Northern Renaissance Artists
Painters & Sculptors in Holland, Flanders & Germany.

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The Deposition (1435-40) by Roger
Van Der Weyden. (Detail of Mary)
A masterpiece of Renaissance art,
focusing on human emotion, in line
with Renaissance humanism.

A Young Hare (1502) Albertina, Vienna.
By Albrecht Durer. In line with the
new Renaissance emphasis on nature.

Northern Renaissance Artists (c.1430-1580)


Part of the Gothic Tradition
- Jan van Eyck
- Hieronymous Bosch
- Pieter Breugel the Elder
- Albrecht Durer
- Hans Holbein the Younger
- Matthias Grunewald
- Danube School
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NOTE: Northern Renaissance art developed in the Low Countries, Germany, Britain, Scandinavia and Central Europe, although its greatest exponents came from two main areas: (1) The Netherlands, including Flanders - with its rich trading centres like Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges - and Holland with its cultural centres such as Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leyden, Dordrecht and Delft.
(2) Germany, especially Catholic Bavaria, including the Danube School.

For chronology, see: History of art Timeline (from 800 BCE).
For other art movements and periods, see: History of Art


Part of the Gothic Tradition

The Northern Renaissance (in the Low Countries, Germany and Britain) was never as clear cut as its counterpart, the Italian Renaissance (1400-1530). While Italian Renaissance art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was experimenting with forms and principles from Classical Antiquity, Northern European architects and masons continued to build in the Gothic Style and carve in the tradition of Gothic sculpture. Northern painters, too, developed in the traditions inherited from the Middle Ages, quickened perhaps by their knowledge of the Italian achievement, but often surprisingly independent of it.

Aside from the early introduction and widespread adoption of oil painting, which greatly facilitated detailed reworking of a picture, perhaps the principal feature marking the new spirit of painting in Northern Europe around 1400 is the increasing emancipation of art from an exclusively religious purpose. Whether from piety, tradition or simple convenience, Christian art continued to be created by artists for centuries to come, but in the early decades of the fifteenth century the background of a painting begins to assume a new and increased significance. The landscape, the incidental animals, men, trees, cities, rivers and mountains against which the religious subject is depicted are no longer merely a decorative backdrop but have a life of their own.

Hand in hand with this discovery of external reality (which was to culminate in the establishment of landscape painting and still life painting as genres in their own right) goes an increased interest in human personality: more and more the artist sees himself as a unique individual. Nor are the people he depicts merely figures playing a part in a story. Indeed at times the 'story' is incidental to the portrayal of human beings, until by the turn of the fifteenth century portrait-painting emerged as a distinct artistic occupation.


Not surprisingly, the Netherlands took the lead in developments in Northern Europe. The Netherlands were in many ways at a stage of development similar to that of Italy: the cities were economically prosperous, their merchant-burghers were interested in new ideas, concerned with their own status, and were wealthy enough to act as patrons of the arts. The country's political organization, a collection of duchies, counties and city states under the over-lordship of the Duke of Burgundy, offered a climate where independence and experimentation might flourish.

It was probably the Ypres-born Melchior Broederlam (1350-1411) who ushered in the new era of Netherlandish Renaissance Art, with his masterpiece the Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99). This work heralded the decline of miniature painting - a genre exemplified by International Gothic Illuminations (1375-1450) - and the consequent rise of large-scale panel painting, which would play such an important role in Flemish painting and Dutch painting of the 15th and 16th centuries. Thus miniaturists like the Limbourg Brothers (d.1416) and Jacquemart de Hesdin (1355-1414) were the last of their ilk.


