Artists of Northern Europe

Is the work of 15th century Flemish artists ‘primitive’?

The 15th century Flemish artists have long been referred to as ‘primitive’.  You might ask why this idea that artists who hail from north of the Alps comes from and just who they are.  My concept of primitive does not match the level of sophisticted observation depicted on a flat surface seen in the works of Jan van Eyck (before 1390 – 1441), Robert Campin  (1372–1444) and Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464). Nor for that matter, Hugo van der Goes (1435/40 – 1482). In my article on the da Vinci painting of Christ as the Salvator Mundi, I described how this concept was not new, having first been used by the Flemish illuminator, William Vrelant (d1481/2), in a Book of Hours dated 1465.  Vrelant was based in the Bruges, a rich port in Flanders.

I suppose it all depends on your personal definition of ‘primitive’. Some might describe primitive as meaning unsophisticated, for others it is the work of the uneducated, or a society at the early stages of development.  None of these descriptions apply to the Flemish artists of the 15th century who were patronised by an educated elite living under the aegis of the dukes of Burgundy.  The Burgundian court at this period was considered the most culturally sophisticated in northern Europe.

A consideration of the above begs the question of how this description of the Flemish artists came about.

The answer is simple.  It is because of the seminal works of two great art historians, Jacob Burkhardt (1818-1897), a 19th century Swiss art historian who ‘discovered’ the Italian Renaissance and wrote extensively on Italian art during his lifetime.  The other is Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001), who developed Burkhardt’s work, adding to our understanding of how Italian Renaissance art was produced.  Gombrich was Austrian and a member of Viennese bourgeois Jewish society.  He studied art history, which had become a serious element of the study of history, thanks to the pioneering work of Burkhardt.  Gombrich’s PhD thesis was on Italian mannerism and the nub of his argument was that the murals in the Palazzo del Tè, created for the Duke of Mantua by the Roman artist, Guilio Romano (a student of Raphael), was not the work of a decadent artist, as suggested by the more prurient art historians of the 19th century, and the murals depicting the Fall of the Gods was Romano’s response to a demanding client who wanted to be thought of as a leader of style.

The Fall of the Gods, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua. Guilio Romano. Fresco.

The murals are incredible and Romano has created a scene that blurs the lines of reality and fantasy creating a room that appears to have no walls and a direct link with the heavens.

However, both these giants of the art history world had a couple of blind spots. One was the appreciation of the work of women artists, which is a subject I will address in a later post.  The other is recognition of the genius of those working north of the Alps during the 15th century.  Both academics focussed their ideals on Italy as being the seat of the Renaissance, which to an extent it was.  However, when it comes to portraiture it was the northerners who were a long way ahead of the Italians.  It may have been something to do with the medium used by those in the north, being oil glazes that dried slowly.  The Italians favoured tempera that dried almost immediately it was put on a prepared surface.

At the beginning of the 15th century the status of the artist was that of an artisan.  It is not until Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) do certain artists gain celebrity status.

Self Portrait 1493. Albrecht Dürer, Musée du Louvre
Self portrait 1498. Albrecht Dürer, The Prado, Madrid

This portrait shows a fashionable man about town aged twenty one, dressed in the latest fashion and holding a piece of amatheyst eringyium, or you might recognise it as sea holly. It is thought he had become engaged and this was a portrait to commemorate this life event.

I have wondered whether Dürer ever regretted that hat.  It is very reminescent of a sea anenome!

Painted in 1498 Dürer’s sartorial tastes have become tamed, but he still sports flowing locks.  We see a mountain landscape through the window behind him and he has signed this painting just below the window sill. Here is the link to this painting if you would like to examine it in greater detail. 1498 Self portrait of Albrecht Durer

Then there is the famous self portrait that today we might consider as arrogant.  Still with the flowing hair, Albrecht looks out at us challengingly.  Is he daring us to ask, “What do you think you are doing? Do you think you are Christ?” Actually, no. Far from it. Dürer has painted this as a recognition that his talents are from the Divine.  He knows he is a genius and he is celebrating the fact that only through divinely presented talents is he able to paint so well.

