Introduction

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On the contemporary market, an artwork's value has little to do with the cost of manufacture: price ensues from what the buyer is willing to pay, which depends in turn on the buyer's perception of the artwork's and artist's significance.1 Within the field of early Netherlandish art, the painted panels by renowned figures like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden tend to be simultaneously the most well-known and the most valuable, so that their current cultural esteem mirrors their financial worth. During the fifteenth century, however, the relatively new format of panel painting was much less expensive than the costly art forms that had dominated elite artistic production for centuries, including tapestry, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and metalwork. While panel painting has benefitted from a long and voluminous scholarly literature, many of these other objects have only comparatively recently begun to earn their due recognition.2 One strand of this recent scholarship has offered a provocative claim, that modern admiration of early Netherlandish painting has led to overestimation of its historical role. Among the Burgundian aristocracy and urban elites, so the argument goes, the most highly regarded works were those of the greatest expense to produce, and panel painting acted primarily as a cheaper substitute, the medium of choice for those who wanted, but could not afford, top-end luxury. It has sometimes been further claimed that painting was altogether less important and influential than the decorative arts, so that modern esteem of panel painting simply reflects modern preoccupations.3

In this essay, I argue to the contrary that early Netherlandish painters deliberately presented their artwork as a conceptual alternative to the luxury arts, thereby presaging the leading status of painting in the ensuing centuries of western art history. While there is little written evidence for how Netherlandish painters conceived of their craft, I demonstrate that technical analysis of the paintings themselves yields critical insights. Decisive changes in gilding practices introduced with the new Eyckian painting showcase the painted panel as an object earning its value through representational means, rather than material cost. In dramatically revising gilding techniques, early Netherlandish panel painters sought to differentiate themselves from contemporary practitioners in other artistic media including the luxury arts and sculpture, and promoted themselves to an audience whose interests in some respects diverged from those of the courtly aristocracy. In doing so, as it happens, painters promoted a set of concepts that would later come to be identified with the so-called Renaissance, ushering in the modern era: in particular, valuing artistic innovation and representational persuasiveness well above other factors such as costly materials or 'mere' technical facility, concepts that subsequently dominated the canon of western art for some centuries (and to some degree still today, at least in the fetishisation of the celebrity artist generating the artwork's value).

The case of early Netherlandish painting thus also provokes further reflection on the nature of periodization: what qualities beyond simple chronology might be used to interpret a work as 'medieval' or 'post-medieval', and to what degree those qualities carried any meaning at the time or have merely been projected backwards at a later date. Recently a series of studies have questioned traditional understanding of medieval and Renaissance images by positing them as chronologically unstable, pointing both backwards and forwards rather than simply exemplifying the particular moment of their making.4 Here I explore analogous, though not identical, issues, specifically concerning historiographical perception. I argue that the technical innovations initiated by the generations of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden deliberately proposed alternative artistic ideals to the most expensive arts, which—as things turned out—set the stage for the leading cultural role that painting would assume in later centuries. Of course the painters could not have anticipated the future course of western art history, but they did in their own time promote the intrinsic value of representation in a new way. After all, a patron like Philip the Good's ennobled chancellor, Nicholas Rolin, who commissioned a small panel by Jan van Eyck and later a large altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden for the hospital he founded at Beaune (Fig. 14, Fig. 15), could easily afford the most luxurious of artworks.5 What Rolin and others like him most valued about painting was what it could accomplish artistically, and what particularly differentiated the new painting from other media was its paradoxical generation of seemingly infinite hyperrealities from a flat surface.

No doubt some audiences did think of panel painting as merely another, more affordable, form of contemporary artistic production, but if luxury objects acquired their value by combining skilled workmanship with visible material expense, the new oil painting presented itself as valuable precisely despite its comparative material economy. Wood, chalk ground, linseed or walnut oil, and most pigments were relatively cheap compared to the jewels, silk, enamel, gold, silver and stone that went into objects like tapestries, gilded sculpture, and high-end metalwork. Oil painters did not hide that fact; to the contrary, an artist like Jan van Eyck flaunted how persuasively he could represent precious materials with mere oil paint, and his works acquired their value almost exclusively through his singular personal skill. Clearly this was what even duke Philip the Good admired and valued in his court painter.6

This is certainly not an entirely new argument,7 but I present here a fundamental yet understudied strand of evidence in its support: the distinctive ways that early Netherlandish painters used—or did not use—gold within their panels. In the fourteenth century across Europe, painted scenes on panels and in manuscripts typically set figures or narratives against a gold or patterned background (Fig. 4, Fig. 5, Fig. 6, Fig. 7, Fig. 8, Fig. 30), and extensive gold leaf appeared in religious panel paintings throughout the fifteenth century in most European regions including Germany, Spain, France and Italy. In the Low Countries, however, gold backgrounds largely disappeared from panel painting within a strikingly short timeframe around the 1420s-30s, and thereafter gold leaf and shell gold were used either not at all, or very selectively, in ways that primarily served to enhance the painting's representational content rather than to draw attention to itself as a material.