Jan van Eyck

The greatest 15th-century painter in Flanders was Jan van Eyck (1390-1441) although, like his Italian contemporaries, he never finally mastered linear perspective. His approach to the depiction of the external world seems to have differed from the Italian method. Instead of acquiring a thorough 'scientific' knowledge of the laws governing perspective, and studying anatomy to understand the human body, van Eyck's technical mastery is based on sheer observation. Detail upon detail is meticulously added to the painting until it faithfully mirrors the world he sees. Van Eyck's gifts were sufficient to attract commissions from wealthy secular figures and his complex Marriage Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini (1434, National Gallery, London) is perhaps the most celebrated painting of the age. This fifteenth-century equivalent of a wedding photograph shows Arnolfini, an Italian silk merchant resident in Bruges, standing with his young wife in a room in his house. Van Eyck strives to re-create the effect of the light which falls from the window and not even the most minute detail escapes the painter's brush, right down to the hair of the dog's coat. This Dutch interior on canvas is the ancestor of the 17th century school of Dutch Realist Genre Painting, led by Jan Vermeer (1632-75) of Delft.

The successors of van Eyck, such as Roger van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, did not immediately develop the secular aspect of his work. Rather, they took his realism and re-applied it to the traditional topics of medieval Biblical art, most often in the form of altarpiece art.

During the first decades of the sixteenth century, the Netherlands produced fewer great masters. This was a period of crisis and change in art, during which the ideas of the Italian Renaissance were being absorbed into existing styles. But between the mid-fifteenth and the mid-sixteenth centuries, two artists, both rather separate from the Italian influences, stand out from their contemporaries.

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) is famed for his symbolic pictures of religious subjects. The theme of his triptych known as The Hay-Wain (c.1500) is the progress of the human soul from its first innocence in the Garden of Eden to its temptation by the transient pleasures of earthly desires, and the everlasting agonies in store for those wno succumb. In this, and in the triptych of The Temptation of St. Anthony (c.1500), which shows the saint being tormented by weird and evil phantasms conjured up by Satan 'the magician', Bosch reveals the fantastic and grotesque nature of his own imagination. His images seem to embody the religious fears of the medieval mind and even in those paintings which come closest to the realism of van Eyck, the realism is of an exaggerated, menacing kind.

Pieter Breugel the Elder

Pieter Breugel the Elder (1525-1569) shows the influence of Bosch in his painting known as Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) (1562, Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp) which is full of the strange imagery of the older artist. But Breugel is mostly remembered for his peasant scenes, intended to be gently satiric and full of sharply observed anecdotes. The good-humoured depictions of simple rustic life, as in the Peasant Wedding Feast (1568, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), are by no means 'simple' paintings, but reveal an unerring sense of composition and colour. His evocative landscape scenes of the Months (1565) looks forward to the later development of landscape as a fit subject for painting.

Top 8 Renaissance Painters in The Netherlands

The leading artists of the Netherlandish Renaissance, listed chronologically, include: (1) Jan Van Eyck, joint creator with his brother Hubert of the famous Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32), and the first master of oil painting, known for his luminous colours and fine detail. (2) Robert Campin (1378-1444) noted for the Merode Altarpiece (1425) and the Seilern Entombment Triptych (1410). (3) Roger van der Weyden (1400-64), a pupil of Campin's and one of the most influential religious painters of his day, famous for works like Descent from the Cross (1435). (4) Hans Memling (1433-94), a pupil of Weyden's best known for his small scale altarpieces such as the Last Judgment Triptych (1471, Museum Narodowe, Gdansk) and the Donne Triptych (1477-80) as well as small-scale devotional pictures and portraits. (5) Hugo van der Goes (1440-82), one of the most innovative but tragic of Flemish painters, best-known for the Portinari Altarpiece (1479). (6) Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) the Dutch genius famous for religious fantasy paintings illustrating the sins of Man, like the Garden of Earthly Delights (1510). (7) Joachim Patenier (1480-1525), the first true landscape painter. (8) Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) noted for narrative landscapes such as the Tower of Babel (1563), Hunters in the Snow (1565), Massacre of the Innocents (1567), Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), and Parable of the Blind (1568).

Other important Flemish painters include: Dieric Bouts the Elder (1415-75), Petrus Christus (active 1444-72), Gerrit David (1460-1523), Jan Provost (1465-1529), Quentin Massys (1465-1530), Jan Gossaert (1478-1532), and Joos van Cleve (1490-1540). For more, see: Greatest Flemish Painters (c.1400-1750).


