Early Netherlandish painting

Early Netherlandish painting is the work of artists, sometimes known as the Flemish Primitives, active in the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands during the 15th- and 16th-century Northern Renaissance, especially in the flourishing cities of Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, Louvain, Tournai and Brussels, all in present-day Belgium. The period begins approximately with Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck in the 1420s and lasts at least until the death of Gerard David in 1523,[1] although many scholars extend it to the start of the Dutch Revolt in 1566 or 1568 (Max J. Friedländer's acclaimed surveys run through Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Early Netherlandish painting coincides with the Early and High Italian Renaissance but the early period (until about 1500) is seen as an independent artistic evolution, separate from the Renaissance humanism that characterised developments in Italy, although beginning in the 1490s as increasing numbers of Netherlandish and other Northern painters traveled to Italy, Renaissance ideals and painting styles were incorporated into Netherlandish and other Northern painting. As a result, Early Netherlandish painters are often categorised as belonging to both the Northern Renaissance and the Late or International Gothic.

The major Netherlandish painters include Campin, van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Hieronymus Bosch. These artists made significant advances in natural representation and illusionism, and their work typically features complex iconography. Their subjects are usually religious scenes or small portraits, with narrative painting or mythological subjects being relatively rare. Landscape is often richly described but relegated as a background detail before the early 16th century. The painted works are generally oil on panel, either as single works or more complex portable or fixed altarpieces in the form of diptychs, triptychs or polyptychs. The period is also noted for its sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and carved retables.

The first generations of artists were active during the height of Burgundian influence in Europe, when the Low Countries became the political and economic centre of Northern Europe, noted for its crafts and luxury goods. Assisted by the workshop system, panels and a variety of crafts were sold to foreign princes or merchants through private engagement or market stalls. A majority of the works were destroyed during waves of iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries; today only a few thousand examples survive. Early northern art in general was not well regarded from the early 17th to the mid-19th century, and the painters and their works were not well documented until the mid-19th century. Art historians spent almost another century determining attributions, studying iconography, and establishing bare outlines of even the major artists' lives. Attribution of some of the most significant works is still debated.

Scholarship of Early Netherlandish painting was one of the main activities of 19th- and 20th-century art history, and a major focus of two of the most important art historians of the 20th century: Max J. Friedländer (From Van Eyck to Breugel and Early Netherlandish Painting) and Erwin Panofsky (Early Netherlandish Painting).

Terminology and scope

The term "Early Netherlandish art" applies broadly to painters active during the 15th and 16th centuries[1] in the northern European areas controlled by the Dukes of Burgundy and later the Habsburg dynasty. These artists became an early driving force behind the Northern Renaissance and the move away from the Gothic style. In this political and art-historical context, the north follows the Burgundian lands which straddled areas that encompass parts of modern France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.[2]

The Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. This polyptych and the Turin-Milan Hours are generally seen as the first major works of the Early Netherlandish period.

The Netherlandish artists have been known by a variety of terms. "Late Gothic" is an early designation which emphasises continuity with the art of the Middle Ages.[3] In the early 20th century, the artists were variously referred to in English as the "Ghent-Bruges school" or the "Old Netherlandish school". "Flemish Primitives" is a traditional art-historical term borrowed from the French primitifs flamands[4] that became popular after the famous exhibition in Bruges in 1902[5][A] and remains in use today, especially in Dutch and German.[3] In this context, "primitive" does not refer to a perceived lack of sophistication, but rather identifies the artists as originators of a new tradition in painting. Erwin Panofsky preferred the term ars nova ("new art"), which linked the movement with innovative composers of music such as Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois, who were favoured by the Burgundian court over artists attached to the lavish French court.[6] When the Burgundian dukes established centres of power in the Netherlands, they brought with them a more cosmopolitan outlook.[7] According to Otto Pächt a simultaneous shift in art began sometime between 1406 and 1420 when a "revolution took place in painting"; a "new beauty" in art emerged, one that depicted the visible rather than the metaphysical world.[8]

In the 19th century the Early Netherlandish artists were classified by nationality, with Jan van Eyck identified as German and van der Weyden (born Roger de la Pasture) as French.[9] Scholars were at times preoccupied as to whether the school's genesis was in France or Germany.[10] These arguments and distinctions dissipated after World War I, and following the leads of Friedländer, Panofsky, and Pächt, English-language scholars now almost universally describe the period as "Early Netherlandish painting", although many art historians view the Flemish term as more correct.[9]

In the 14th century, as Gothic art gave way to the International Gothic era, a number of schools developed in northern Europe. Early Netherlandish art originated in French courtly art, and is especially tied to the tradition and conventions of illuminated manuscripts. Modern art historians see the era as beginning with 14th-century manuscript illuminators. They were followed by panel painters such as Melchior Broederlam and Robert Campin, the latter generally considered the first Early Netherlandish master, under whom van der Weyden served his apprenticeship.[7] Illumination reached a peak in the region in the decades after 1400, mainly due to the patronage of Burgundian and House of Valois-Anjou dukes such as Philip the Bold, Louis I of Anjou and Jean, Duke of Berry. This patronage continued in the low countries with the Burgundian dukes, Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold.[11] The demand for illuminated manuscripts declined towards the end of the century, perhaps because of the costly production process in comparison to panel painting. Yet illumination remained popular at the luxury end of the market, and prints, both engravings and woodcuts, found a new mass market, especially those by artists such as Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer.[12]

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490–1510. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Art historians are divided as to whether the central panel was intended as a moral warning or as a panorama of paradise lost

Following van Eyck's innovations, the first generation of Netherlandish painters emphasised light and shadow, elements usually absent from 14th-century illuminated manuscripts.[13] Biblical scenes were depicted with more naturalism, which made their content more accessible to viewers, while individual portraits became more evocative and alive.[14] Johan Huizinga said that art of the era was meant to be fully integrated with daily routine, to "fill with beauty" the devotional life in a world closely tied to the liturgy and sacraments.[15] After about 1500 a number of factors turned against the pervasive Northern style, not least the rise of Italian art, whose commercial appeal began to rival Netherlandish art by 1510, and overtook it some ten years later. Two events symbolically and historically reflect this shift: the transporting of a marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo to Bruges in 1506,[12] and the arrival of Raphael's tapestry cartoons to Brussels in 1517, which were widely seen while in the city.[16] Although the influence of Italian art was soon widespread across the north, it in turn had drawn on the 15th-century northern painters, with Michelangelo's Madonna based on a type developed by Hans Memling.[12]

Netherlandish painting ends in the narrowest sense with the death of Gerard David in 1523. A number of mid- and late-16th-century artists maintained many of the conventions, and they are frequently but not always associated with the school. The style of these painters is often dramatically at odds with that of the first generation of artists.[4] In the early 16th century, artists began to explore illusionistic depictions of three dimensions.[17] The painting of the early 16th century can be seen as leading directly from the artistic innovations and iconography of the previous century, with some painters, following the traditional and established formats and symbolism of the previous century, continuing to produce copies of previously painted works. Others came under the influence of Renaissance humanism, turning towards secular narrative cycles, as biblical imagery was blended with mythological themes.[18] A full break from the mid-15th-century style and subject matter was not seen until the development of Northern Mannerism around 1590. There was considerable overlap, and the early- to mid-16th-century innovations can be tied to the Mannerist style, including naturalistic secular portraiture, the depiction of ordinary (as opposed to courtly) life, and the development of elaborate landscapes and cityscapes that were more than background views.[19]

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