The place of early Netherlandish painting in the history of art

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Among earlier generations of art historians, the primacy of painting tended to be a matter of disciplinary default. While that may no longer be the case, there have so far been few methodical analyses comparing the different artistic media within early Netherlandish art. Most of the leading twentieth-century studies, and most so far of the twenty-first century too, have focused either on painting alone, with other media only brought in for iconographic or compositional comparisons,13 or on other art forms without simultaneously examining painting in detail;14 and texts on a wider range of artistic media tend to address the various art forms in turn, as component parts of an overarching Burgundian artistic culture, rather than systematically comparing the different media in their aesthetics and audiences.15 Comparisons between painting and other media have mainly focused on the impact of illuminated manuscripts on the origins of panel painting; on actual sculpture in relation to painted depictions of sculpture; and on the impact of painted designs, especially those of Rogier van der Weyden, on other media like sculpture and tapestry.16 It has also been generally observed that panel paintings were most often commissioned by burghers, clerics, court officials and foreign merchants in contrast to aristocratic patronage of more expensive art forms, though with a few notable exceptions, the potential implications of this fact have not for the most part been closely analysed, beyond an occasional assumption that panel patronage essentially emulated aristocratic patronage at a lower price level.17 Thus the charge that panel painting does not fully deserve its long-dominant role in the historiography needs further evaluation.

Early Netherlandish panels were not much valued between the mid-sixteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century, a period when princely collectors and educated viewers most admired paintings from the sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance onwards.18 The fortunes of early Netherlandish painting began to change around the turn of the nineteenth century in conjunction with the Napoleonic wars and the rise of medievalism, stirred by resurgence of national sentiments and the new availability of artworks transferred from secularized churches into private or state collections.19 Early paintings were then typically seen, at least by the select audiences who were actually interested in them, as exemplars of national heritage, though attributions were often erroneous and the divisions between schools hazy. Jan van Eyck in particular—appropriated by German, French, Dutch, and Belgian scholars alike—was seen as the instigator of the long western tradition of oil painting, although, for the most part, early Netherlandish works were still perceived as fundamentally medieval, the products of a deeply religious age.20 It was only in the twentieth century that early panel painting was fully integrated into the mainstream of art-historical scholarship, most importantly in the work of Max J. Friedländer and later Erwin Panofsky.21

Even to this day, early Netherlandish art occupies an unstable position between 'medieval' and 'Renaissance'. Within the Oxford History of Art series, for instance, early Netherlandish painting is one of the prime subjects of Northern Renaissance Art but also appears throughout Medieval Art.22 In iconography and function, panel painting mostly perpetuated old traditions, so it is not surprising that Johann Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages should have connected painting to other aspects of contemporary culture like literature and courtly spectacle that he perceived as the last breath of medieval thought.23 Huizinga's decline thesis may not be accepted today, but it is certainly true that early Netherlandish paintings are almost entirely traditional in subject matter, repeating standard themes that were already common in the previous century. The vast majority of extant panels are religious images depicting Christ, the Virgin, or popular saints, in single figures and narrative scenes, most often from the life of the Virgin and Christ's infancy and Passion. Other religious subjects are comparatively rare, as are secular subjects, other than the occasional justice scene for city halls and, far more frequently, portraiture, which vastly expanded in the fifteenth century but was not new as a genre.24 Other secular themes, such as decorative imagery or historical or literary narratives, seem to have been explored more often in tapestries, prints, wall paintings, manuscripts, and painted canvases rather than panels.25 Most early Netherlandish panels also served long-familiar functions, even though they vastly extended their cultural reach and appropriated formats previously more common in other media, particularly in the rapid expansion of painted altarpieces and devotional panels as alternatives or complements to sculpted versions.26 In that respect, it seems entirely understandable that Huizinga saw panel painting as one of the manifestations of late medieval sensibility, and that, three decades later, Panofsky's magisterial Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character argued that these images were still thoroughly imbued with medieval symbolic thinking underneath their realistic appearance.27

