Flemish art

Flemish art
Art of the 15th to early 17th century in Flanders.

The precursors of the Flemish school were located in Dijon, the first capital of the dukes of Burgundy, who established a powerful Flemish-Burgundian political alliance that lasted from 1363 to 1482. Philip III (the Good) moved the Burgundian capital to Bruges and in 1425 hired Jan van Eyck as his painter. The next generation of artists built on van Eyck's heritage and, toward the end of the 15th century, began looking to Italy for pictorial inspiration. Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Dirck Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, and Gerard David brought innovation, but little of their work compared to van Eyck's artistic vision. In the 16th century Pieter Bruegel the Elder, under the influence of Hië ronymus Bosch, depicted peasant life with an eye for the grotesque. The great master of the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens, demonstrated unrivaled skill in oil painting; his style epitomized the Flemish Baroque period. See also Early Netherlandish art.

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      art of the 15th, 16th, and early 17th centuries in Flanders, known for its vibrant materialism and unsurpassed technical skill. From the van Eycks through Bruegel to Rubens, the Flemish painters were masters of the oil (oil painting) medium and used it primarily to portray a robust and realistically detailed vision of the world around them. Their paintings reflect clearly the changes in fortune of this narrow slice of country between France, Germany, and the Low Countries: first came the peaceful, pious, and prosperous 15th-century reigns of the dukes of Burgundy; then a long confused succession of religious crises and civil wars; and finally the imposition of autocratic rule by the kings of Spain.

      The precursors of the Flemish school are usually placed in Dijon, the first capital of the dukes of Burgundy. Philip the Bold (Philip II) (reigned 1363–1404) established the powerful Flemish-Burgundian alliance that lasted more than a century—until 1482. He also established a tradition of art patronage that was to last nearly as long. Among the artists he attracted to Dijon were the sculptor Claus Sluter of Haarlem and the painter Melchior Broderlam of Ypres, in whose richly textured works one can see the attachment to the world of surface appearances that is so characteristic of the Flemish school.

      Philip the Good (Philip III) (reigned 1419–67) moved the Burgundian capital to Brugge (Bruges), centre of the northern wool trade, transforming that commercially minded city into an artistic centre. In 1425 Philip officially employed Jan van Eyck (Eyck, Jan van) as his painter. The major works of van Eyck—“The Ghent Altarpiece” (1432; St. Bavo, Ghent), “The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” (1432; Louvre, Paris), and “Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride” (1434; National Gallery, London)—are astonishing in that they are both the beginning and the culmination of early Flemish painting. Van Eyck is credited by the art historian Giorgio Vasari with the invention of oil painting (paint in which a drying oil is the vehicle), but if so it is an invention that began at the peak of technical perfection, for no succeeding painter's works have so well maintained their freshness of surface and brilliance of colour. Van Eyck's artistic vision, static and formal though it is, also has maintained its power, imbuing everything he painted with a spiritual presence, for all his unbridled love of material appearances.

      While continuing to embellish their works with brilliant colour and richly textured surfaces, the following generation of painters wisely did not attempt to imitate van Eyck but looked to Italy for advances in pictorial structure. In his masterpiece, “The Escorial Deposition” (1435; Escorial, Madrid), Rogier van der Weyden (Weyden, Rogier van der) focused on the drama of the scene, eliminating everything extraneous. The linear rhythms of assembled mourners move horizontally across the shallow, crowded composition, preventing the viewer from dwelling on any one detail. Petrus Christus (Christus, Petrus) explored the underlying physical structure of his human subjects, giving them a strangely geometric appearance; and Dirck Bouts (Bouts, Dirck) was the first Flemish painter to accurately use one-point perspective and to proportion his figures to their surroundings. These innovations, however, were extraneous to the spirit of the early Flemish tradition, which inevitably declined along with the self-assurance and religious convictions of the Flemish burghers, caught as they were in the late 15th century by the fall of the house of Burgundy and the economic collapse of Brugge. Of the late masters of early Flemish art, Hugo van der Goes (Goes, Hugo van der) went mad, and Hans Memling (Memling, Hans) and Gerard David (David, Gerard) produced melancholy, sometimes insipid pastiches of earlier works.

 More in tune with the spiritual crisis that racked the continent at century's end were the bizarre allegories painted by Hieronymus Bosch (Bosch, Hiëronymus). In his three-paneled “Garden of Earthly Delights” (1505–10; Prado, Madrid [see photograph—>]), mankind moves in swarms from paradise to perversion to punishment, acting out myriad fantasies of sensual gratification.

      The turbulent 16th century in Flanders was not hospitable to art and produced only one great master, Pieter Bruegel (Bruegel, Pieter, the Elder). It is in Bruegel's powerful portrayals of peasant life (see ) that one finds best reflected the brutality of the age. Bruegel, influenced by Bosch and educated by a two-year sojourn in Italy, developed a robust style marked by structural solidity, rhythmic sweep, and an ironic moralizing eye for the grotesque. Bruegel left behind two sons, Pieter the Younger, also called Hell Brueghel (Bruegel, Pieter, II, The Younger) because of his paintings of damnation, and Jan Brueghel (Bruegel, Jan, The Elder), called Velvet Brueghel, who devoted himself to still-life painting.

 In that capacity Jan Brueghel assisted in the flourishing workshop of the great master of the Flemish Baroque, Peter Paul Rubens (Rubens, Peter Paul). Rubens showed an unrivaled mastery of the oil medium, creating for the monarchs of France and Spain fluid, luminous works of great energy and power. The works of his early maturity, such as “The Elevation of the Cross” (1610; Antwerp Cathedral), show evidence of careful study of the Italian masters Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio, but these works also have a rippling, silky surface and an animal vitality wholly Flemish in character (see photograph—>). Rubens' mature allegorical style, exemplified by his cycle of paintings memorializing the career of Marie de Médicis, queen of France (1622–25; Louvre, Paris), was ideally suited to the ostentatious tastes of the Baroque age. In these exuberant works, fleshy classical deities, swirling from the air and bounding from the sea, watch over many events of Marie's life. Rubens' studio became a training ground for many Flemish painters, among them Anthony van Dyck (Van Dyck, Sir Anthony), a child prodigy who later became famous as a court portrait painter in England; Frans Snyder, a still-life specialist; and David Teniers the Elder and Adriaen Brouwer, both known chiefly for their paintings of carousing peasants.

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Universalium. 2010.

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