HISTORY OF NETHERLANDS ART

van Eyck and the Ghent altarpiece: AD 1432

On 6 May 1432 a vast new painted altarpiece is set in place in the cathedral of Ghent. An inscription on it states that it was begun by Hubert van Eyck and completed in 1432 by his brother Jan.

Nothing is known of Hubert apart from this one mention of his name. But the Ghent altarpiece is only the first of a succession of masterpieces signed by Jan van Eyck during the 1430s. This is the decade in which the Renaissance makes a spectacular appearance in the painting of northern Europe.

The Ghent altarpiece is part of a late medieval tradition of works of this kind made up of many panels, in this case folding in on each other. Duccio’s Maestà in Siena is a noble predecessor. But Duccio’s panels are for the most part small and crowded. Each, on its own, would be interesting, delightful and touching – but not spectacular.

Van Eyck, painting with a new certainty of detailed design and execution, makes each panel a powerful work in its own right. And yet each collaborates with its immediate neighbour and its opposite number to make a balanced whole which is even more impressive than the separate parts.

The central panel, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is the most ambitious composition up to this point in the story of art. Scores of Christian saints, dignitaries and pilgrims are set with complete realism in a complex landscape.

The surrounding panels, tall and thin, are equally impressive. Whether they be the naked Adam and Eve, or organist and singers, or the archangel and the Virgin in the two halves of an Annunciation, these figures occupy their allotted spaces with complete naturalness and realism. Each is a powerful composition in its own right, striking when seen at a distance and fascinating in its detail if viewed more closely.

Jan van Eyck and portraiture: AD 1433-1444

The faces in the panels of the Ghent altarpiece are so real that they could be portraits, and indeed two of the panels depict the kneeling donors. This degree of realism, introduced here in Flanders, is also found in the paintings by van Eyck which are commissioned as portraits – again among the first of their kind.

Van Eyck’s most famous portrait is of a married couple – an Italian merchant in Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife Giovanna. Painted in 1434 and known now as The Arnolfini Marriage, this view of the pair holding hands in a bedroom is thought to symbolize their union rather than to depict an actual ceremony.

The representation of the room as a three-dimensional space, together with the almost tangible textures of the couple’s rich clothes, gives notice that an exact depiction of reality can now be achieved. Henceforth, in the work of the best artists, this can be taken for granted.

Similarly the character in the faces of the stern Italian merchant and his yielding wife signify that portraiture has come of age. The same is true of a deeply personal image of a man in a turban, painted by van Eyck in 1433 and possibly a self-portrait. But in these pioneering works of portraiture, in the 1430s, van Eyck is not alone – and perhaps cannot even claim priority.

Robert Campin: AD c.1430

In about 1430, probably in Flanders, a husband and wife have their portraits painted by an artist whose identity has been something of a mystery. Believed now to be Robert Campin, he has been known in the past as the more anonymous Master of Flémalle.

These two sitters are simpler than the Arnolfinis (painted four years later). In a head-and-shoulders format, each panel is almost filled by a friendly face in an elaborate headdress of everyday cloth. These people are well-off, but they have few pretensions. They are the first real glimpse of Europe’s new middle class. I know of no couple, so far away in time, to whom art brings one so close.

A sense of close involvement is a hallmark of Robert Campin and his workshop. It is seen in one of their favourite subjects – the Virgin and Child in an ordinary domestic interior. In these views Mary is not enthroned as she would be in an Italian painting of this period. Here she is more likely to sit on everyday furniture, nursing her child in a cosy room with wooden panelling, tongs in the fireplace, a useful towel hanging up ready to hand and a view through a leaded window over a northern townscape. It is all reassuringly real.

In his mastery of illusionistic technique Campin, like van Eyck, has one technical advantage peculiar at this time to northern Europe – oil paint.

van der Weyden: AD 1435

The extraordinary decade of the 1430s, in Flanders, introduces yet another outstanding master. Rogier van der Weyden, who probably learns his craft in the studio of Robert Campin, becomes the official painter to the city of Brussels in 1435. In the next few years he produces a succession of masterpieces, of which the Descent from the Cross in the Prado is merely the best known.

Van der Weyden retains the clarity and realism of Campin and van Eyck, but replaces the calm and stillness of their work with a new intensity of emotion – seen in the Prado painting in the gruesome dead weight of Christ’s body and the collapse into grief of his mother.

The three great Netherlands artists of the 1430s are central figures in the story of Renaissance painting. By contrast their two greatest successors during the following century, in the rich sequence of great painters from this small northwest region of Europe, are decidedly quirky.

The gloriously eccentric canvases of Bosch and Brueghel are much appreciated by collectors of the time, particularly within the Habsburg family. But they are a byway of their own, far from the mainstream.

Bosch and Brueghel: AD 1480-1569

Hieronymus Bosch acquires his name from the town of ‘s Hertogenbosch, where he is born in about 1450 and spends his entire working life. Relatively little is known about him, but the teeming fantasy of his imagination, vividly realized in paint, makes him one of the most distinctive of artists.

In both subject matter (the torments and delights associated with hell and heaven) and style (the slender figures and clear colours characteristic of International Gothic), Bosch’s art looks back towards late medieval models.

Bosch’s most elaborate works abound in vivid and fantastic vignettes, little self-contained scenes of delight or horror which can keep a viewer browsing happily for hours as if wandering in some surreal adventure playground (much in his work directly prefigures surrealism).

The two largest and most characteristic paintings are the triptychs of The Haywain and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Now in the Prado, these are among twelve paintings by Bosch acquired by Philip II for the Escorial. All come from the collections of Spaniards posted to the Netherlands. One group of six, including The Haywain, is bought by a diplomat during Bosch’s life, presumably from the artist himself.

The natural successor to Bosch in is Pieter Brueghel, born in about 1525. His works too are mainly gathered in a Habsburg collection, this time in Vienna. There are as many as fourteen of his paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum – mainly collected by the Austrian archduke Ernst, regent in the Spanish Netherlands in the 1590s.

Brueghel often depicts details as fantastic as those of Bosch (as for example in The Triumph of Death in the Prado), but he usually prefers to find a more realistic context. Thus the weird scenes in the battle between Carnival and Lent (now in Vienna) are presented as part of a village festival.

Brueghel’s landscapes, filled with people going about their everyday business, are perhaps his most characteristic achievement. He adds a stimulating extra ingredient when he presents New Testament or mythological events in just such an everyday down-to-earth Netherlandish context.

The Massacre of the Innocents take place with chilling conviction in a snowy northern village. Jesus makes his way, almost unnoticed, through a crowded summer scene to Calvary. In the Fall of Icarus only the leg of the fallen aviator shows above the waves, unnoticed by the ploughman in the foreground. The Tower of Babel is as busy, and as fascinating, as any other large building site. Brueghel is the first great poet of everyday life.

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