Flemish Painting
Characteristics, History of Altarpieces, Miniatures, Portrait Paintings in Flanders.

Pin it

Descent From the Cross (c.1440)
Prado Museum, Madrid. One of the
greatest Flemish altarpieces
of the Northern Renaissance.
By Roger van der Weyden.

Flemish Painting (c.1400-1800)
Origins, History, Development


Flemish Painting in the 15th Century: From Miniatures to Panel Paintings
Flemish Painting in the 16th Century: Bosch to Roelandt Savery
Flemish Painting in the 17th Century: Rubens & Van Dyck
17th Century Genre Painting
Flemish Painting in the 18th Century
Greatest Flemish Painters

For a chronological guide,
see: History of Art Timeline.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.



The homeland of Flemish painting had many different names in the course of its history. The ancient Romans spoke of Batavia, later it carried the name of Belgium as the land around the Rhine delta was classified as belonging to the Roman province Belgica Secunda. People in the Middle Ages knew it as the Netherlands (Low Countries). In simple terms, the northern area (Holland) turned Protestant and gained independence from Spain about 1609, while the southern area (Flanders) remained Catholic and continued to be ruled by Habsburgs. Not until 1830 did it become the state of Belgium.

Painting became important relatively late in Belgium. There were two periods in which Flemish painting was significant for artistic development in the west: once at the end of the Middle Ages and again in the heyday of Baroque. On both occasions, religious art was a central feature.

Jan van Eyck and Rubens are the two peaks which exist in the incredibly rich history of art in this tiny country: not in a time when art flourished but one in the first years of an intensive new beginning and the other as an inspired end.

Religious paintings from the region of Flanders entered into the visual field of western art relatively late. Late, but with enormous intensity and a wealth of inner power. A deep piety radiated from this painting, a complete balance in matters of this world and the next. People at that time, and even today, were excited by the unbelievable technical precision and high quality with which magnificent paintings were realized.

Flemish Painting in the 15th Century: Miniatures to Panel Paintings

It was the Ypres-born Melchior Broederlam (1350-1411) at the very beginning of the Netherlandish Renaissance who ushered in a new era in Flemish art. It was his completed masterpiece the Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99) that largely defined the moment at which the technique of book illumination was superceded by the art of panel painting. Henceforth, the miniaturist was no longer top dog. In his place was a new breed of artist - the painter. Broederlam's Dijon Altarpiece was a work of large-scale art that completely superseded the mainly decorative approach of the Flemish miniaturists, such as the Limbourg Brothers (d.1416) and Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414). Miniature painting, by definition, could only capture a few isolated details. Broederlam's masterpiece changed everything. From now on, Christian art would be tackled in a comprehensively realistic manner. From now on painting would be firmly rooted in the world. A pictorial revolution had been born in Flanders, whose reverberations would be felt throughout Europe.

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert, born around 1370, were the first great masters of Early Netherlandish painting. While it is only known of Hubert van Eyck that he created the famous altarpiece in Ghent together with his brother, other works can be attributed to Jan van Eyck with a degree of certainty. (See Man in a Red Turban (1433) and The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), both in the National Gallery, London.) Jan was undoubtedly the inspired innovator, the one blessed with a great talent, who had the intellectual background for the moving compositions which he successfully rendered. They also gave him the outstanding technical abilities necessary for his planned paintings. A completely new tone was heard to ring in painting in the western world with van Eyck's appearance. Italian, German and French artists suddenly turned to the Netherlands which were to determine the development of art for the coming years.

Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (1378-1444)

Jan van Eyck's older contemporary Robert Campin was another powerful influence on Flemish painting. In particular, he is noted for the intimate details and use of the commonplace in works like the Merode Altarpiece (1425, New York, Cloisters), and the devotional altarpiece entitled The Seilern Triptych (1410, Courtauld Institute Gallery).

Roger van der Weyden (1400-1464)

Roger van der Weyden, who was roughly 10 years younger than Jan van Eyck, travelled to Italy where he visited Rome, Florence and Venice in order to learn from the Italian masters. He also took over a lot from Jan van Eyck, but the speciality of this artist, who lived in Brussels, was the artistic combination of Early Renaissance art with the new spirit of craftmanship and precision in Netherlandish art. While Jan van Eyck can be regarded as the progenitor of old Netherlandish painting, Roger van der Weyden can be accredited with having brought the tradition of Italian art into the painting of the region, while conversely, his own emotional style proved influential in both Germany and Italy. See for instance, his Descent From the Cross (c.1435-40, Prado).

