The period from about 1420 to 1550 was one of astonishing and almost uninterrupted artistic achievement in the Burgundian Netherlands (Low Countries). Taking “all-bearing nature” as their guide, early Netherlandish artists extended the boundaries of painting until they seemed as limitless as the blue-tinged mountains of the distant horizons in their pictures. Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden became the most renowned painters in Europe, van Eyck acquiring legendary status as the purported inventor of oil painting (33.92ab). Works by these masters were sought by princes and merchants throughout Europe, who prized them for their remarkable qualities of verisimilitude, their technical and coloristic virtuosity, and their heightened expressive power.
Whether they were made as objects for veneration, as records of human existence in a certain time and place, or as adornments for private dwellings or public sites, early Netherlandish paintings reveal the pursuit of a common goal—to make the painted image vividly present and to render the unseen palpable. To achieve this goal, early Netherlandish artists investigated a variety of pictorial strategies based on a naturalistic vocabulary that, for subtlety and nuance, has never been surpassed. We are repeatedly struck by details of astonishing and microscopic verisimilitude—of landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and genre elements—that convey the experience of everyday life. Artists attempted to engage the viewer by depicting figures that serve as metaphors for ourselves in the way they pose, gesture, or directly address us. Fictive frames and other trompe-l’oeil elements, as well as representations of mirrors and other reflective surfaces, break the barrier between the pictorial space and our own space, inviting us to take part in the world of the image.
Early Netherlandish painting was nourished by a vibrant national economy and international trade. Bruges was the favored residence of the dukes of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, and Antwerp was the commercial hub of Europe in the sixteenth. The majority of the Museum’s holdings in this area originated in these two cities. Modern-day princes of industry in America rediscovered the glories of early Netherlandish painting and helped to form the collections at the Metropolitan.
Sacred Realm: Religious Painting, ca. 1420–1500
Early Netherlandish painters gave a new dimension to religious experience. In their art, the picture frame becomes a threshold into a world that had been described in writing but never before embodied in paint. The new vision of painting was given its fullest, most complex statement in Jan van Eyck’s astonishing Ghent Altarpiece (Sint-Baafs, Ghent), completed in 1432. It might, indeed, be argued that the Ghent Altarpiece defined realism as a vehicle of expression for the next 500 years.
Large altarpieces were the focus of public religious practice, but equal in importance were small paintings for private devotion: pictures that gave their owners privileged access to the realm of the sacred. Patrons of these works ranged from individuals in the court circle of the dukes of Burgundy to merchants, confraternities, and members of religious orders. Each category of patron had its own concerns, to which early Netherlandish painters—whether renowned artists such as Jan van Eyck or now-anonymous practioners on the level of the Master of Saint Augustine—responded with imagination and an unsurpassed representational technique.
Early Netherlandish portraiture spans the sacred and secular worlds. Donor portraits appear in altarpieces and are essential parts of devotional diptychs and triptychs; in these smaller works used for worship in the home, a single sitter, a husband and wife, or a donor and his patron saint face a devotional image, such as the Virgin and Child, in an attitude of prayer. There also existed a strong tradition for independent portraiture, reflecting a society that became increasingly secularized in the sixteenth century.
The expressive character of each work depended to a great degree on its intended context, as well as on the artist’s sensibility. The portrait might suggest authority or aristocratic refinement (as in Rogier’s portrait of Francesco d’Este, 32.100.43), or spirituality (as seen in Hugo van der Goes’s Benedictine monk, for example, 22.60.53), while Memling’s sitters seem to attain an areligious serenity (14.40.626-27). From the beginning, early Netherlandish artists experimented with compositional devices that might enhance the immediacy of their portraits: the corner space, the sill, the trompe-l’oeil frame. All these inventions define the sitters’ space in relation to ours and make their presence more vivid. In later pictures, some of the men and women who are portrayed address us through their quality of psychological immediacy, or with a bold glance or a gesture that reaches into our space. In these ways, early Netherlandish artists pioneered the modern idea of portraiture as the record of an individual’s character as well as his or her appearance, and it is small wonder that their work was admired and emulated throughout Europe.
The Sacred Realm: Religious Painting, ca. 1500–1550
While earlier religious painting had successfully merged real and symbolic worlds, there developed a tension between the sacred and the secular in the art of the first half of the sixteenth century. Some artists worked in a deeply entrenched traditional mode, following standard formulas for devotional paintings. Others adopted new strategies, based on a mannered style, for expressing the increasingly powerful devotional fervor of contemporary mystical movements and devotions, among them those dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin.
In their attempts to enliven their representations of age-old themes, early Netherlandish artists turned to inspiration from abroad, and many traveled to Italy to absorb the lessons of Italian art firsthand. Moreover, writings, prints, and drawings by and after Leonardo da Vinci circulated in Antwerp, and Raphael’s designs for a set of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel were woven in Brussels, making Italian art accessible even to those who did not venture south. A new sense of grace and movement, as well as a love of Renaissance decorative detail, thus pervaded early Netherlandish art. At the same time, painters showed growing interest in secular elements—landscape, still life, and themes from daily experience—which began to compete with the religious imagery in their work, thus setting the stage for what would become familiar genre subjects in the seventeenth century.
Ainsworth, Maryan W. “Early Netherlandish Painting.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/enet/hd_enet.htm (March 2009)
Ainsworth, Maryan W. "Intentional Alterations in Early Netherlandish Paintings," Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 40 (2005), pp. 51–65.
Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. The Northern Renaissance. London: Phaidon, 2004.