Dutch and Flemish Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®

April/May 2010

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations   

The artists of the Low Countries developed no original style of painting until the 15th century. At that time the dukes of Burgundy brought the many small territories of the area under one government. The dukes encouraged national art by buying the works of painters, goldsmiths, and tapestry weavers. Architects and sculptors continued to work in styles similar to those of foreign artists, but the painters developed a completely original tradition that rivaled the art of any other country.

In 1609 the Low Countries were divided. The Dutch lived in the north in Holland (now the Kingdom of the Netherlands). The southern part became Flanders (now Belgium and part of northern France), where the Flemish people lived. Before the division Dutch and Flemish painting had been very similar. After the division their styles remained much the same, but their favorite subjects changed. The Dutch, who were mostly Protestant, no longer painted religious pictures; the Catholic Flemish still did.

The artists of the Low Countries tried to paint things exactly as they looked. When you look at the work of these 15th-century artists, you can almost feel the softness of velvet, the hard crust of a loaf of bread, the fuzz on a peach. They painted the tiniest details of objects around them: wrinkles in a face, the feathers of a bird, the folds of a dress. They painted everyday objects with the same loving attention they gave to the glow of gold and the radiance of precious jewels.

The Dutch sculptor Claus Sluter (late 14th century) influenced styles of sculpture and painting all over northern Europe. He was interested in all the things that make one person or thing look different from another.

The 15th Century

Among the many artists who worked for the dukes of Burgundy were the three Limburg brothers. They were born in the Netherlands, and before 1399 they were in Paris studying with a goldsmith. Their work marks the height of the international style. The international style was a blend of Franco-Flemish and Italian styles. At the time painting in Flanders was done in illuminated manuscripts—handwritten and illustrated books. The Limburgs' illuminations show not only the elegant festivities of the nobility but also the everyday work of common people.

The Limburgs painted the most realistic landscapes of the time. And more important, they helped introduce a new kind of realistic painting done on wooden panels or canvas instead of in small manuscripts. Although more portraits were done, painters' favorite subjects were still the old familiar Bible stories.

The greatest Flemish painter of the 15th century was Jan van Eyck (1370?-1440?). He was born in a Dutch town but set up his workshop in the city of Bruges in Flanders. He was the official court painter of the Duke of Burgundy. With his older brother, Hubert van Eyck (1366?-1426), about whom we know very little, Jan painted the famous altarpiece in Ghent, The Adoration of the Lamb. Finished in 1432, this large, detailed work is one of the masterpieces of early Flemish painting.

The Van Eycks perfected the technique of oil painting. It was Jan's use of this medium that made possible the many tiny details in his paintings. Some details are so small that a magnifying glass must be used to see them. Jan's technique was to put layer upon layer of oil paint over a white base. In this way he got bright jewel-like colors. He is probably most famous for his amazing ability to make such subjects as cloth, jewels, marble, and flowers look real. He also knew how to paint landscapes that seem filled with real air and light. He knew that colors in the distance look paler and that things look hazier near the horizon. All this attention to detail does not, however, detract from the main subject of his paintings. The religious story or the personality of the people in his portraits remains most important.

Another artist who helped form the tradition of Flemish realism and influenced Jan van Eyck is known as the Master of Flémalle. It is not certain, but he was probably Robert Campin (1375?-1444), who had a successful workshop in Tournai, Flanders. He was the first to paint religious stories in the setting of an ordinary home. He also showed landscapes and city views through an open window. While Jan van Eyck painted the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, the Master of Flémalle pictured her as a middle-class mother. Although the settings are simple, the paintings are filled with many symbolic details. Symbolism—using one object to stand for another object or an idea—is used in all Flemish paintings of the century. For example, the dog stands for loyalty.

Another important painter of the 15th century was Rogier van der Weyden (1399?-1464). He was probably trained in the workshop of the Master of Flémalle. By the middle of the century, he was the leading painter in the city of Brussels. While the Van Eycks were interested in everything in the world around us, Rogier was interested in the world inside us. He explored human feelings and realistically represented strong, religious emotions. He knew how to show the red and tearful eyes of a person crying. Like all Flemish artists, he was interested in detail and rich color.

In spite of the importance of the Van Eycks, it was the paintings of the Master of Flémalle and of Rogier van der Weyden that inspired most of the artists working in Flanders for the rest of the century. The only real follower of the Van Eycks was Petrus Christus (1420?-72?). Sometimes said to have been Jan's pupil, Christus continued his careful style and sense of space. He was also interested in the work of the Master of Flémalle and Van der Weyden.