Towards the beginning of book 2 of his 1435 Della pittura, Leon Battista Alberti stated that 'gold worked by the art of painting outweighs an equal amount of unworked gold.' This praise for artful manipulation probably refers to the panel gilding techniques I discuss below, although the sentiment applies equally well to the decorative arts. Towards the end of the book, however, Alberti further claimed that paintings deserve much more praise when they imitate gold with paint rather than utilise gold itself, which is best relegated to the carved frame.

I should not wish gold to be used, for there is more admiration and praise for the painter who imitates the rays of gold with colors. Again we see in a plane panel with a gold ground that some planes shine where they ought to be dark and are dark where they ought to be light. I say, I would not censure the other curved ornaments joined to the painting such as columns, carved bases, capitals and frontispieces even if they were of the most pure and massy gold. Even more, a well perfected istoria deserves ornaments of the most precious gems.8

The fifteenth-century Low Countries lacked any comparable written proclamations on painting as a conceptual practice, which has contributed to its perception as less advanced (in certain respects) than Italian art. However, as Otto Pächt observed, Netherlandish painters actually followed Alberti's injunction to imitate gold with paint more than Italians did,9 and although none of them left any written explanation of their motivations, the visual evidence suggests that they did so with the same reasoning as Alberti: painting's worth arises from its artistry, and simulated gold is more visually persuasive than the real thing because it does not contradict the lighting within the rest of the picture. In this essay I consider examples which collectively suggest that early Netherlandish painters and their audiences, like many of their Italian counterparts, began thinking in new ways about the value of artistic representation, heralding the future course of much of western painting. And at least in that sense, early Netherlandish painting might be helpfully perceived as pointing towards a new era, even as in other respects it remained firmly rooted in medieval tradition.10

My analyses focus primarily on panels painted in the 1420s-50s by Rogier van der Weyden and the mostly unknown artists in the so-called Flémalle group. Up until ten or fifteen years ago, most scholars had reached a consensus that the artist once known as the Master of Flémalle, named after three panels in Frankfurt from a dismembered altarpiece (Fig. 36, Fig. 37, Fig. 38), was identical to the documented Tournai painter Robert Campin, in whose workshop both Rogier van der Weyden and Jacques Daret were formally registered 1427-32. Recently the consensus has disintegrated, and scholarly opinion now diverges substantially concerning the division between Rogier's works and those in the Flémalle group, the attribution of individual panels, workshop organization and collaboration, and the role of Robert Campin within the corpus.11 I do not attempt to resolve these extremely complex questions and merely assign paintings to Rogier or to the 'Flémalle group' in accordance with the most common opinions. Perhaps in the future, gilding technique will be another factor in attribution debates, since these paintings are striking for their creative exploration of gold's visual properties, sometimes varying even within the same work. In general, however, these panels display two overarching tendencies: incorporating the visual effects of any actual gold leaf into the representation, and substantially reducing or even eliminating gold leaf altogether.

Though it can be difficult to appreciate today, there is a marked visual distinction between using real gold leaf and imitating the effects of gold with paint alone. Usually early Netherlandish paintings are seen in photographic reproductions, and when encountered in person, it is almost always in the static lighting conditions of museums. Unlike people in the fifteenth century, we do not typically handle small panels, watch domestic diptychs or church altarpieces being opened and closed, see the effects of moving sunlight on paintings in town halls and chapels, or contemplate images illuminated by flickering candlelight.12 In addition, much of the gold leaf on panels has by now been abraded or partially flaked off, leaving underlying mordant visible. As a result, it is usually not that easy to distinguish where painters have used real gold, especially in photographs. When the panels were new, however, and when they were encountered in contingent physical contexts, any real gold would have been much more apparent. Oil paint can only represent a metallic surface with static highlights, but as Alberti's Della pittura suggests, real gold (like other shiny materials) responds to light in a volatile way: it shines brilliantly and then swiftly reverts back to dimness as the light passes. Under variable light, any gold within a painted panel will respond differently from the rest of the image and become readily apparent.

Early Netherlandish painters clearly found this visual distinction problematic. The ars nova flaunted its capacity to capture visual effects with paint alone, and to immerse viewers in new worlds of experience via representation. Broad patches of gold leaf have the opposite impact: they draw attention back to the painting's surface, towards the particularities of its material construction. Thus, after a period of experimentation with different techniques, most early Netherlandish panel painters stopped using gold altogether, and where it was retained, it was usually reserved for very small details, employed for specific iconographic functions, and/or incorporated into pictorial effects. Courtly luxury objects, in contrast, invited viewers to perceive and to admire the rich materials used in their making, so when painters introduced the new style of representation along with the changes in gilding practice, they directly rejected this long-standing system of artistic value. Their innovations also pointedly differentiated their work from contemporary sculpture, whose projection into three dimensions likewise demanded awareness of the work's material surface. In addition, a number of early painted panels explored gilding techniques as a means of rendering hanging brocaded textiles, whose flat surface exactly parallel to the picture plane provided a unique opportunity for near-mimetic representation; but most painters soon abandoned these experiments in favour of wholly-painted textiles falling in complex three-dimensional folds, which more suitably demonstrated painting's unique advantages over other art forms.