The new prominence of secular subjects in art seems to appear later in German Renaissance art than it does in its Netherlandish counterpart.

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), is the greatest German artist of the period and, although the legacy of the past is strong in much of Durer's work, he was the closest the Northern Renaissance came to producing a "Universal Man", with the sort of creative breadth of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) or Michelangelo (1475-1564).

Durer was not only a major painter, but was expert enough at geometry to produce a treatise on fortifications, to write theoretical works on perspective and proportion, and added to these writings philosophical speculations on the nature of art and the training of artists. He was brought up in a goldsmithing tradition, his father being a goldsmith. This helped his development in the arts of drawing and engraving, fields in which his genius is perhaps better expressed than in his paintings. As a citizen of the rich merchant city of Nuremberg, he accepted with a combination of commercial acumen and artistic integrity the technical challenge of printmaking for a mass market.

Durer's so-called 'master' engravings exhibit a characteristic combination of Gothic and Renaissance elements. The realistically conceived Christian knight in Knight, Death and the Devil is placed in an essentially Gothic landscape, where he is threatened by the Devil and Death of medieval tradition. He is, however, utterly realistic in conception and the horse he rides is perfectly proportioned. He is a symbol of the Renaissance belief in the ascendancy of the individual, relying on his own innate strength to conquer the forces of evil and corruption.

In his religious art Durer imbues Gothic themes with powerful emotion. Such paintings as his Lamentation of Christ, the Feast of the Rose Garlands or the Adoration of the Trinity can only be fully appreciated against the tradition of medieval art, but in all cases he surpasses that tradition in his exploration of human anatomy, technical refinement and selective use of colour, light and shade.

One of the earliest German painters consistently to sign his work, Durer is supremely aware of his own personality. In the course of his life he produced a remarkable series of self-portraits, whose intensity stems from Durer's profound self-scrutiny; they reveal an increasing desire on his part to discover the deepest aspects of his nature. Combined with this is a curious degree of vanity and pride in himself, seen at its height in the self-portrait deliberately reminiscent of Christ. Similarly, his portraits of Nuremberg patricians or his charcoal drawings of his mother shortly before her death - extremely powerful in its unflinching, but not unloving realism - show an inexhaustible interest in the mystery of human personality which is wholly Renaissance in style and spirit.

Equally in the spirit of the Renaissance is his exploration of animate and inanimate nature: the unsurpassed sensitivity and realism of his animal paintings or his studies of a piece of garden turf are sufficient to make them worthy of a place in a textbook of natural science.


Hans Holbein the Younger

A German painter of a slightly later date, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), is best known for his portrait art of individuals and pairs. He was born into the generation most affected by the crisis of the religious Reformation. This forced him to give up his career in painting altarpieces (at which he excelled) and leave his native country for England. There he became court painter to Henry VIII and produced memorable portraits of the Tudor royal household. These restrained and calm portraits, at first meticulously detailed and later much simplified in style, are thoughtful and penetrating in their analysis of personality. See also: Renaissance Portraits (c.1400-1550).

Matthias Grunewald

Durer's great contemporary Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528), is more firmly rooted in the tradition of Gothic art and his work is largely untouched by Italian influences. His most celebrated painting, the Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515), is in direct line of descent from the great carved altarpieces of the later Middle Ages, but is infused with a heightened emotional content and an unparallelled dramatic quality. There is no trace in any of the figures of an interest in the beauty of the human body or of a desire to establish a 'just proportion'. Realism is seen in the modelling of the arms, legs and torso of the crucified Christ and in the half-open mouth from which the breath has fled, but Grunewald operates with a highly unrealistic use of proportion and perspective. In a startling development of medieval tradition, Christ as the dominant figure is executed on a larger scale than the other figures: even the sturdy John the Baptist on the right is small by comparison, while the figures on the left are slight and willowy. The frailty of these figures emphasizes their great anguish.

Danube School

The work of the members of the Danube school is the most notable sixteenth-century example of how religious pictures were enlivened by human and secular interest. Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) both combine the treatment of traditional themes with bold innovations in composition.