For a long time Roger van der Weyden was considered to have been a pupil of Jan van Eyck, which he probably was for a short time. (He was also a pupil of Robert Campin in Tournai.) However, his individual style of art developed further than just copying van Eyck. Amazingly, this painter whose artistic perceptions were important for many generations of German, Flemish and Dutch artists fell into oblivion for a long time. We were first made familiar with his work after research done in the middle of the 19th century.

Petrus Christus (1420-1473) was one of Jan van Eyck's pupils who carried forth the style of the great master. He even achieved a certain degree of Eyck's artistic mastery. His work consummates, for the first time, the bond between the stylistic characteristics of both the early masters van Eyck and van der Weyden. See his famous masterpiece: Portrait of a Young Girl (1470, Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

This symbiosis is more obvious with another artist, Dieric Bouts (c.1420-1475). With his appearance in Flemish art of this time, the contingent of artists from the north of the Netherlands is considerably enhanced. He was born in Haarlem around 1420, later he moved to the south of the country. It is possible that the reputation and importance of Flemish oil painting played a part in this decision as well as the financial situation. Cities in the north were relatively poor and the style of living there was severe while the large centres in the south must have had a magical attraction. (Note: Flemish oil painting techniques were also having an impact on quattrocento art in Italy, notably on Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), one of the foremost figures in Venetian painting of the 15th century, and on the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522), whose fantasy realism made him one of the most innovative artists of the time.

Bout's art carried forth everything which the first generation of Flemish painters had worked hard to achieve in their pictures. He concerned himself with the same themes, used similar figures and staffage, the light surrounding figures in his pictures resembles that used by van Eyck, while his compositions are reminiscent of those from van der Weyden.

In the middle of the 15th century the old respected city of Ghent became a centre of Northern Renaissance art. This can mainly be attributed to the painter Hugo van der Goes, but also to Justus of Ghent (active c.1460-80). These two painters are not just united by this city but also by a somewhat unusual destiny differing rather from the usual middle-class existence. One died, mentally deranged, in a monastery, the other was driven by his unsettled, feverish spirit to live a restless life in Italy.

Hugo van der Goes (1440–1482)

Hugo van der Goes quickly gained the reputation of being an outstanding painter. However, after a brilliant rise to fame he suddenly retired to live a monk's life in a monastery. He still painted for a few years but his mental condition worsened steadily. He died in a monastery in 1482. His oeuvre from just 15 years - including his masterpiece The Portinari Altarpiece (1476-9) - assured him a position in the history of art as being one of the most important artists of this region.

Joos van Wassenhove (active c.1460-80)

Joos van Wassenhove, as Justus of Ghent is properly called, travelled to Italy as a young man. There he soon gained a very good reputation. He carried the early knowledge of Flemish painting in his innermost feelings and endeavoured to unite it with Italian art. He never returned to Ghent; the Italians could almost regard him as one of their own if he hadn't inherited the precious essence of Flemish painting. It was Justus of Ghent who carried the new formal perceptions and the background which stems from deep religiousness to this southern land.

Hans Memling (c.1433-94)

Hans Memling, born in Germany between 1430 and 1440, was the artist who was responsible for a consolidation and propagation of the obtained mastery in Flemish art. Jan van Eyck was the main instigator, Roger van Weyden brought along the dynamic composition, Dirk Bouts carried what had been achieved further and enriched it. In Memling's case the foundations were already established and tangible so that he was able to work fully and continuously aiming for a broad effect. He continued the art of the previous masters in the sense of refinement and worked with an infallible sense of charm, measure and colour around an inner harmony. Dramatic representation was not his strong point, his paintings show a preference for the static. Memling is the master of a harmony which is well balanced in every way. The positive elements of a great epoch in art are concentrated in his work. See for instance his famous Last Judgment Triptych (1471, Gdansk) and Donne Triptych (1477-80, National Gallery, London).

