Netherlandish Renaissance
Characteristics, History of Dutch/Flemish Art.

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Detail from the central panel of the
Ghent Altarpiece (1432, St Bavo's)
By Jan Van Eyck, one of the great
Northern Renaissance artists of
the Netherlands.

Netherlandish Renaissance Art (1430-1580)


What is the Netherlandish Renaissance?
Hubert and Jan Van Eyck
Robert Campin, Roger Van Weyden and Others
Northern Netherlands (Holland)
Hieronymus Bosch
Netherlands Art (1500 Onwards)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder

See also: German Renaissance Art (1430-1580)

A detail taken from the Dutch picture
Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-05)
by Hieronymus Bosch. One of the
most famous religious paintings
of the Netherlandish Renaissance.

What is the Netherlandish Renaissance?

In fine art, the term "Netherlandish Renaissance" refers to the rapid development of fine art painting which occurred in Flanders and Holland during the 15th and 16th centuries. Netherlandish artists (and patrons) tended to be more down-to-earth than their counterparts in Italy. Less interested in Classical Antiquity, or aesthetics, or the theory of perspective, they painted what they saw, and focused on mastering the technique of oil painting. Until about 1530, the Church maintained its role as the leading patron of the arts. As a result, Christian art remained the principal form of both painting and sculpture. Thereafter, religious differences between southern Europe (largely Catholic) and northern Europe (largely Protestant) - encapsulated in the divide between Dutch Protestants and Flemish Catholics - led to major differences between Italian Renaissance art and that of the Netherlands.

Early Renaissance (1400-90)
Early Renaissance Artists (1400-90)
High Renaissance (1490-1530)
High Renaissance Artists (1490-1530)

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a chronological guide to
key events in the development
of visual arts around the globe
see: History of Art Timeline.

For a guide, see:
Definition of Art.


In general, the Protestant Church had no interest in commissioning altarpieces, or other works of religious art. Artists were therefore forced to use their draughtsmanship and skill with oils in order to cater to the civic and cultural demands of the growing bourgeoisie. Portrait art, interiors, and genre painting now took over, leading to the Golden Age of Dutch Realism in the 17th century. But in 1430, things looked quite different.

As a rule, a nation's greatest painters usually appear at the climax of a long period of development; but in the Low Countries the opposite is the case. The Van Eycks, who were the founders of early Netherlandish painting, were also its greatest masters, and for the two hundred years after them, until the emergence of Rubens, the history of the school is almost one of anti-climax. Almost. For the most important pictures, see: Greatest Renaissance Paintings.

Origins of Netherlandish Renaissance

Such art as there was in the Netherlands before the Van Eycks, belongs to the so-called 'International Gothic' style, which originated in France and spread south into Italy, and north into the Rhineland cities and the Netherlands. It is exemplified in the new naturalism and humanism exhibited by International Gothic illuminations such as the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg brothers - a trio who were working about the turn of the 14th century for the Duc de Berry. Hubert Van Eyck (c.1365-1425) was himself an illuminator, for parts of the Milan-Turin Hours, made for John of Bavaria in 1417, are now unanimously ascribed to him. The whole Eyckian technique is that of illumination on a large scale, but, thanks to the scale and the oil-medium, of a hitherto undreamed-of perfection and brilliance. (Note: For details of pigments used in Netherlandish Renaissance painting, see: Renaissance Colour Palette.)


Hubert and Jan Van Eyck

Hubert and Jan Van Eyck's masterpiece is the great Ghent Altarpiece of the Adoration of by Lamb, at St Bavo's Cathedral. This polyptych, with its multiplicity of small panels, is obviously the work of men trained as miniature painters and unable to cope with the problem of filling large spaces. It is a joint work of the two brothers. By Hubert alone, who is a more nebulous figure than Jan there are, beside the Milan-Turin miniatures, two wings of an altarpiece at Leningrad, and the Three Marks at the Sepulchre, now in the van Beuningen Collection in Holland. By Jan Van Eyck (c.1390-1441) there is an impressive list of signed and dated works, of which the most important is probably the Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery, London).

In a country where the altarpiece was the standard genre, the Arnolfini Portrait's secular theme and the private nature of the painting are due to the nationality of the clients. Giovanni Arnolfini was an extremely rich Italian businessman and banker who ran the Bruges branch of his family business. The value that was placed on the individual in Italy, and the well known custom of important men having their portraits painted there, may have prompted him to commission van Eyck to paint this 'marriage certificate' for him.

Despite the meticulous precision of detail with which van Eyck minutely captured things both in the foreground and the background, the unity of the composition is assured by a fine modulation of colour and light that plays evenly around everything. This homogenising method is achieved chiefly thanks to the technique of oil painting, which was widespread in the north from early on. The highly workable, slow-drying paint enabled the artist to work thoughtfully, to retouch and overpaint. It enabled him to achieve the finest nuances of shading, fabric folds were worked out with vivid, velvety transitions to ever brighter tones, and the tiny flashes of light on sparkling materials could be conveyed precisely with very small brushes. Costumes, bodies and faces received a hitherto unknown materiality. (See for instance Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, 1433). This technique, known as 'ars nova' (Lat. 'new art') was known and admired outside the Netherlands through the work of Dutch artists who had worked as court painters in the south. The reverse influence of the Italian Renaissance on the north, on the other hand, only becomes apparent very much later.

