ROBERT CAMPIN JAN VAN EYCK ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN HANS MEMLING HIERONYMUS BOSCH PIETER BRUEGEL
In the early fifteenth century, a light began to grow in the world of Northern European art. Sparked by a few artists with revolutionary ideas, this light grew brighter, reaching from France to England to the Netherlands and beyond. In his book The Mirror of the Artist, Craig Harbison explains that Northern artists brought forth a completely a completely new style, innovative â€œbecause of its uncanny ability to mimic, on a two-dimensional surface, the myriad effects of colour and light to be seen in the visible world.â€? Northern Renaissance artists were the first to use oil paint and the first to place an emphasis on portraits of their people. Northern artists subverted the heavy hand of the Church to express themselves more freely. They were true rulebreakers and rebels, innovators and iconoclasts. But perhaps most importantly, Northern Renaissance artists looked to the future while allowing themselves to be influenced by artists of the past. They respected artistic tradition while simultaneously forging new paths. Each work in this exhibition was made possible thanks to the painting before it: they are all connected by the invisible thread of influence, of innovation, of light, that runs through their centers.
ROBERT CAMPIN, MÉRODE TRIPTYCH (MÉRODE ALTARPIECE) oil on oak panel, ca. 1425–1428 Campin’s Mérode Triptych is perhaps his best-known work, and for good reason. Campin was an Early Netherlandish painter, and in this triptych (a three-paneled altarpiece) we see several hallmarks of the emerging Netherlandish style that spread throughout Northern Europe and influence art for centuries, most importantly his attention to detail and his focus on illusionism. He was also one of the first painters to experiment with translucent oil-based paint instead of opaque egg-based tempera. On close inspection, the viewer begins to realize that Campin has paid close attention to even the most minute detail of the scene, right down to the candlestick on the table and the landscape in the back window, carefully rendering them to reflect reality. The idea of making a painting as true to life as possible is called illusionism. Illusionistic art attempts to depict the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane. The work can attempt to share the space with the viewer, drawing them into the painting, or just attempt to recreate the physical appearance of objects as we would see them in real life. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art1, Campin achieves illusionistic effects by “the technical innovation of overlaying translucent oil pigments on aqueous opaque pigments. The resulting luminous, enamel-like surface achieves apparent depth, rich gradations of light, and a broad distribution of color values.” The light in the faces of Mary, Joseph, the angel and the donor figures appears to glow from within the painting.
ROBERT CAMPIN, PORTRAIT OF A MAN AND A WOMAN oil on oak panel, ca. 1425–1428 These two portraits, painted by Campin and generally believed to be a pair, show the beginnings of Northern Renaissance portraiture. We can see the importance Campin has placed on illusionism and naturalism: the figures appear almost real. The use of oil paint allowed artists to achieve greater control over layering their paint, and it helps to create the appearance of an inner light coming from the figures. Campin also places an emotional emphasis on his figures. Rather than the stiff, almost doll-like models in Italian Renaissance art, his subjects are highly natural, right down to the wrinkles in their skin, and they seem to communicate that they are alive, that they are breathing, that they have a soul. Campin’s realism has led to criticism that his art is “middle class,” as compared to later, more aristocratic painters such as Jan van Eyck. However, through his art and its emotional power, Campin offers a peek into the real lives of real Netherlandish people.
JAN VAN EYCK, ROLIN MADONNA oil on panel, ca. 1435 Jan van Eyck was another Early Netherlandish master and a contemporary of Campin. He was a court painter at Bruges and furthered the illusionistic style as well as the development of oil painting. Like Campin, van Eyck valued realism and detail. In his works, van Eyck displayed mastery of complex light sources and complex religious symbolism. The Rolin Madonna is an excellent example of both of these skills. It also provides insight into the relationship between patron and painter during the Renaissance. The first thing to note is van Eyck’s use of multiple light sources. Light comes in from both the opening to the outdoor balcony as well as the side windows, playing off of van Eyck’s meticulously rendered embellished fur garments, angel wings and elaborate crown. Just like Campin’s Mérode Triptych, the Rolin Madonna features a landscape in the background of the painting. On the left side (Rolin’s side), an earthly city is shown. On the right, the side of Mary and Jesus, we see what is believed to be van Eyck’s vision of heaven, filled with churches. A bridge in the center windowpane links the two. Chancellor Nicolas Rolin was a very wealthy and powerful man in Bruges, and in commissioning this devotional portrait he could determine what the details would say about him to the public. Consequently, through the use of symbols, he is depicted as very pious and important. This painting is unique because it not only places Rolin in the same space as the Virgin and Child, but Rolin is also painted the same size as them. This small change makes all the difference, as it shows a sort of “equality” between Rolin and the Madonna and Child. It is unknown whether Rolin requested this or if it was a design decision made by van Eyck. Did Rolin want to display his importance? Did van Eyck want to make a painting that truly invited the viewer in? Though the original motivation for this decision is unclear, its impact resounds through the world of Northern Renaissance art.