The last of the Early Netherlandish Old Masters was Gerard David (1460-1523) from Haarlem, who worked in Bruges alongside Memling and became his successor after Memling's death. After Gerard David there came Jan Provost of Mons (1465-1539), a pupil of Simon Marmion at Valenciennes. He in turn was superceded by the influence of the Antwerp school, which went on to eclipse that of Bruges. Two other pupils of David, Adriaen Ysenbrandt (d.1551) and Ambrosius Benson (d.1550) continued his style in Bruges until 1550.) Gerard David himself was influenced by the northern Netherlandish school. The latter coalesced first in Haarlem under its founder Albert van Ouwater (active 1450s, 1460s) the landscapist, and his pupil Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1460-1495), then in the town of Delft under the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines (active c.1480-1500), noted for his desolate landscapes and gaunt figures, and finally with the visionary artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) and his successor Pieter Bruegel (1525-69). Note also the pioneering contribution of Jean Clouet (1485-1540) to the specialist genre of miniature portrait painting. Clouet was one of the earliest recorded portrait miniaturists in Europe.



Flemish Painting in the 16th Century: Bosch to Roelandt Savery

Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel

Netherlandish art in the north of the country often had contents from the realm of fantasy. Its origins can be found in the works of an old Netherlandish painter whose work can also be classified along with Flemish art. No other artist in the western world posed later generations such great problems as Hieronymus Bosch, who lived in Hertogenbosch from approximately 1450 to 1516. See, for instance, his Garden of Earthly Delights (1505, Prado, Madrid).

Personal details of his life are not generally known, one only has partly verified knowledge of him. However, his unusual work, full of themes and figures from another world, his religious, visionary pictures and his portrayals of the customs and manners of the epoch are bizarre and crammed, filled with cryptic import. His influence was great even during his lifetime, and a major part of Pieter Bruegel's work can only be understood when one has knowledge of Bosch's preceding work. Bosch and the artist family Bruegel (apart from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, there were his sons Pieter the Younger (1564-1638) (nicknamed Hell Bruegel) and Jan the Older as well as several grandsons) were based in the area of Netherlandish painting, the main works of which lie in the rapidly developing area of north Netherlandish art. However, many of their works have a strong inner relationship to Flemish art in their origins and effect. Of Bruegel's many masterpieces, see: Netherlandish Proverbs (1559, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (1562, Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp), and the Tower of Babel (1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

They were, so to speak, citizens of two worlds, living in a time of political upheaval Which was followed by a cultural drifting apart of the two nations formed. Their work was path-breaking for the one Netherlandish art form which developed in the north, while the roots of their ability were nurtured from the southern traditions.


Antwerp was the main centre of the Flemish School during the 16th century, during which period it was gradually won over to Italianism. Quentin Massys (c.1465-1530) and the landscape painter Joachim Patenier (1485-1524) were the first important members who help to bring about the transition to Renaissance art. Other important contributors to Flemish art of the period included: Bernard van Orley (1488-1541) in Brussels, Jan Gossaert (1478-1536) in Mabuse, as well as Frans Floris (1516-1570) and Jan Massys (d.1575) in Antwerp.

Portrait paintings were done by most painters including Adriaen Thomasz Key (1544-1589) and his brother Willem; the Bruges portraitists Pieter Pourbus (1523-84) and his son Frans Pourbus the Elder (1545-81); and the international court painter Anthonis Mor (1519-1576) of Utrecht.

Several genre painters flourished in the school of Antwerp. They included: Jan van Hemessen (active 1519-56), the Amsterdam-born Pieter Aertsen (1508-1575) and his nephew Joachim Bueckelaer (1535-74), supposedly the first genre-painter to paint fish-stalls. Landscape painting was characteristically Flemish, and featured the Antwerp painter Herri met de Bles (active 1st half 16th-century) (also called Herri de Patenir),and Jacob Grimmer. Later, there came the brothers Lucas Valckenborch (c.1535-97) and Marten Valckenborch (1534-1612), both of whom worked in the tradition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; Gillis van Coninxloo (1544-1607); and Joos de Momper (1564-1635) and Tobias Verhaecht (1561-1631), Rubens' first teacher. At the end of the century, the Flemish scene painters David Vinckeboons (1576-1630) and Roelandt Savery (1576-1639) introduced landscape painting - or at least genre scenes in a landscape setting - to Amsterdam and Utrecht.