Only around the turn of the sixteenth century did northern European painting develop a range of truly new subjects and formats alongside the older ones: landscapes, genre scenes, mythological subjects—works intended primarily for secular collecting rather than for devotional or memorial function.28 These innovations, together with new interest in classical and Italianate visual forms, make the sixteenth century in northern Europe much more easily labelled as a 'Renaissance' compared to the previous century. Nevertheless, the profound significance of the new Eyckian mode of representation in early Netherlandish paintings should not be discounted: what was painted may not have changed much, but how it was painted certainly did, as did the audiences which it addressed. Most importantly, the revolution in painterly technique implies a critical shift in attitude towards representation and towards art itself.

It used to be thought that Jan van Eyck invented oil paint and that he achieved his unequalled representational effects through multiple layers of translucent glazes. Recent technical studies suggest that in chemical composition and paint layering, Eyckian panels did not in fact differ that much from their immediate forerunners,29 although there were more measurable developments in the preparation of the panel.30 Much more fundamental, however, were the new representational effects achieved by particular blends of oil and pigments applied in specific ways to the panel surface. The Eyckian (or so-called ars nova) mode of painting is characterized by its pervading attention to light, shadow, texture, and spatial setting. Naturalistic detail was no longer merely applied here and there to a figure or an object, as was already common in much fourteenth-century painting: rather, an all-encompassing impression of naturalism permeated the entire image.31

The sudden disappearance of the gold backdrop in early Netherlandish panels, and its replacement by naturalistic interior or exterior settings—a trend that, in Italian art, has been correlated to the development of single-point perspective, which northern artists largely ignored during the fifteenth century, at least as a conceptual system32—must have been closely connected with the new desire for holistic naturalism. This particular change took place far more swiftly and decisively in the Low Countries than in other parts of Europe: in Spain, Germany, France, and even parts of Italy—all regions that, to varying degrees, imported ideas from Netherlandish painting33—gold backdrops or other overt gold-leaf elements such as flat halo discs continued to appear in altarpieces and other religious painted panels even into the early sixteenth century,34 which indicates that the Netherlandish transformation of gilding practices from the 1420s onwards was a highly conscious decision. Jan van Eyck used gold leaf within only two of his extant paintings, in the Ghent Altarpiece dated 1432 (Fig. 27, Fig. 28, Fig. 28a, though at least some of the gilding could be the work of his brother Hubert) and, much more subtly, in the Annunciation in Washington (Fig. 23), as well as on the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece wings and the 1433 Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban in London. Surely it is no accident that Van Eyck chose to gild the frames only of these, his earliest known works, one a massive tour de force begun by his older brother and the other almost certainly an image of himself,35 whereas his other extant panel frames instead use paint to imitate marble or stone, or are painted brown with trompe-l'oeil inscriptions.36 Van Eyck thus almost entirely rejected gold leaf, and where it does appear within his (or other early Netherlandish) panels, it is pictorialized, incorporated into the visual techniques of representation rather than emphasized as a material in its own right. This was a dramatic change from the use of gold and other precious materials in courtly luxury objects, including the earliest surviving Netherlandish painted panels; thus it is crucial to first analyse these pre-Eyckian uses of gold to fully appreciate the intentions of their successors.

13See the comprehensive bibliographies in Bernhard Ridderbos, Anne Van Buren, and Henk Van Veen, eds, Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception and Research (Amsterdam, 2005) and Dominique Deneffe et al., Early Netherlandish Painting: A Bibliography (1999-2009) (Brussels, 2011), and more recent work cited elsewhere in this essay.

14In addition to other studies cited here, work of the past two decades includes John W. Steyaert, ed., Late Gothic Sculpture: the Burgundian Netherlands (Ghent & New York, 1994); Jacques Toussaint, ed., Art en Namurois: la sculpture 1400-1550 (Namur, 2001); Anna Rapp Buri and Monica Stucky-Schürer, Burgundische Tapisserien (Munich, 2001); Thomas P. Campbell, Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence (New York, 2002).