Self Portrait 1500. Albrecht Dürer, Alte Pinakotheck, Munich.

I can hear cries of “Da Vinci was also a celebrity.”  Yes, I agree, but at the time his celebrity status was for his military engineering.  Yes, his portraits are exquisite, but they were not the focus of his interest. You will have to wait until later on to consider whether or not the great Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci carries the same authority as Dürer’s work.

Portraits of the great and the good also appear as part of devotional art.  On the outside of the wings of an altarpiece, or relegated to outside the central space if included on the inside. Donating a costly altarpiece was a way of ensuring that you and your family would spend as short a time, if any, in purgatory.  If your portrait was on the outside of the doors, then the congregation could gaze on the donar rich enough to provide this artistic wonder, as in the case of Jocodus Vidjt and his wife, Lisbette Burlutt (below) who have knelt on the outside of the Ghent Altarpiece since 1433.

Van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Dürer all painted self-portraits.

In the case of van Eyck and Campin as seen above, we also have two portraits of women.

What better way of advertising your ability to capture the likeness and character of a sitter than by painting your own portrait, and various members of your family.  Van Eyck’s self portrait has a legend that translates into English as follows: Johannes van Eyck made me in the year 1433 21st October. Campin’s Unknown Young Woman (on the left) is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London and Margaret van Eyck (right) is in the Groeninge Museum, Bruges. And yet the Italian artists were also painting self-portraits, but these were included within the crowds of the altarpieces. You can tell as they are usually the person looking out of the picture because the artist would have been using a mirror.

The altarpiece of Canon van der Paele (also in the Groeninge Museum, Bruges) shows the aging cleric on his knees to the enthroned Virgin and Child.  St George presents the cleric to the Virgin.

Altarpiece of Canon van der Paele, with Saints Donation & George with the Virgin & Child.

We recognise him because he has his flag on a pole upright under his left arm.  On the other side is St Donation, who has his hand raised in blessing.  Van Eyck also depicts a green parrot or parakeet which is held by the Christ Child who sits on His mother’s lap.

Detail of parrot
Detail showing the green parrot

Because parrots could speak it was thought they had the voice of God – a dumb beast being taught to speak was clearly a miracle.  Teaching such a bird to spout passages of the Bible or other religious works fulfilled the concept of the miracle of the dumb beast being able to talk through the intercession of the Almighty. At the time no one had considered there was a difference between mimicry and independent thought – such was the medieval mind.

Burkhardt and Gombrich had identified the rich swelling of new artistic concepts emerging in Italy led by Giotto in the fourteenth century and by Brunelleschi, Donatello and Tommaso Massachio in the fifteenth century.  What is often missed by a casual reader of an article is that these Italians are contemporaries of van Eyck, Campin and van der Weyden.  Brunelleschi was famous for his architecture.  He solved the problem of creating a dome for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore

Donatello created sculptures of shere genius.  No one can deny his bronze David is not truly stunning and his Mary Magdalene exudes pathos.

David c1430s. Donatello; The Bargello, Florence.

Then there is Massacio’s magnificent use of single point perspective in the Trinity altarpiece in Santa Maria Novella, being the first use of this style of perspective in a public space,

The Trinity, 1425. Masaccio; Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Fresco.

and also the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine.

North of the Alps, the Flemish artists used multi point-perspective. Clearly there was a revolution  happening in the art world, both south and north of the Alps.