JAN VAN EYCK, PORTRAIT OF A MAN (SELF-PORTRAIT?) oil on panel, ca. 1433 Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man may very well be the most famous Northern Renaissance painting. It is often thought that it is a self-portrait, though there is no supporting evidence for this. However, a similar red-turbaned figure appears in the background of his Rolin Madonna. Additionally, the painting features the motto “AIC IXH XAN” or “I Do As I Can,” which seems to have been a personal motto that only appears in a few other paintings, such as his portrait of his wife. This portrait epitomizes van Eyck’s style: extraordinary realism and illusionism, but without the more obvious emotion in Campin’s work. The National Gallery in London explains that “Van Eyck uses light and shade in a subtle and dramatic way: the sitter seems to emerge from darkness, his face and headdress modelled by the light that falls from the left. The viewer is drawn towards the image by the penetrating gaze of the sitter.”
ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN, ST. LUKE DRAWING THE VIRGIN oil & tempera on oak panel, ca. 1435 Called “among the most important northern European paintings in the United States” by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston2, the influence of van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna is crystal-clear in van der Weyden’s St. Luke Drawing the Virgin. Though the two paintings were made around the same time, it is generally accepted that van Eyck’s was finished first and that van der Weyden (who had studied under Campin) used it as a model. Several similarities are apparent, most notably the three-paneled opening in the background with a distant landscape, the religious iconography, and the fact that a mortal figure occupies the same space as the Madonna and Child. However, there are some key differences, namely van der Weyden’s new “warmer” approach as compared to van Eyck’s more pious earlier work. Instead of making a work for a donor, van der Weyden most likely made this painting for the Guild of Saint Luke, a painter’s guild in Brussels. It is also believed that van der Weyden painted himself as Saint Luke, allowing himself to identify with the patron saint of artists. Van der Weyden, therefore, emphasized the profession of Artist by having St. Luke draw the Virgin in silverpoint. This painting is one of the first examples of this idea in Renaissance art.3 It shows an extraordinarily personal connection between the artist and the painting. This connection is reflected in the moment St. Luke is sharing with the Virgin and Child, and unlike the two figures with their backs turned, we, the viewer, are privy to it as well. The Virgin is not portrayed with a halo or crown; instead she sits on a stool: a Madonna of humility, giving van der Weyden’s painting a “new sense of naturalism.”2 Many copies of this painting are in existence, and no one is sure which is the original. However, this also shows the widespread influence of the painting. If it had been hung in a Guild’s chapel, it could have been used as a teaching tool for young artists to view and imitate.
ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN, PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG WOMAN oil on wood, ca. 1435 Campin, van Eyck, and van der Weyden are considered the three founding fathers of Norhtern Renaissance portraiture. They broke the traditions of idealized medieval portraiture and sought to portray their subjects as they looked in real life. Their use of three-quarter profile against a dark background serves to bring out these facial features. While he did not idealize, van der Weyden did tend to flatter his subjects. Perhaps van der Weyden, working on commission, simply wanted to place his subjects in such a way that they would be pleased with the final product. The art historian Norbert Schneider writes on van der Weyden’s women: “While van Eyck shows nature ‘in the raw’, as it were, Rogier improves on physical reality, civilising and refining Nature and the human form with the help of a brush.”
HANS MEMLING, TRIPTYCH OF EARTHLY VANITY AND DIVINE SALVATION oil on oak panel, ca. 1485 Hans Memling was born in Germany and later moved to the Netherlands to study under Rogier van der Weyden. He follows the religious symbolic traditions of van der Weyden, and this triptych focuses on the idea of “Memento mori,” a Latin phrase that translates to “Remember your mortality.” Memling’s triptych shockingly contrasts the beauty, luxury and vanity of the mortal earth with images of death and hell. The three panels on the front of this triptych show a beautiful nude looking in a mirror, flanked on either side by images of death and the devil. Her nakedness is meant to be erotic, which is “indeed exceptional for its time.” The symbolism is heightened with the addition of lusty greyhounds along with a little terrier dog, which we have also seen in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, meant to represent either marriage or, more likely in this case, physical love.