Flemish Painting in the 17th Century

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

In the 17th century one single painter, Peter Paul Rubens, overshadowed all genius and creative powers which had gone before him. It is not just the overpowering external form of his work, but also the zestful contents of his paintings, which have a colourful effect. No other painter was so capable of taking up the difficult heritage of the Renaissance and converting it without effort into a new fully valid artistic form. Rubens never suffered from the compulsion to paint as so many other artists did. He created rather more from joy, in an artistic exuberance which allowed him to desregard introspective problems. He conformed to taste at that time and the incredible success of his work could easily have robbed him of his artistic potency if it had not been for the fact that the enthusiastic acceptance by the Church, secular rulers and the general public was nourishment for his cosmopolitan artistic being. Among his greatest works are: Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14); Samson and Delilah (1609-10); Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618); and Judgement of Paris (1636).

When he was born in the small Westphalian town of Siegen in 1577, it did not look as if he could expect a great deal of success in life. His father, Jan Rubens, was a high-ranking officer in the court of the Spanish governor who fell out of favour and had to go into exile in Westphalia. It was only after the father's death that the family was allowed to move back to Antwerp, a city which was in the course of being rebuilt after having been completely destroyed several years before, during a war.

In Antwerp, the young Rubens received a profound training and also turned to painting although a record of his instruction has not been handed down. He was just over twenty years old when he felt drawn to Italy where he was given a good position in the court of the Duke of Mantua and with this the opportunity of studying the works of the High Renaissance Italian artists. Rubens absorbed everything enthusiastically, got to know and understand works by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (Raffaello Santi) (1483-1520), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and, above all, Titian (c.1485-1576). He took issue with them and even in his copies changed them into unmistakable works by Rubens. His painting work gradually took on form - his promotion in the diplomatic services helped a lot, as business trips could easily be combined with the study of great works of art.

His reputation as diplomat and painter increased rapidly, his marriage laid the foundations for a happy family life and, because he had married into an important family, his prestige grew even more. For outsiders it is astounding how Rubens managed to complete the vast amounts of work with no apparent difficulty: his numerous diplomatic tasks, his travels, his function as adviser and besides all this a wealth of paintings. Moreover, his choice of theme, his scenical construction and the size of his pictures is in no way time-saving. It is known that he employed several people in his studio, at least for a time, but all the creations which unmistakably show Rubens' hand add up to a life's work which appears to be too much for one man's lifetime.- It should not be forgotten that his tasks as an urbane adviser and mediator were just as important, at least in the eyes of his contemporaries.

When Rubens died as a famous painter and diplomat in Antwerp in 1640, he left behind a magnificent oeuvre which had a deep influence on his contemporaries as well as on artists who came after him.

Pupils, followers and emulators of Rubens included: Caspar de Crayer (1584-1669), Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678); the animaliers Frans Snyders (1579-1657), Paul de Vos (1591-1678), and Jan Fyt (1611-1660); the landscape artists Lucas van Uden (1595-1672), Jan Wildens (1586-1653), Jacques d'Arthois (1613-1686), Gillis Peeters (1612-1653) and his younger brother Bonaventura Peeters (1614-1652) both known for their coastal pictures.

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Another important Flemish artist, who worked in Rubens' studio, was Anthony van Dyck - born in Antwerp. His artistic talents developed very early in his life. Although his style has several similarities with Rubens, he quickly developed his own unmistakable hand. After he had achieved the status of master, he was employed by Rubens' studio for a short time to work on urgent paintings. Rubens also allowed him to complete commissions which he himself could not manage because he had so much else to do. Even during the many years when van Dyck worked as an independent, well-respected painter or his own commissioner, there were still occasional times when both painters worked together.

Van Dyck's strength lay in portrait art. While his alert eye saw distinguishing and characteristic features, he endeavoured, above all, to capture the expression whereby a keen versatile technique stood him in good stead. When the essentials had been captured in his painting, he tended to ignore the less important details.

Van Dyck's influence on English figurative painting is remarkable. He made extensive journeys to Italy, but an appointment to the Royal Court in England, where he was honoured and respected, had a very decisive influence on the generations of English painters who followed in his footsteps.

Van Dyck died in 1641 while still quite young. Flanders lost both of its famous 17th century painters within two years. Their deaths marked the beginning of a period of decline. A difficult time also lay ahead of the country which had been weakened by the heavy losses in the war with the Netherlandish states and bled dry by an excessive Royal Household.