15For example Flanders in the Fifteenth Century: Art and Civilization (Detroit, 1960); Birgit Franke and Barbara Welzel, Die Kunst der burgundischen Niederlande: Eine Einführung (Berlin, 1997); Christian Heck, ed., Le siècle des Primitifs: l'art flamand et hollandais de la fin du Moyen Age et du début de la Renaissance (Paris, 2003); Marc Gil and Ludovic Nys, Saint-Omer gothique. Les arts figuratifs à Saint-Omer à la fin du Moyen Âge 1250-1550, peinture—vitrail—sculpture—arts du livre (Valenciennes, 2004). Systematic comparison of different media is also not a main focus in broader surveys of northern Renaissance art, including James Snyder, Larry Silver, and Henry Luttikhuizen, Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2004); Craig Harbison, The Art of the Northern Renaissance (London, 1995); Jeffrey Chipps Smith, The Northern Renaissance (London, 2004); Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art (Oxford and New York, 2008).

16On painting and manuscripts: Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character (Cambridge, MA, 1953), 98-129; Anne H. Van Buren, 'Thoughts, old and new, on the sources of early Netherlandish painting,' Simiolus 16, no. 2/3 (1986): 93-112; Maurits Smeyers and Bert Cardon, 'Campin and illumination', in Robert Campin: New Directions in Scholarship, ed. Susan Foister and Susie Nash (Turnhout, 1996), 159-69; Dominique Vanwijnsberghe, 'Robert Campin and Tournaisian manuscript painting', in Campin in Context. Peinture et société dans la vallée de l'Escaut à l'époque de Robert Campin, 1375-1445, ed. Ludovic Nys and Dominique Vanwijnsberghe (Valenciennes, 2007), 124-37. On painted and real sculpture: Marion Grams-Thieme, Lebendige Steine: Studien zur Niederlandischen Grisaillemalerei des 15. und Fruhen 16. Jahrhunderts (Cologne, 1988); Rudolf Preimesberger, 'Zu Jan van Eycks Diptychon der Sammlung Thyssen-Bornemisza,' Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 54, no. 4 (1991): 459-89; John Steyaert, 'Sculpture and the van Eycks: some Mosan parallels', in Investigating Jan van Eyck, ed. Susan Foister, Sue Jones, and Delphine Cool (Turnhout, 2000), 119-30. On the impact of painting on other media: Lorne Campbell, 'Rogier van der Weyden and manuscript illumination', in Flemish Manuscript Painting in Context: Recent Research, ed. Elizabeth Morrison and Thomas Kren (Los Angeles, 2006), 87-102; Bart Fransen, 'A passion for carving: the sculptor in Rogier van der Weyden', in Rogier van der Weyden 1400-1464: Master of Passions, ed. Lorne Campbell and Jan van der Stock (Zwolle and Leuven, 2009), 222-37; in the same volume, Lorne Campbell, 'Rogier van der Weyden and tapestry', 238-50; and a number of the essays in Lorne Campbell et al., eds, 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 (Leuven, 2012).

17Wilson, Painting in Bruges, 41 (with further references); Belozerskaya, Rethinking the Renaissance, 238-50; Susan Marti, Till-Holger Borchert, and Gabriele Keck, eds, Charles the Bold, 1433-1477: Splendour of Burgundy (Brussels, 2009), 238-61; Flanders in the Fifteenth Century, 39-42. For more nuanced assessments of different forms of artistic patronage, however, see Hanno Wijsman, 'Patterns in patronage: distinction and imitation in the patronage of painted art by Burgundian courtiers in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries', in The Court as a Stage: England and the Low Countries in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Steven Gunn and Antheun Janse (Woodbridge, 2006), 53-69; Craig Harbison, Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism, 2nd, revised ed. (London, 2012), especially 91-128; James J. Bloom, 'Why painting?', in Mapping Markets for Paintings in Europe 1450-1750, ed. Neil De Marchi and Hans J. van Miegroet (Turnhout, 2006), 17-31.