Bruges was one the growing centres of northern european commerce and all the leading Italian banking and merchants families had agents in the city.  In 1475, Hugo van der Goes completed the Portinari altarpiece for the Medicean banker, Tommaso Portinari, a man not fully trusted by Cosimo de Medici, but who, despite this, represented the Medici bank in Bruges for twenty five years.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.56.49
Portinari Altarpiece, 1475. Hugo van der Goes, Uffizzi Gallery, Florence

The altarpiece was destined for the family chapel in Santa Maria Nuova, Florence, but was not delivered until 1483 – the year after van der Goes’ death. When the altarpiece finally arrived in Florence, it caused quite a stir.  Tommaso and his wife kneel in the outer wings, accompanied by their individual patron saints. This is a link to a high resolution image of the Portinari Altarpiece so you can see the detail.  Tommaso kneels with his two sons, the saints St Antony Abbot and St Thomas and his wife Maria kneels with their daughter, Margherita.  Behind the two women are Mary Magdalene who holds a jar of ointment and holds her gown out at a strange angle, and St Margaret.  St Margaret holds a book, but look carefully at her feet and you will see she is standing on a fierce beast.  She became a saint due to the power of her faith after she had been swallowed whole by a demon disguised as a dragon.  In some versions, she uses her crucifix to cut herself out of the beast’s stomach and in others, the dragon is made so ill by the presence of Christ and her faith that he vomits her up, still hale and hearty as she was when she was swallowed.

Ten years before the delivery of the Portinari altarpiece, da Vinci had painted the portrait of Ginevra de Benci (born 1458). It was probably commissioned to celebrate her marriage to Luigi Bernardo Niccolini when she was sixteen years old.

Ginevra de Benci, 1474/5. Leonardo da Vinci, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Oil on panel

Leonardo has used oil glazes on panel as opposed to tempera which suggests he was interested in developing the depth of his sitter’s flesh tones which he could create using the slower drying medium of oil. Even though we know da Vinci reached extraodinary heights of beauty, atmosphere and presence, does this first known portrait by the Renaissance genius have the same presence as those portraits by van Eyck, Campin and Dürer?

Botticcelli is thought to have portayed the beauty of Simonetta Vespucci in the Mars & Venus now in the National Gallery, London.

Mars & Venus, c1483. Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery, London.

It is thought that the wasps buzzing around their next in the top right hand of the painting is a visual pun.  It has been interpreted as having a double layered meaning being both a play on her name and a reminder of the sting of unrequired love.  Here is a link that will take you to a high resolution image so you can see the detail of the wasp next in the top right hand corner. Mars and Venus – Botticelli Rumour has it that  Simonetta’s beauty was such that in the tradition of all tragic heroines, the whole of the male population of Florence fell in love with her.  Various other portraits were identified by the 19th century art critic, John Ruskin, as being of her, but since he wasn’t too keen on women older than a teenager, these are mostly now rejected.

So dear Reader, with this albeit small selection of examples, do you think the Flemish artists deserve the epithet of ‘primitive’?  Perhaps Picasso’s 1907 painting, Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, is a better candidate for this description?

Desmoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Pablo Picasso, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Not only was it inspired by a visit to a brothel, but the masks of the women show the influence of the Benin bronze masks exhibited in Paris in 1906 and designated as being ‘primitive’. However, like a discussion on women artists, the contemplation of the complex process of bronze making and equally complex iconography of these masks will have to wait for another day.

Please let me have your thoughts on the works of these Flemish so called ‘primitives’.  I would love to hear them.

3 thoughts on “Is the work of 15th century Flemish artists ‘primitive’?”

  1. Reblogged this on word and silence and commented:
    A great essay on why the so-called Northern Renaissance is sometimes put below that of the Italian, even called primitive by comparison. The opposite has always been true for me, Italian Ren mostly boring me, & everybody north of the Alps, with their atmospherics & intimate portraits & use of oils, being immensely more in all respects.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While I wept in front of Botticelli’s Allegory Of Spring, for me the greatest painters have always come from a small region near the Dutch-Flemish border: Bruegel – Rembrandt – Van Gogh. Obviously they all stand on the shoulders of what Van Eyck and his contemporaries did.

    Liked by 1 person

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