from the 15th and 16th centuries, however the emphasis tended to be on the Northern Renaissance as a whole, especially Albrecht Dürer, who was by far the most collectable northern artist of the era. Giorgio Vasari in 1550 and Karel van Mander c 1604 placed the Netherlandish painters at the heart of Northern Renaissance art. In his first edition of Vite, Vasari -mistakenly- credited Jan van Eyck with the invention of oil painting. Yet, both writers were instrumental in forming the later international opinion as to which of the region's painters was the most significant, with emphasis on van Eyck as the innovator.[151]

The Netherlandish paionters were largely forgotten during the 17th and 18th centuries. When the Louvre was converted to an art gallery during the French Revolution, David's Marriage at Cana – attributed to van Eyck – was the only piece of Netherlandish art displayed. However, more large panels, the central panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, van Eyck's Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, and Memling's Morel Triptych, were soon added to the collection when the French conquered the Lowlands. These had a profound effect on Schlegel, who after a visit in 1803 wrote an analysis of Netherlandish art, sending it to Ludwig Tieck who had the piece published in 1805.[152]

In 1821 Johanna Schopenhauer became interested in the work of Jan van Eyck and his followers, having seen early Netherlandish and Flemish paintings in the collection of the brothers Sulpiz and Melchior Boisserée in Heidelberg.Template:Efn-ua She had to undertake primary archival research because, beyond official legal documents, there was very little historical record of the masters.[153] Schopenhauer published Johann van Eyck und seine Nachfolger in 1822, the same year Gustav Friedrich Waagen published the first modern scholarly work on early Netherlandish painting, Ueber Hubert und Johann can Eyck;[154] Waagen's work drew directly from Schlegel and Schopenhauer's earlier analyses. Waagen went on to become director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin from 1830 for some decades, amassing a collection of Netherlandish art, including the Ghent panels (except the nude Adam and Eve), a number of van der Weyden triptychs and a Bouts altarpiece. Subjecting the works to meticulous analysis and examinations in the course of acquisitions, based on distinguishing characteristics of individual artists, he established an early and necessary scholarly system of classifications.[152]

In 1830 the Belgian Revolution split Belgium from the Netherlands of today and created new national divisions between the cities of Bruges (van Eyck and Memling), Antwerp (Matsys), Brussels (van der Weyden and Bruegel) and Leuven (Bouts). The newly emerged state of Belgium sought to establish a cultural identity, and during the 18th century, Memling's reputation came to equal that of van Eyck. Memling was seen as the older master's match technically, with a deeper emotional resonance.[155] Among later civic collectors, German museums were in the vanguard. Edward Solly's unusually far-sighted 1818 purchase of six panels from van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece hung in Berlin.[156] When in 1848 the paintings of Prince Ludwig of Oettingen-Wallerstein at Schloss Wallerstein were forced onto the market, his cousin Prince Albert arranged a viewing at Kensington Palace; though a catalog of works attributed to the School of Cologne, Jan van Eyck and van der Weyden was compiled by Waagen, there were no other buyers so the Prince Consort purchased them himself.[157] In 1860, when Charles Eastlake purchased for the London National Gallery Rogier van der Weyden's The Magdalen Reading panel from Edmond Beaucousin's "small but choice" collection of early Netherlandish paintings that also included two Robert Campin portraits and panels by Simon Marmion, it was a ground-breaking acquisition.[158]

Netherlandish art became popular with museum goers from the late 1800s, though the main attractions differ to todays taste, many due to errors in attribution. At the turn of the 19th century van Eyck and Memling were the most highly regarded, with van der Weyden and Christus little more than footnotes. Later many of the works then attributed to Memling were found to be from van der Weyden or his workshop. The first exhibition of Netherlandish art held in Bruges in 1902 brought 35,000 visitors and is described as "a turning point in the appreciation in early Netherlandish art".[159] The exhibition renewed interest in and initiated scholarship that was to flourish in the 20th century. Although about many more pieces attributed to Memling than those of other painters of the first rank were displayed in the Bruges exhibition, van Eyck and van der Weyden were considered the better artists at the time and in the scholarly work to come in the ensuing decades.[160]