18See for instance the painting collection still preserved at the Sanssouci Painting Gallery in Potsdam, built 1755-64 by Frederick II of Prussia. Christoph Martin Vogtherr, Die Bildergalerie von Sanssouci (Berlin, 1999); Tobias Locker, 'Die Bildergalerie von Sanssouci bei Potsdam', in Tempel der Kunst: die Geburt des öffentlichen Museums in Deutschland, 1701-1815, ed. Bénédicte Savoy (Mainz-am-Rhein, 2006), 217-38.

19Till-Holger Borchert, 'Collecting early Netherlandish paintings in Europe and the United States', in Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception and Research, ed. Bernhard Ridderbos, Anne Van Buren, and Henk Van Veen (Amsterdam, 2005), 173-216; in the same volume Bernhard Ridderbos, 'From Waagen to Friedländer', 218-51; Christopher S. Wood, 'Van Eyck out of focus', in In His Milieu: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Memory of John Michael Montias, ed. Amy Golahny, Mia Mochizuki, and Lisa Vergara (Amsterdam, 2006), 467-82.

20Wessel Krul, 'Realism, Renaissance and nationalism', in Ridderbos, Van Buren, and Van Veen, Early Netherlandish Paintings, 252-89; Jenny Graham, Inventing van Eyck: the Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age (Oxford, 2007); Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Schriften zur Kunst, ed. Christian Beutler, 2nd ed. (Zurich & Stuttgart, 1965), 656-67, 676-708, 1160-61.

21Max J. Friedländer, Die altniederländische Malerei (Berlin, 1924-33), published in English as Early Netherlandish Painting (New York, 1967-76); Erwin Panofsky, 'Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait,' Burlington Magazine 64, no. 372 (1934): 117-27; Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting.

22Nash, Northern Renaissance Art; Veronica Sekules, Medieval Art (Oxford and New York, 2001).

23Johann Huizinga, Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen: studie over levens- en gedachtenvormen der veertiende en vijftiende eeuw in Frankrijk en de Nederlanden (Haarlem, 1919), translated in revised form in 1924 as The Waning of the Middle Ages; the original version has been translated as The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago, 1996).

24Lorne Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues: The Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Schools (London, 1998), 22-23; on justice scenes, Hugo van der Velden, 'Cambyses for example: the origins and function of an exemplum iustitiae in Netherlandish Art of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,' Simiolus 23, no. 1 (1995): 5-39; on portraiture, Lorne Campbell, Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait-Painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries (New Haven, 1990). Old Testament scenes rarely occur in panel painting, though there are a few exceptions including the wings of Dieric Bouts' typological Holy Sacrament Altarpiece and Hans Memling's David and Bathsheba.

25Guy Delmarcel, Flemish Tapestry (London, 1999), 31-42; David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550 (New Haven, 1994), 89; Van Buren, 'Thoughts, old and new', 100-104; Wim Blockmans, 'Manuscript acquisition by the Burgundian court and the market for books in the fifteenth-century Netherlands', in Art Markets in Europe 1400-1800, ed. Michael North and David Ormrod (Aldershot, 1998), 7-18; Lorne Campbell, 'The art market in the Southern Netherlands in the fifteenth century,' Burlington Magazine 118 (1976): 188-98, especially 189-90; Diane Wolfthal, The Beginnings of Netherlandish Canvas Painting, 1400-1530 (Cambridge, etc., 1989), 20-34. See for instance Henk Van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300-1500, trans. Michael Hoyle (Amsterdam, 1994).

26See for instance Henk Van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300-1500, trans. Michael Hoyle (Amsterdam, 1994).

27Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, 131-48.

28See for example Larry Silver, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: the Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market (Philadelphia, 2006) and Maryan W. Ainsworth, ed., Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance: the Complete Works (New York, 2010). See also Bloom, 'Why painting?', 30-31.

29Ashok Roy and Raymond White, 'Van Eyck's technique: the myth and the reality, I and II', in Foister, Jones, and Cool, Investigating Jan van Eyck, 97-105; see also Paul Binski and Ann Massing, eds, The Westminster Retable: History, Technique, Conservation (Cambridge, 2009), 252-59.

30Hélène Verougstraete and Roger van Schoute, 'Frames and supports in Campin's time', in Foister and Nash, Robert Campin, 87-93.

31E. Melanie Gifford et al., 'Issues surrounding the painting medium: a case study of a pre-Eyckian altarpiece', in Recent Developments in the Technical Examination of Early Netherlandish Painting: Methodology, Limitations & Perspectives, ed. Molly Faries and Ron Spronk (Cambridge, Turnhout, 2003), 107-16; Stephen Hanley, 'The Optical Concerns of Jan van Eyck's Painting Practice' (PhD, University of York, 2007), 160-278; Jochen Sander, 'Ars nova and European painting in the fifteenth century', in The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, ed. Stephan Kemperdick and Jochen Sander (Frankfurt, 2008), 31-37. The term 'ars nova' was applied by contemporaries to Burgundian music and was first used to describe panel painting in Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, 149-50. See also Anne-Sophie Lehmann and Marjolijn Bol, 'Painting skin and water: towards a material iconography of translucent motifs in early Netherlandish painting', in Campbell, Rogier van der Weyden in Context, 214-25, part of a larger research project, 'The Impact of Oil', examining the techniques of early Netherlandish painting 1350-1550.

32Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), 83-90. Limited, often inconsistent single-point perspective appears in a few Netherlandish panels including paintings by Petrus Christus and Dieric Bouts' Holy Sacrament Altarpiece, but they lack the Italian sense of a systematic conception of pictorial space; see Shirley Neilson Blum, Early Netherlandish Triptychs: A Study in Patronage (Berkeley, 1969), 5-6, 59-70, Maryan W. Ainsworth, ed., Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges (New York, 1994), 43-48, and Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form (New York, 1991), 59-62. Panofsky curiously not did directly address the impact of backgrounds on the conception of space within Renaissance painting, as his focus lay on the construction of orthogonals, regardless of whether the background is flat or extended.

33Charles D. Cuttler, 'Le rayonnement des primitifs flamands', in Les Primitifs flamands et leur temps, ed. Brigitte de Patoul and Roger van Schoute (Wesmael, 1994), 584-619; Till-Holger Borchert, ed., The Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting 1430-1530 (Ghent-Amsterdam, 2002), 64-183; Van Eyck to Dürer: the Influence of Early Netherlandish Painting on European Art, 1430-1530 (London, 2010); Fernando Benito Doménech and José Gómez Frechina, eds, La Clave Flamenca en los Primitivos Valencianos (Valencia, 2001); Paula Nuttal, From Flanders to Florence: The Impact of Netherlandish Painting, 1400-1500 (New York & London, 2004).

34For example see the paintings catalogued in Jill Dunkerton et al., Giotto to Durer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery (New Haven, 1991). See also Judith Berg-Sobré, Behind the Altar Table: The Development of the Painted Retable in Spain, 1350-1500 (Columbia, MO, 1989).

35On the panel see Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues, 212-17. To me its identity as a self-portrait is confirmed by the fact that its inscriptions only name Van Eyck and give his motto without also naming a separate sitter, as occurs in his portraits of Jan de Leeuw and Margaret van Eyck.

36Hélène Verougstraete and Roger van Schoute, 'Frames and supports of some Eyckian paintings', in Foister, Jones, and Cool, Investigating Jan van Eyck, 107-15, at 110-11.