Despite the quality of Jan Van Eyck's works, it is impossible to find out anything about the artist himself, except that he was one of the world's great realistic painters. In his religious paintings, such as the so-called 'Rollin Madonna' in the Louvre, there is little religious feeling; the subject is used only to give a pretext for a realistic study of an interior.

Robert Campin, Roger Van Weyden and Others

In this, he is the opposite of his younger contemporary, Robert Campin (1375-1444), who has now been identified as the Master of Flemalle. The Van Eycks were court-painters patronized by the nobility; Campin was a painter working for middle-class patrons. His religious works (like the Merode Altarpiece), and to an even greater extent those of his pupil Roger van der Weyden (1398-1464) - see his great Descent From the Cross (1425) - are charged with emotion and passionate religious feeling. This cleavage was to persist throughout the history of Netherlandish painting, right up to the time of the great Dutchman, Rembrandt, and the great Flemish master, Rubens. The closest follower of Jan van Eyck was the Bruges-based Petrus Christus (c.1400-73), noted for Portrait of a Young Girl (1470). The painters working under Van der Weyden's influence were Dieric Bouts (1410-75), Simon Marmion (1401-65), Hans Memling (c.1430-94) of Bruges (see his: Last Judgment Triptych, 1471 and Donne Triptych, 1477-80), and, most individual of all, Hugo van der Goes (1440-82), who managed to equal his master's influence with his famous Portinari Altarpiece at Florence - one of the most magnificent and intensely passionate examples of Flemish altarpiece art, and its influence on the Florentine Renaissance was far-reaching.

Other Netherlandish Old Masters include the meticulous realist Gerrit David (1460-1523) of Bruges and Antwerp; the miniaturist-trained Jan Provost (1465-1529) noted for his altarpieces; the Italian Renaissance-inspired Quentin Massys (1465-1530), best known for his animated portraits of the bourgeoisie; and the Antwerp-based Joos van Cleve (1490-1540), known for his devotional altarpieces and portraiture.

Northern Netherlands (Holland)

Dutch painting, or, as one should say at this period, the painting of the northern Netherlands, was more old-fashioned, clumsier, and more naive; yet if it lacks the suavity of the Flemish, it gains in force and in feeling. Hieronymus Bosch was the greatest Dutch painter of the late 15th century - see, for instance, his extraordinary Biblical painting Haywain Triptych (1516) - but mention should also be made of Albert van Ouwater (active mid-15th century), founder of the Haarlem School; Geertgen tot sint Jans (c.1465-93) the Delft-based Master of the Virgo inter Virgines (active c.1480-1510).

Hieronymus Bosch

While Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo pursued the ideals of classical beauty, Bosch painted heavenly and infernal visions whose fabulous nature seemed to have sprung straight from the world of medieval ideas. But the message of these paintings was entirely in accordance with the spirit of the age, for in contrast to the optimistic world-view of the Italian Renaissance, the 'conquering of reality' was accompanied by doubt and insecurity in the north.

The social conflicts provoked by economic changes, the wars, plagues and famines that had afflicted the Netherlands in the 15th century, were taken as a sign that they had drawn God's fury upon themselves, and had been banished from his all-encompassing divine protection. This insecurity culminated in religious fanaticism: endless processions of people flagellating themselves and accusing themselves of sinfulness roamed through the country, the witch-hunting craze reached a terrible peak, and countless sects proclaimed themselves the sole way to divine redemption. Not least because of its interest in secular power, the Roman Church increasingly lost authority in questions of faith, and hardly offered the unsettled people any more security. Religion underwent a profound crisis. The need for a reorientation, a new direction - for 'Reformation' - could no longer be ignored.

All this finds visual expression in the works of Hieronymus Bosch. The art of the old Dutch painters stood in a direct tradition of Medieval visions of heaven and hell, which they brought down to earth. Bosch makes hell 'earthly', showing the chasms of man, his sinfulness and shortcomings, with the greatest precision. The unbroken atmospheric treatment of landscape, man, animal and various different kinds of materiality gives hell 'real' dimensions, producing a hell on earth. We may safely assume that the pictures were painted according to a planned conception, and that some figures and details which seem merely surreal to us today would have been decoded by a certain number of people. His fantasy, which brought him fame during his lifetime, consists in the fact that realism (in the style of painting) and symbolism (in the meaning) merge into a single unit. The paintings which, according to one source, were counterfeited even at the time, still have a weirdly compelling effect many centuries latter. Among others, the Surrealists, who painted similarly frightening dream-images in the early years of the 20th century, took him as a great model. But Bosch's concern was very different to that of his later adepts. He did not want to paint the chasms of the human soul, but to reveal those of human action. Behind his oppressive visions was the accusing moral finger. His pictorial worlds were warnings of infernal tortures which man could expect for his transgressions in this world.