The most significant early research on the painters occurred in the 1920s, in German art historian Max Jakob Friedländer's pioneering "Meisterwerke der Niederländischen Malerei des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts". Friedländer's work mainly focused on providing biographical detail about the painters, establishing attribution, and closely examining the major works, an extremely difficult task, given the lack of surviving biographical detail or even historical record about most of the most significant artists. Friedländer's work was followed but in many ways challenged by the U.S. based German art historian Erwin Panofsky's analysis in the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote in English and for the first time made the work of the German art historians accessible to the English-speaking world, in effect making Netherlandish art a legitimate field of study, and raising it status to something similar to the early Italian renaissance.[161]

Panofsky was one of the first artistorians to abandon formualism and seek to place Netherlandish iconography within a cultural and socital historical context.[162] He build on Friedländer attempts at attribution, but was more focused on social history and religious iconography.[163] Panofsky was responsible for developing the language with which the Netherlandish paintings are usually described, and made significant advances identifying the rich religious symbolism espically of the major altarpieces. Panofsky was the first to make the connection between the Nerthelandish painters and illuminators, the first to realise that there was considerable overlap. He considered the study of manuscripts as integral to the study of panels, and at first viewed them as another side to the same coin, though in the end came to view them as a less significant to panel painting, as a prelude to the truly significant work of the northern 15th and 16th centuries.[164]

His work was continued and developed by the mid-20th-century German art historians Otto Pächt and Friedrich Winkler who specialised on 15th-century manuscripts and were key in both indentifying the sources of iconographical emblishments and in ascribing attribution, although often to anonymous masters under names of convienence.[164] In the 1960s and 1970s Lotte Brand Philip and Elisabeth Dhanens developed on Panofsky's work, and resolved many of the issues that Panofsky had struggled with, espically in relation to identifying the sources of iconography, and attributing works of the early to mid-1400s.

More recent research from art historians such as Lorne Campbell of London's National Gallery, relies on X-ray and infra-red photography to develop an understanding of the techniques and materials used by the painters. Scolarship since the 1970s has tended to move away from pure study of iconography towards placing the paintings and artists in the context of the social history of their time.[165] According to Craig Harbison, "Social history was becoming increasingly important. Panofsky had never really talked about what kind of people these were."[166]

Because there is so little surviving documentation attribution is especially difficult. The problem is compounded by the workshop system, which often produced multiple versions of a single work of its master. It was not until the late 1950s, after the research of Friedländer, Panofsky and Meyer Schapiro that the attributions generally accepted today were established. Even so, the major artists' biographies are, for the most part, scanty reconstructions from scattered mentions in legal records. In many instances their identities are unknown or contested, and names of convenience, were used, largely by Friedländer, to groups of works sharing similarities of style, time and location. The so-called Master of the Legend of the Magdalen, who may have been Pieter van Coninxloo, is one of the more notable examples.[167]






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  • Hand, John Oliver; Metzger, Catherine; Spronk, Ron. Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych. Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-300-12155-5
  • Harbison, Craig. "The Art of the Northern Renaissance". London: Laurence King Publishing, 1995. ISBN 1-78067-027-3
  • Harbison, Craig. "Realism and Symbolism in Early Flemish Painting". The Art Bulletin, Volume 66, No. 4, Dec, 1984. 588–602
  • Holly, Michael Ann. "Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History". Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8014-9896-1
  • Huizinga, Johan. (1924, 2009 edition). The Waning of the Middle Ages. Oxford: Benediction. ISBN 978-1-84902-895-0
  • Jacobs, Lynn. Opening Doors: The Early Netherlandish Triptych Reinterpreted. Penn State Press, 2011. ISBN 0-271-04840-9
  • Jacobs, Lynn. "The Triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch". The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 31, No. 4, 2000. 1009-1041
  • Jacobs, Lynn. "The Marketing and Standardization of South Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces: Limits on the