HANS MEMLING, PORTRAIT OF A READING MAN oil on wood, ca. 1485 Having studied under van der Weyden, Hans Memling was known for his religious painting. However, he also achieved great success in portraiture. His Portrait of a Reading Man, a small portrait probably used for devotion, is one of his later works. In it, we see a figure at half-length and at three-quarter profile. In contrast to traditional Northern Renaissance portraits, Memling replaces the stark black background with a window and a watchful angel. The window bathes the figures in golden light. This style is seen in many Italian Renaissance portraits. It has long been suggested that Memling learned this style while on his journeyman travels, but recent exhibits â€œmake the case for Memling the innovator.â€?
HIERONYMUS BOSCH, THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS oil on wood, ca. 1490-1510 Jumping ahead quite a few years to Bosch’s best-known work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, we see a huge break in style from previous Northern Renaissance artists. Not much is known about Bosch’s life, so it is difficult to determine who his specific artistic influences might have been. He did, however, spark a new style of individualism—the Renaissance idea developed in Bosch’s time that individual efforts could be recognized and become famous outside the local area, as opposed to painting to simply glorify God. It is right around this time that many artists, including Bosch, began to sign their works. In a 1961 article, Rudolf Wittkower speculates that “with the breaking of the guild monopoly in the course of the XVth century the artist’s attitude to his work changed. Instead of being subjected to the regulated routine of a collective workshop, he was now often on his own and developed habits compatible with his freedom.”4 His work has been described as everything from heretical to folkloric to absurd to satirical. As Fra José de Siguënza describes, the unique thing about Bosch is that “the others try to paint man as he appears on the outside, while he alone had the audacity to paint him as he is on the inside...”5 It has become generally accepted that perhaps one of Bosch’s greatest influences was his devotion to his Catholic faith and that this triptych is a warning against human lust for “earthly delights.” Bosch’s style was fantastical and led to many copies of his work. However, as Carel van Mander writes, he “always most assiduously stayed within the limits of naturalness, as much and even more so than any fellow artist.” 5
HIERONYMUS BOSCH, THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS AND THE FOUR LAST THINGS oil on wood, ca. 1500 This wood tabletop by Bosch, made before The Garden of Earthly Delights, depicts the seven deadly sins (Wrath, Greed, Envy, Pride, Gluttony, Sloth, and Lust). It also depicts the Four Last Things at the end of life: “Glory” or Heaven, “Hell” and punishment of sin, “Death” and “Last Judgment.” Bosch depicts each of the sins in an everyday manner, making them relatable, as opposed to an allegorical manner. Bosch seems to bring his fantastical moral visions into a waking nightmare, something that could happen to you, and you, and even you. It strikes a chord with the viewer, and more unsettling is taking a step back and realizing that the central circle, called “the eye of God,” truly does resemble a great unblinking eye, seeing all sins, watching over everything.
PIETER BRUEGEL, PEASANT DANCE OR KERMIS oil on panel, 1568 Pieter Bruegel brought forth many artistic innovations in his lifetime, in prints, engravings, painting and drafting. He was most famous for his landscapes and peasant scenes, which have come to be called genre painting. However, we are going to focus on the idea, developed first by Bosch, of moralizing or warning fellow Netherlandish people of the dangers of sin. He created a series of prints at the Four Winds press on the subject, as well as several paintings, such as Peasant Dance, that show Netherlandish people in their day-to-day lives, often adding a narrative moral quality. In Peasant Dance, for example, we see peasants hastily running to join the dance, drinking, fighting, and kissing, all in the presence of two small children. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Bruegel brought a humanizing spirit to traditional subjects and boldly created new ones.”6 Additionally, Bruegel translated “moralizing subjects into vernacular language” in a “novel and ingenious way.” 6 His compositions and beautifully detailed landscapes were highly advanced. Though Bruegel wanted to be seen as the peasant painter, his art displays brilliance and sophistication. His landscapes are of special note: as the MMA states, they defy “easy interpretation, and demonstrate perhaps the artist’s greatest innovation. . . .Bruegel was able to separate his landscapes from long-standing iconographic tradition, and achieve a contemporary and palpable version of the natural world.”6
PIETER BRUEGEL, NETHERLANDISH PROVERBS oil on panel, 1559 Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs is, at the very least, fun to look at. In a small village bursting at the seams with activity, Bruegel depicts around a hundred proverbs in a literal sense, many of which are still easily identifiable (see “swimming against the tide” and “banging your head against a wall”). We can also identify proverbs that have faded from use, such as the blue cloak symbolizing a cuckolded man. According to the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum, though the proverbs are presented light-heartedly, the painting “warns against foolish behavior and addresses the relationship of the individual to society.” In paintings such as this, Bruegel shows an evolution from Bosch’s moral style to his own. Though Bosch featured fantastic and often nightmarish creatures, Bruegel places his moral lessons in the context of peasants: the people he believed needed to hear them most.
Booklet designed for a gallery exhibition of Northern Renaissance paintings.