In Altdorfer's work, in the dreamlike quality of his landscapes, whether it is in the soaring background to the Holy Family or the swirling foliage of his St. George and the Dragon, nature, far from being a mere backcloth, seems to be mysteriously independent of man. In Cranach, however, nature tends to reflect human moods. In his Christ on the Cross the Virgin's anguish is closely echoed by nature. The landscape is bleak and isolated under the threat of an impending storm, the dark lowering clouds are luridly lit by lightning.

Cranach was the last member of a remarkable age of German painting. The changed climate of Germany under the impact of the Reformation prevented the emergence of a new generation of major artists and in the coming decades it is once more in the Netherlands that the great names of North European painting are to be found.

Top 8 Renaissance Painters in Germany

The foremost German Renaissance painters include: (1) Stephan Lochner (1400-51) noted for The Three Kings Altarpiece (1440, Cologne Cathedral), a large triptych featuring the Adoration of the Magi on its central panel. (2) Martin Schongauer (1448-91), the painter and printmaker best-known for his Madonna in the Rose Garden (1473, St Martin's Church, Colmar) and over 100 signed engravings. (3) Matthias Grunewald (1470-1528) the intense, devout creator of The Isenheim Altarpiece (1515, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar), whose dramatic style of art influenced later schools of Expressionism. (4) Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the finest painter and printmaker of the Northern Renaissance, admired for his virtuoso draftsmanship, self-portraits and nature studies, as well as woodcuts such as the Apocalypse series (1498), Passion cycle (c.1497-1500) and the Life of the Virgin (1500); he is also famous for his numerous works of engraving, notably The Knight, Death and the Detail (1513), St Jerome in His Study (1514), and Melancholia (1514). (5) Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) known for his Portrait of Martin Luther (1543, Uffizi Gallery) and others. (6) Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) best remembered for Battle of Issus (1529) and his innovative prints. (7) Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545), a pupil of Durer, best known for his intense colour and woodcuts with strong chiaroscuro. (8) Hans Holbein The Younger (1497-1543), revered for his complex portraits including works like Portrait of Georg Gisze of Danzig (1532), The Ambassadors (1533), and Henry VIII (1540).

Note: For details of the colour pigments used by Northern Renaissance painters, see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

Top Northern Renaissance Sculptors

The greatest sculptors of the Northern Renaissance are two artists from Southern Germany: (1) Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), the greatest Late Gothic wood-carver north of the Alps, revered for his exquisite altarpieces such as the Holy Blood Altar (1501-5, St. Jakobs Church, Rothenburg), as well as individual works like The Head Of St Anne (1500). (2) Veit Stoss (1477-1533), the finest wood sculptor after Riemenscheider, known for sculptures like The High Altar of St Marys Church (1477-1484, Krakow), and the limewood carving Raphael and Tobias (1516, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nuremberg), as well as altarpieces for churches across Europe. (Due to its forests, southern Germany was a famous centre of all types of wood carving, especially limewood.)

Other important sculptors include: Hans Multscher (1400-67) noted for the Wurzacher (1437) and Sterzing (1457) altarpieces; Michael Pacher (1430-98) creator of The St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81); and Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540) who produced the famous Mary Magdalene ("La Belle Allemande") (c.1500). See also the later Jorg Zurn (c.1583-1638).


