Rogier van der Weyden

After Van der Weyden, The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald, detail from a lost painting, tapestry copy. This head is considered a probable self-portrait.[1]

Rogier van der Weyden (Dutch: [roːˈɣiːr vɑn dɛr ˈʋɛi̯də(n)]) or Roger de la Pasture (1399 or 1400 – 18 June 1464) was an Early Netherlandish painter whose surviving works consist mainly of religious triptychs, altarpieces and commissioned single and diptych portraits. He was highly successful and internationally famous in his lifetime; his paintings were exported – or taken – to Italy and Spain,[2] and he received commissions from, amongst others, Philip the Good, Netherlandish nobility, and foreign princes.[3] By the latter half of the 15th century, he had eclipsed Jan van Eyck in popularity. However his fame lasted only until the 17th century, and largely due to changing taste, he was almost totally forgotten by the mid-18th century. His reputation was slowly rebuilt during the following 200 years; today he is known, with Robert Campin and van Eyck, as the third (by birth date) of the three great Early Flemish artists (Vlaamse Primitieven or "Flemish Primitives"), and widely as the most influential Northern painter of the 15th century.[4]

Karel van Mander wrote that the great artistic contribution of Rogier van der Weyden lies in his ideas, his composition and rendering of the soul's expression through pain, happiness or anger, and the tempering of this emotional testimony to the subject matter of his work.[5]

There are few certain facts of van der Weyden's life.[6][7] What else is known of him has come from civic records and secondary sources, and some of it is contestable. However the paintings now attributed to him are generally accepted, despite a tendency in the 19th century to attribute his work to others.

Van der Weyden worked from life models, and his observations were acute, yet he often idealised certain elements of his models' facial features, and they are typically statuesque, especially in his triptychs. All of his forms are rendered with rich, warm colourisation and a sympathetic expression, while he is known for his expressive pathos and naturalism. His portraits tend to be half length and half profile, and he is as sympathetic here as in his religious triptychs. Van der Weyden used an unusually broad range of colours and varied tones; in his finest work the same tone is not repeated in any other area of the canvas; even the whites are varied.[8]

Early life and apprenticeship

The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435), oil on oak panel, 220 × 262 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid

Due to the loss of archives in 1695 and again in 1940, there are few certain facts of van der Weyden's life.[6] Rogelet de le Pasture (Roger of the Pasture) was born in Tournai (in present-day Belgium) in 1399 or 1400. His parents were Henri de le Pasture[9] and Agnes de Watrélos. The Pasture family had earlier settled in the city of Tournai where Rogier's father worked as a maître-coutelier (knife manufacturer).

In 1426, Rogier married Elisabeth, the daughter of a Brussels shoemaker, Jan Goffaert, and his wife Cathelyne van Stockem. Rogier and Elisabeth had four children: Cornelius (b. 1427) became a Carthusian monk; a daughter, Margaretha, was born in 1432. Before 21 October 1435, the family settled in Brussels where the two younger children were born: Pieter in 1437 and Jan in 1438, who would go on to become a painter and a goldsmith respectively.[10]

From the second of March 1436 onward, he held the title of 'painter to the town of Brussels' (stadsschilder), a very prestigious post because Brussels was at that time the most important residence of the splendid court of the Dukes of Burgundy. On his move to Brussels, Rogier began using the Flemish version of his name: "Rogier van der Weyden".[7]

Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Bonnet

Little is known about Rogier's training as a painter. The archival sources from Tournai were completely destroyed during World War II, but had been partly transcribed in the 19th and early 20th century. The sources on his early life are confusing and have led to different interpretations by scholars. It is known that the city council of Tournai offered eight pitchers of wine in honour of a certain 'Maistre Rogier de le Pasture' on 17 November 1426.[11]

However, on 5 March of the following year, the records of the painters' guild show a "Rogelet de le Pasture" entered the workshop of Robert Campin together with Jacques Daret. Records show that de le Pasture was already established as a painter.[9] Only five years later, on the first of August 1432, de le Pasture obtained the title of a "Master" (Maistre) painter.[12]

His later entry into apprenticeship might be explained by the fact that during the 1420s the city of Tournai was in crisis and as a result the guilds were not functioning normally. The late apprenticeship may have been a legal formality. Also Jacques Daret was then in his twenties and had been living and working in Campin's household for at least a decade. It is possible that Rogier obtained an academic title (Master) before he became a painter and that he was awarded the wine of honour on the occasion of his graduation. The sophisticated and learned iconographical and compositional qualities of the paintings attributed to him are sometimes used as an argument in favour of this supposition.

The social and intellectual status of Rogier in his later life surpassed that of a mere craftsman at that time. In general, the close stylistic link between the documented works of Jacques Daret and the paintings attributed to Robert Campin and van der Weyden are the main arguments to consider Rogier van der Weyden as a pupil of Campin.

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