Born in the Netherlands, Dierik Bouts (1410?-75) soon moved to Flanders. His realistic scenes and many fine portraits were done in wonderful rich color. His figures are much less emotional than those of Rogier. Hugo van der Goes (1440?-82) was one of the most talented of the Flemish artists. His most famous painting, The Portinari Altarpiece, was done for an Italian banker. It was immediately sent to Florence, Italy, where the rich color, fine oil technique, and realism of Flemish art were admired and copied.

One of the most popular artists of the period was Hans Memling (about 1430?-94). He was born in Germany but was probably a pupil of Rogier van der Weyden. He spent most of his life in Bruges, Flanders, where he painted the sweet, refined Madonnas (mother and child) that are world famous. The last master of the Bruges school was Gerard David (1460?-1523), who came from the Netherlands and followed the style of Rogier van der Weyden.

One of the few painters of the 15th century who was born in the Netherlands and stayed there was Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1465?-95?). His name means "little Gerard of the Brethren of Saint John." The Brethren of Saint John were a group of monks with whom Geertgen lived. His style was simpler and less detailed than that of other Flemish artists of his time.

Another important artist who was born and lived in the Netherlands was Hieronymus Bosch (1450?-1516). His unusual, imaginative style influenced later Flemish as well as Dutch art. Like many artists of the late 15th century, Bosch was concerned with death and sin. He often painted weird combinations of animals, fish, human beings, plants, and objects. His vivid imagination also produced violent pictures of Bible stories.

The 16th Century

The 16th century was a period of religious and political struggle in the Low Countries. The area had come under the control of Spain. The Netherlands objected to the rule of the Spanish Catholic kings. The Protestants wanted the right to worship in their own way. They felt that old traditions of local independence were not protected by these foreign kings. In 1568 a war that was to last 39 years began between the Netherlands and Spain. By 1609 the Netherlands had won independence. The Southern provinces—Flanders—stayed under Spanish rule.

During this century there were two main trends in art—Italianism and realism. Interest in the Italian Renaissance was great, and many artists went to Italy. They came back and painted pictures of classical subjects, such as mythology, in styles borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Although these early borrowings from Italy were not always successful, many good portraits and designs for tapestries were produced in this period.

The greatest and most original artist of the 16th century was not influenced by Italy. He was the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel (1525?-69). While Bruegel does represent the trend of realism, often his imaginative paintings of real people and events reflect the influence of Bosch. Many of Bruegel's pictures illustrate the simple life of Flemish peasants and show them working in the fields or making merry. He illustrated the months of the year, stories, and proverbs. Whatever the subject, Bruegel's paintings are filled with rhythm and movement. This is as true of his dancing people as it is of a view of a countryside stretching far into the distance. Bruegel's interest in painting the countryside or landscape was to be shared by many painters in the 17th century.

The 17th Century

In Flanders the Catholic Church, encouraged by the Spanish governors, tried to awaken interest in religion through art. Flemish art dealt mostly with religion. The Church and aristocratic community ordered more paintings than ever before. But the great cost of war was to put an end to the immense wealth of the Flemish cities.

The most important Flemish painter of the century was Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). During his lifetime he was famous not only as an artist but also as a diplomat and a man of great learning. Honored by the kings of England, Spain, and France, he was court painter to the Spanish governor of Flanders.

Rubens set up a huge workshop in Antwerp, where he employed many assistants. Sometimes Rubens painted pictures entirely by himself, but much of the time he simply put finishing touches on the paintings of his assistants. His paintings were richly colored, dramatic, and filled with movement.

The international fame of Flemish art was also due to one of Rubens' pupils, Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Van Dyck was famous for his portraits of nobility and royalty. Part of his great success was no doubt due to the fact that he did not hesitate to flatter the great ladies and gentlemen who posed for him. Although less forceful than Rubens, Van Dyck was better at capturing the sitter's personality. The exactness with which he painted the appearance of rich materials such as satins and velvest was in the tradition set by the Van Eycks. Van Dyck spent 9 years in England, and his portrait style was influential there for a long time.

The new Dutch Republic was growing rich from its large merchant fleet, which sailed all over the world. Trade with places as far away as China and America made port cities like Amsterdam very rich. Because the country was a republic, there was no aristocracy to buy artists' work. The official Protestant religion forbade the decoration of churches with most types of traditional painting and sculpture. Therefore the church could no longer ask artists to paint religious pictures. It was the rich merchants and shopkeepers who now commissioned paintings. They were proud of their new political freedom and they loved pictures of themselves and their way of life. This new rich class kept many artists very busy.

