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The Netherlandish Painters of the Northern Renaissance

How Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch and other artists led the Renaissance


Jan van Eyck was a Netherlandish artist during the Northern Renaissance.

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca. 1390-1441). Margaret, the Artist's Wife, 1439. Oil on panel. 32.6 x 25.8 cm (12 13/16 x 10 1/8 in.). Image © Lukas - Art in Flanders VZW.

Groeningemuseum, Bruges

In Burgundy, the Northern Renaissance got its start primarily in the graphic arts. Beginning in the 14th-century, an artist could make a good living if he was proficient in producing illuminated manuscripts. Now originally, illumination was intended to highlight a particular word or passage within a manuscript, and make it stand out in importance. Sometime during the 1300s, though, illumination sort of went the way of that drunk guy at the party -- the normally quiet one, who suddenly does a solo dance with a lampshade on his head.

The late 14th and early 15th centuries saw illumination take off and, in some cases, take over entire pages. Instead of relatively sedate red capital letters, we now saw whole paintings (albeit small in scale) crowding manuscript pages right out to the borders. The French Royals, in particular, were avid collectors of these manuscripts, which became so popular that text was rendered largely unimportant.

The best surviving early example of these richly illustrated manuscripts was created (from 1413-16) for the Duke of Berry by the Netherlandish painters known as the Limbourg Brothers. The "Book of Hours" (properly: Les Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry) contained religious scenes (there was no getting around that), as well as "calendar pages" that depicted nobles and peasants, alike, going about their business in the local countryside.

It only made sense that, since the paintings were the popular element of manuscripts, painting should move to a larger surface. Happily, it was now possible to paint on wood or canvas, in the north, due to the development of oil paints.

The Northern Renaissance artist who is largely credited with developing oil techniques was Jan van Eyck, court painter to the Duke of Burgundy. It's not that he discovered oil paints, but he did figure out how to layer them, in "glazes," to create light and depth of color in his paintings. The Flemish van Eyck, his brother Hubert, and their Netherlandish predecessor Robert Campin (also known as the Master of Flémalle) were all painters who created altarpieces in the first half of the fifteenth century.

Three other key Netherlandish artists were the painters Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, and the sculptor Claus Sluter. Van der Weyden, who was the town painter of Brussels, was best known for introducing accurate human emotions and gestures into his work, which was primarily of a religious nature.

One other early Northern Renaissance artist that created a lasting stir was the enigmatic Hieronymus Bosch. No one can say what his motivation was, but he certainly created some darkly imaginative and highly unique paintings.

Something that all of these painters had in common was their use of naturalistic objects within compositions. Sometimes these objects had symbolic meanings, while at other times they were just there to illustrate aspects of daily life.

In taking in the 15th century, it's important to note that Flanders was the center of the Northern Renaissance. Just as with Florence - at this same time - Flanders was the place that northern artists looked to for "cutting edge" artistic techniques and technology. This situation persisted until 1477, when the last Burgundian Duke was defeated in battle and Burgundy ceased to exist.

France absorbed the southern parts of the former Duchy, while Flanders and the rest of the Netherlands passed into the hands of the Holy Roman Empire (whose seat of power was in Spain). Additionally, England now had a strong ruler and was a force to be reckoned with. All of these factors, combined, lessened Flanders' influence on the Northern Renaissance. In fact, art in the north began to flourish in many locations.

Next: The 16th century.

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