Role of the Patron". The Art Bulletin, Volume 71, No. 2, 1989. 208-229

  • Jones, Susan Frances. Van Eyck to Gossaert. National Gallery, 2011. ISBN 978-1-85709-504-3
  • Kemperdick, Stephan. The Early Portrait, from the Collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein and the Kunstmuseum Basel. Munich: Prestel, 2006. ISBN 3-7913-3598-7
  • Kren, Thomas. Illuminated Manuscripts of Belgium and the Netherlands at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles: John Paul Getty Museum, 2010. ISBN 1-60606-014-7
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: Europe's House Divided. London: Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303538-X
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  • Morrison, Elizabeth. Flemish Manuscript Painting in Context. Getty Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-8923-6852-7
  • Pächt, Otto. Early Netherlandish Painting from Rogier van der Weyden to Gerard David. New York: Harvey Miller, 1997. ISBN 1-872501-84-2
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. New York: Harper & Row, 1969
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting. London: Harper Collins, 1971. ISBN 0-06-430002-1
  • Pearson, Andrea. "Personal Worship, Gender, and the Devotional Portrait Diptych". The Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume 31, No. 1, 2000. 99-122
  • Powell, Amy. "A Point 'Ceaselessly Pushed Back': The Origin of Early Netherlandish Painting. The Art Bulletin, Volume 88, no 4, 2006
  • Ridderbos, Bernhard; Van Buren, Anne; Van Veen, Henk. Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception and Research. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-89236-816-0
  • Rothstein, Bret Sight and Spirituality in Early Netherlandish Painting (Studies in Netherlandish Visual Culture). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-521-83278-0
  • Silver, Larry. "The State of Research in Northern European Art of the Renaissance Era". The Art Bulletin, Volume 68, No. 4, 1986. 518-535
  • Souchal, Geneviève. "Masterpieces of tapestry from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century". New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974
  • Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. The Northern Renaissance (Art and Ideas). Phaidon Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7148-3867-5
  • Spronk, Ron. "More than Meets the Eye: An Introduction to Technical Examination of Early Netherlandish Paintings at the Fogg Art Museum". Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin, Volume 5, no. 1, Autumn 1996
  • Toman, Rolf (ed). Renaissance: Art and Architecture in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries. Bath: Parragon, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4075-5238-5
  • Teasdale Smith, Molly. "On the Donor of Jan van Eyck's Rolin Madonna". University of Chicago Press: Gesta Volume 20, No. 1. In Essays in Honor of Harry Bober (1981). 273-279
  • Ward, John. "Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck's Paintings". Artibus et Historiae, Volume 15, No. 29, 1994. 9–53
  • Wieck, Roger. "Folia Fugitiva: The Pursuit of the Illuminated Manuscript Leaf". The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Volume 54, 1996
  • Wolff, Martha; Hand, John Oliver. Early Netherlandish painting. National Gallery of Art Washington; Oxford University Press, 1987 ISBN 0-521-34016-0

Further reading

  • Ainsworth, Maryan. "Intentional Alterations of Early Netherlandish Paintings." Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 40, 2005
  • Ainsworth, Maryan (ed.) Early Netherlandish Painting at the Crossroads: A Critique of Current Methodologies. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002. ISBN 0-300-09368-3
  • de Vos, Dirk. The Flemish Primitives: The Masterpieces. Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-691-11661-X
  • Frere, Jean-Claude. Early Flemish Painting. Vilo International, 1997. ISBN 2-87939-120-2
  • Harbison, Craig. The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 0-13-183322-7
  • Pächt, Otto. Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting. New York: Harvey Miller, 2000. ISBN 1-872501-28-1
  • Snyder, James. The Northern Renaissance: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004. ISBN 0-13-189564-8

External links

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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