Netherlands Art (1500 Onwards)

About the turn of the century the Italian Renaissance began to make itself felt in the Netherlands. Up to then, it was the Italians who had been affected by the Northern Renaissance, especially the Venetians, who, in their oil technique and the problems of representing light, had more in common with the Flemish. Joos van Wassenhove (active 1460-80) worked at Urbino, in Italy, during the 1470s, but his style, though influenced by Italian largeness of scale, and subject matter, remained recognizably Flemish; while it would be impossible to deduce from Roger van der Weyden's pictures that he, too, made a journey to Italy about 1450. The first Fleming to show any Italian influence in Flanders was Jan Gossaert de Mabuse (1480-1533); but he remains fundamentally entirely Flemish, with only a veneer of Italian subject-matter and style. Mabuse had considerable influence on the so-called 'Antwerp Mannerists', such as Jan de Beer (1475-1536), and also on Bernard van Orley (1493 - 1542) of Brussels, known particularly for his tapestry art, and on his pupil, Pieter Coecke (1502-50), the master of the elder Bruegel. Note: For more about art in Flanders, see: Flemish Painting (1400-1800)

The effects of the Renaissance were much the same in Holland as in Flanders. Lucas van Leyden (c.1480-1533) is more famous as an engraver and draughtsman than as a painter, and his sensitive draughtsmanship shows the influence of Durer and of Raphael. Jan Scorel of Utrecht (1495-1562) was the most successful of any Netherlandish painter in assimilating the example of Raphael. Martin van Heemskerch (1498 - 1574) and his successors of the so-called 'Haarlem Academy', Henrik Goltzins (1558 - 1617), Abraham Bloemart (1564 - 1651) and Jan Suenredam (1565-1607), derive, unlike Scorel, from Michelangelo, and display an exaggerated Mannerism.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

There was also a flourishing school of landscape in the Netherlands at about the same time. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1530-69), one of the most important Flemish painters of the 16th century, cannot be considered as a landscape painter pure and simple (see below), for much of his work consists of large figure compositions in the grotesque and essentially native, as opposed to Italianate, manner of Bosch; but strictly in terms of genre, such pictures as Hunters in the Snow (1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) or the Fall of Icarus (1558, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), are really as much 'landscapes with figures' as anything by Claude, while there also survive numerous pen and ink drawings of landscape, many of them executed for the engraver. Joachim Patenier (c.1490-1524) is another pioneering landscape painter, noted for Bosch-like fantasy compositions (mostly Biblical). Paulus Bril (1554-1626), an Antwerp artist, settled early in Rome, where he came under the influence of the German Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), and occupies an important place in the history of landscape painting, bridging the gap between Elsheimer and Claude.

Landscapes or not, there is a significant narrative element to Bruegel's works - a morally didactic undertone similar to that of Hieronymus Bosch. His painting was representational in much the same way as that of Bosch, but because of his humanistic view of the world this highly cultured artist did not paint other-worldly visions of hell or religious themes, but contemporary, topical scenes. His Tower of Babel should - in line with biblical morality - be understood as a warning against human arrogance, which the painter himself may have observed among his contemporaries. At the beginning of the 16th century, Antwerp - the city in which Bruegel lived when he painted the picture - had in a very short time grown into one of the largest cities in Europe. The discovery of the sea route around Africa to India, and the discovery of America, ensured the rapid growth of his west-coast harbour city. Goods and people from all parts of the world landed in Antwerp. There was an almost Babylonian babble of languages, and many a businessman, having grown rich overnight, must have indulged in complacent self-satisfaction. It is no coincidence that Bruegel painted the motif of the building of the Tower of Babel three times. This story allowed him to hold up an admonishing mirror to his compatriots. Bruegel's contemporary panorama becomes a symbol in which the landscape is no longer a section of the (real) world but a self-contained cosmos. City, countryside, mountains, rivers, coast and sky form a global landscape. It is held together by its painterly execution: in the sensitive treatment of light and colour the miniaturistic details merge into a single unit. And Bruegel did not abandon this meticulousness in his treatment of the view of the distance - on the contrary, the air, the atmosphere itself is depicted in its own right.

The connection between realism and symbolism which Bruegel - taking his lead from Bosch - brought to his depictions of 'everyday' scenarios pointed to new ways forward for Dutch art. Examples include: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels), Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (1562, Musee Mayer van den Bergh), Peasant Wedding (1568, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), Parable of the Blind (1568, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples), Netherlandish Proverbs (1559, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) and the more chilling Massacre of the Innocents (c.1565-7). These works paved the way for the genre scenes which reached full bloom in the work of Dutch Realist artists of the following century.

Works reflecting the works of the Flemish and Dutch Renaissance can be seen in many of the best art museums in the world.

• For information about painting in Holland and Flanders, see: Homepage.

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