17th Century Flemish Genre Painting

In the northern provinces, there were a large number of painters who concentrated on certain themes corresponding to the preferences of the people there. They developed a tremendous skill in this branch of art and purposely specialized in these limited motifs. Also in Flemish painting, after Rubens, we find the phenomenon that thoroughly talented artists did not content themselves with any theme but sought instead a livelihood in specialization. One of those painters who worked with limited themes was Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), who became mainly an expressive portrayer of everyday life. His field was genre painting, scenes from rural and city life in which the strong, optimistic pleasure-loving character of the Flemish people is humorously shown to advantage. Jordaens led a quiet life. Born 1593 in Antwerp, he remained in his home town where he became a well-respected master. He did not make any great journeys, when possible avoided accepting large public commissions and lived and worked under satisfactory conditions.

Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38) - Flemish and Dutch Art

The short life of another genre painter, Adriaen Brouwer, seems to have been less ordered. He was a traveller between two worlds. His restless lifestyle led him to commute between north Holland and Flanders which is the reason why it is difficult to categorize his work as belonging exclusively to either country. He was born in Flanders and left home when he was 16 years old. He probably studied in Antwerp, worked in Amsterdam and eventually painted with Frans Hals (1582-1666), to whom he owes much of his style. He became a free master in Antwerp around 1631 and, until he died at an early age, led an unsteady bohemian life with constant vain attempts at founding a normal, middle-class existence which were ruined time and time again by drunkenness, political disputes and overwhelming debt. His outstanding artistic qualities are a strange contrast to the often earthy contents of his paintings. One can easily recognize a sympathetic understanding in his representation of instinctive human traits. His warm natural humour raises the paintings to another level. He opened the door to a wide succession of Netherlandish painters of peasant life. Admittedly his successors could only take over the decoration of his scenarios, the deeper motifs which lay behind them could not be fathomed, and Brouwer's unerring sense for gradational colours remained completely lost to them.

Brouwer was followed by Jos van Craesbeeck and David Teniers the Younger (1610-90). Teniers, who came from a Flemish family of artists, was the only one to create a style of genre paintings which raised itself above the large area of mediocrity. Although he cannot really be described as an imitator of Brouwer, Brouwer's influence is undoubtedly evident, nevertheless Teniers became a successful leading master of Dutch Realist genre painting. Close connections with Rubens (in 1637 he married Jan Bruegel's daughter who was Rubens' ward) certainly helped him to consolidate his social standing while in his painting only very light suggestions of the great master can be found. Teniers was emulated and imitated by David Ryckaert, Mattheus von Helmont and Willem van Herp.

Other notable 17th century Flemish painters include Cornelis de Vos (c.1584-1651), a successful painter of the bourgeoisie; the military scene painter Adam Frans van der Meulen (1632-1690) who famously pictorialized many of Louis XIV's campaigns; and Jan Siberechts (1627-1703), one of the first to paint topographical landscape 'portraits' of country houses.

Flemish Painting in the 18th Century

In Flanders, at the beginning of the 18th century, there was a development in painting which had parallels in politics. Despite Flemish art being a key feature of the Grand Tour, the country and the art became meaningless in the Concert of Europe. Already the next generation after Peter Paul Rubens and Teniers were not regarded as Flemish because of the political shift of borders: Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), born in Valenciennes in the Flemish border region, was French, as the town had been passed over to France six years before his birth. However, the roots of this key figure in Rococo art are in the tradition of the great Flemish painters, especially Rubens. However, his artistic career drew him to Paris.

Against this background, art in Flanders during the eighteenth century may be summarized as follows.

The tradition of history painting was maintained by Guillaume Herricx (1682-1745), Jacques van Roore (1686-1747), Maarten Geeraerts (1707-1791) and Pieter Verhaeghen (1728-1811), while the new style of neoclassical painting was represented by Andries Cornelis Lens (1739-1822) of Antwerp, and others. Genre painting was exemplified in works by Van den Bossche (1681-1715), Jan Jozef Horemans the Elder (1682-1759) and his son Jan Jozef Horemans the Younger (1700-1776), while landscape painters incuded Jean Demarne (1754-1829).

Works by Flemish masters can be seen in many of the best art museums across the world, notably the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, the Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts, and the Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.

• For more about oil painting in Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.