A-Z List of Northern Renaissance Artists

Aelst, Pieter Coecke van (1502-1550 Flemish Painter
Altdorfer, Albrecht (1480-1538) German Painter, Printmaker, Architect
Altdorfer, Erhart (1480–1561) Danube School Painter
Baldung Grien, Hans (1484-1545) German Painter/Printmaker
Bosch, Hieronymus (1450-1516) Netherlandish Painter
Bouts, Dieric the Elder (1415-1475) Netherlandish Painter
Bouts, Dieric the Younger (1448-1490) Netherlandish Painter
Breu, Jorg the Elder (1475–1537) Danube School Painter
Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (1525-1569) Flemish Painter
Bruegel, Pieter the Younger (1564-1638) Flemish Painter
Burgkmair, Hans the Elder (1473-1531) German Woodcut artist
Campin, Robert (Master of Flemalle) (1375-1444) Netherlandish Painter
Christus, Petrus (1410-1473) Netherlandish Painter
Cleve, Joos van (1485-1540) Flemish Painter
Coninxloo, Gillis van (1544-1607) Flemish Painter
Cranach, Lucas the Elder (1472-1553) German Painter
Cranach, Lucas the Younger (1515-1586) German Painter
David, Gerard (1460-1523) Netherlandish Painter
Durer, Albrecht (1471-1528) German Painter/Engraver
Erhardt, Michel (1440-1522) German Sculptor
Erhart, Gregor (c.1470-1540) German Sculptor/Wood-Carver
Eyck, Hubert van (1370-1426) Flemish Painter
Eyck, Jan van (1395-1441) Flemish Painter
Feselen, Melchior (1495-1538) Danube School Painter
Flandes, Juan de (1460-1519) Flemish/Spanish Painter
Frueauf, Rueland the Younger (1470–1545) Danube School Painter
Geertgen Tot Sint-Jans (1460-1490) Netherlandish Painter
Goes, Hugo van der (1440-1482) Netherlandish Painter
Graf, Urs (1485-1529) Swiss Engraver
Grunewald, Matthias (1470-1528) German Painter
Heemskerck, Maerten van (1498-1574) Dutch Painter
Hilliard, Nicholas (1547-1619) English Miniaturist
Hirschvogel, Augustin (1503-53) Danube School Painter
Holbein, Hans the Elder (1465-1524) German Painter
Holbein, Hans the Younger (1497-1543) German Portraitist
Hopfer, Daniel (1470-1536) Etcher
Huber, Wolf (1485-1553) Danube School Painter
Kraft, Adam (1455-1508) German Sculptor
Lautensack, Hans Sebald (1524-60) Danube School Painter
Leinberger, Hans (1480-1531) Danube School Painter
Leu, Hans the Younger (1490–1531) Danube School Painter
Leyden, Lucas van (1494-1533) Dutch Painter
Lochner, Stefan (1400-1451) German Painter
Massys, Quentin (1465-1530) Flemish Genre-Painter
Memling, Hans (1433-1494) Netherlandish Painter
Mostaert, Gillis (1534-1598) Flemish Painter
Mostaert, Jan (1472-1555) Dutch Painter
Multscher, Hans (1400-1467) German Sculptor
Oostsanen, Jacob Cornelisz van (1472-1533) Dutch
Pacher, Michael (1430-1498) Austrian Sculptor/Painter
Patenier, Joachim (1485-1524) Netherlandish Landscape Painter
Provost, Jan (1465-1529) Flemish Painter
Quarton, Enguerrand (1420-1466) French Painter
Reuwich, Erhard (1450-1505) Book Illustrator
Riemenschneider, Tilman (1460-1531) German Wood Carver
Savery, Roelandt (1576-1639) Flemish Painter
Schongauer, Martin (1450-1491) German Printmaker
Scorel, Jan van (1495-1562) Dutch Painter
Stoss, Veit (1438-1533) German Sculptor
Vrelant, Willem (1450-1460) Flemish Manuscript Illuminator
Wassenhove, Joos van (1460-1480) Netherlandish Painter
Weyden, Roger van der (1400-1464) Netherlandish Painter
Witz, Conrad (1400-1446) German Painter
Wolgemut, Michael (1434-1519) Book Illustrator

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For details of artists south of the Alps, see the following:

Proto-Renaissance Artists (1250-1400)
Including Duccio Di Buoninsegna, Cimabue and Giotto.

Early Renaissance Artists (1400-1490)
From Masaccio to Botticelli.

High Renaissance Artists (1490-1530)
From Leonardo to Michelangelo.

Fontainebleau School of Art (1528-1610)
French school founded by Francis I, inspired by the Renaissance.

• For biographies of all the top painters/sculptors, see: Visual Artists: Greatest.
• For more about painting and sculpture in Northern Europe, see: Homepage.

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