This essay proceeds with three sections setting the stage: first a brief historiographical assessment of early Netherlandish painting; next a longer examination of how gold was used within the luxury objects of the early Burgundian court, which was closely imitated by the employment of gilding in the earliest extant Netherlandish painted panels; followed by a concise overview of the four gilding techniques used in these works, serving as a transition to the examination of the early Netherlandish panels. Two major sections then analyse the specific innovations in gilding practices introduced by the ars nova painters, explored first in relation to the emergence of holistic spatial settings, second in relation to painting's particular paragone with sculpture and textiles. Finally the brief conclusion reflects on changes in artistic patronage and conceptions of periodization.

1Joseph Leo Koerner and Lisbet Rausing, 'Value', in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago, 2003), 419-34 (see also in the same volume Paul Wood, 'Commodity', 382-407); Olav Velthuis, Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton, 2005); Lisa Koenigsberg, 'Art as a commodity? Aspects of a current issue,' Archives of American Art Journal 29, no. 3/4 (1989): 23-35.

2 See for instance Colum Hourihane, ed., From Minor to Major: the Minor Arts in Medieval Art History (University Park, PA, 2012).

3 See Marina Belozerskaya, Rethinking the Renaissance: Burgundian Arts Across Europe (Cambridge, 2002), esp. 76-145; Jean C. Wilson, Painting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages: Studies in Society and Visual Culture (University Park, PA, 1998), 13-84; Hugo van der Velden, The Donor's Image: Gerard Loyet and the Votive Portraits of Charles the Bold (Turnhout, 2000), 67-73, 278-85; Marina Belozerskaya, 'Early Netherlandish diptychs as surrogate luxuries', in Essays in Context: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, ed. John Oliver Hand and Ron Spronk (Cambridge and New Haven, 2006), 60-71; Colin Eisler, 'Flying pictorial carpets: tapestries' transalpine agendas', in Cultural Exchange Between the Low Countries and Italy (1400-1600), ed. Ingrid Alexander-Skipnes (Turnhout, 2007), 87-111.

4 Christopher S. Wood, Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art (Chicago and London, 2008); Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York, 2010); Alexander Nagel, Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time (London, 2012). An analogous argument for flexible time structures in an early Netherlandish painting is made in Alfred Acres, 'The Columba Altarpiece and the time of the world,' The Art Bulletin 80, no. 3 (1998): 422-51.

5 Philippe Lorentz, 'Les Rolin et les "Primitifs flamands"', in La splendeur des Rolin: un mécénat privé à la cour de Bourgogne: table ronde, 27-28 février 1995, ed. Brigitte Maurice-Chabard (Paris, 1999), 145-62.

6 See note 68 below, though as rightly noted in Jeffrey Chipps Smith, 'The practical logistics of art: thoughts on the commissioning, displaying, and storing of art at the Burgundian court', in In Detail: New Studies of Northern Renaissance Art in Honor of Walter S. Gibson, ed. Laurinda S. Dixon (Turnhout, 1998), 27-48 (at 28-29), we should be cautious of overestimating Philip's interest in artists, as opposed to art products.

7 For another line of argument on the importance of painting, see for instance the recent essay by Catherine Reynolds, 'Self-portrait and signature in the Brussels "Justice Scenes": Rogier van der Weyden's fame and the status of painting', in Rogier van der Weyden in Context. Papers presented at the Seventeenth Symposium for the Study of Underdrawing and Technology in Painting, held in Leuven, 22-24 October 2009, ed. Lorne Campbell, et al. (Leuven, 2012), 79-91.

8 Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. John R. Spenser (New Haven, 1967), 64, 85; the Latin version has recently been translated in Rocco Sinisgalli, ed., Leon Battista Alberti: On Painting: a New Translation and Critical Edition (Cambridge, 2011), 45, 72-73. See also Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, 2nd ed. (Oxford & New York, 1988), 14-23, and E.H. Gombrich, 'Visual metaphors of value in art', in Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London, 1963), 12-29, at 16-18. With regard to frames, Alberti was clearly thinking of multi-panel Italian altarpieces with elaborate carved framework, which did not appear in the same form in northern art in this period.

9 Otto Pächt, Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting, trans. David Britt (London, 1994), 15-16.

10 For the problems with 'Renaissance' as a term for the Burgundian arts see Hanno Wijsman, 'Northern Renaissance? Burgundy and Netherlandish art in fifteenth-century Europe', in Renaissance? Perceptions of Continuity and Discontinuity in Europe, c.1300-c.1550, ed. Alexander Lee, Pit Péporté, and Harry Schnitker (Leiden, 2010), 269-88.

11 Stephan Kemperdick and Jochen Sander, eds, The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden (Frankfurt, 2008); see also Stephen Hanley, 'Review of exhibition: Der Meister von Flémalle und Rogier van der Weyden - Catalogue by Stephan Kemperdick and Jochen Sander,' Renaissance Studies 24, no. 4 (2010): 575-83.

12 Jeanne Nuechterlein, 'Location and the experience of early Netherlandish art,' Journal of Art Historiography 7 (2012): 1-23.



Illustrations