Unlike the Flemish artists, not many Dutch artists traveled to Italy. But in the beginning of the 17th century, there were some who did. These artists were especially interested in the dramatic use of light and action in the paintings of the Italian artist Caravaggio (1573-1610). The most talented member of this group—called the Utrecht school—was Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629). Many of the works of the Utrecht painters were on religious or mythological themes. These painters were important for bringing Italian ideas to Holland. Great masters like Frans Hals and Rembrandt were to use many of these ideas successfully.

Portraiture was one of the most popular forms of art in the 17th century. Frans Hals (1580?-1666) is famous for his lifelike portraits. Painted with quick brush strokes, his laughing, smiling people probably reflect Hals's own good nature. Besides portraits of individuals, Hals did many portraits of groups. The group portrait was a Dutch invention. The members of societies, guilds, and military organizations were proud of their achievements. They had their pictures painted together--just as today a class in school has a group photograph taken.

Some of Hals's paintings show people drinking and making merry in taverns. Paintings of this kind that show everyday life are called genre painting. Some artists painted gay scenes of rich burghers (townspeople) similar to those of Frans Hals. Others like Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85) and his pupil Jan Steen (1626-79) painted scenes of peasant life and merrymaking. Their pictures are full of the rush and bustle of life. Quite different are the calm scenes of family life portrayed by Pieter de Hooch (1629-84?) and Gerard Terborch (1617-81).

The finest of the painters of interior scenes was Jan Vermeer (1632-75). He portrayed objects in detail with great calm and dignity. He loved to show the glitter of metal and the shine of cloth as well as the effect of light in a room. His use of light adds a feeling of quiet drama to his paintings. Vermeer also painted a very famous picture of his native town, Delft.

Many artists painted nothing but landscapes. These scenes were popular because art buyers liked pictures of the countryside and coast, which they knew so well. They painted the flat Dutch countryside and rivers, capturing the misty air. Other artists like Jacob van Ruisdael (1628?-82) painted landscape with a new sense of drama—probably inspired by Rembrandt. Meindert Hobbema (1638-1709) was the last of the great painters of purely Dutch landscape.

In a nation that grew rich because of its large fleet of trade ships, paintings of harbors and boats were also very popular. Painters such as Willem van de Velde (1611-93) specialized in this kind of picture. Other artists did nothing but paintings of things--or still lifes. The term "still life" was invented by the Dutch. Objects such as dishes, flowers, and fruits were interestingly arranged and painted in a realistic way.

Most artists of the 17th century specialized in one type of painting. However, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), the greatest Dutch artist of all, was a master of many kinds of painting--portraits, landscape, genre, and religious subjects. He is also famous for his beautiful etchings. Etchings are prints that are made from a metal plate. Grooves are burned with acid into the plate, and ink is forced into the grooves. The ink is printed onto paper by a press. Printmakers before Rembrandt sketched their ideas first with pencil or pen, but Rembrandt worked directly on the etching plate. This change allowed the printmaker to express his ideas in one creative act.

Rembrandt was too great an artist to keep within the limits of a national style. His paintings do not always show the usual Dutch feeling for clarity and order. Rembrandt would select the most dramatic moment of a story, and many of his paintings are filled with excitement. Part of the drama is obtained by his use of light, inspired by Caravaggio. But Caravaggio's light has a definite source, while Rembrandt's light seems to come from no specific place. By means of this heavenly light, Rembrandt draws the viewer's attention to the central figure and the parts of the painting that reflect it.

As he grew older Rembrandt became less interested in scenes of dramatic action. Instead he was interested in the inner drama of people's feelings and emotions.

The Modern Period

During the 18th century Dutch artists continued to paint landscapes and marine scenes. However, the quality of these paintings declined. In Flanders painting was even less inspired. But in the 19th century there was a revival of the arts in Flanders, probably caused by independence from Spain. Both Belgium and Holland may be proud of several modern artists of international fame.

An outstanding Belgian artist was James Ensor (1860-1949). Greatly influenced by Bosch and Brueghel, Ensor painted pictures that were both sad and fantastic. His works influenced the expressionists of the 20th century. Expressionism is a style that stresses the artist's feelings about himself and the world. Line and color are often exaggerated and distorted.

Even more important to the creation of expressionism were the works of the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). He never stayed in one place nor held a job for long. His restlessness and loneliness are expressed in his paintings. Quickly applying his bright colors, Van Gogh made vivid, swirling designs that have a nervous quality.

Dutch artists also contributed to the international movement of abstract art—art that does not represent actual objects. The most important of the Dutch abstractionists was Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). In 1911 Mondrian stopped painting realistic landscapes. He developed a style in which he divided his canvases into rectangles and squares, painting each shape a simple blue, red, yellow, or white. The calm, balance, and order of this artist's works are certainly part of the Dutch tradition.

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