Terminology and scope
The term "Early Netherlandish art" applies broadly to painters active during the 15th and 16th centuries 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.
The Ghent Altarpiece
, completed in 1432 by 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. 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 that became popular after the famous exhibition in Bruges in 1902[A] and remains in use today, especially in Dutch and German. 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. When the Burgundian dukes established centres of power in the Netherlands, they brought with them a more cosmopolitan outlook. 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.
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. Scholars were at times preoccupied as to whether the school's genesis was in France or Germany. 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.
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. 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. 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.
Following van Eyck's innovations, the first generation of Netherlandish painters emphasised light and shadow, elements usually absent from 14th-century illuminated manuscripts. Biblical scenes were depicted with more naturalism, which made their content more accessible to viewers, while individual portraits became more evocative and alive. 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. 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, and the arrival of Raphael's tapestry cartoons to Brussels in 1517, which were widely seen while in the city. 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.
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. In the early 16th century, artists began to explore illusionistic depictions of three dimensions. 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. 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.