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Art in the Netherlands, 1500–1585


While in the fifteenth century the church and courts had been the dominant patrons for the arts, in the sixteenth century a new wealthy urban merchant class in the area comprising roughly present-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and northwestern France also began to commission and collect works of art. Moreover, followers of a growing Protestant movement began to clash with the established Catholic Church, whose supporters included the Habsburg rulers of the region. Artists, who began to produce works not only on commission but also for an open market, responded to these changes with an increasing diversity of subject matter. A greater mobility of art and artists gave rise to styles that responded both to local traditions and to foreign, particularly Italian, styles.

The paintings of Quinten Massys (or Metsys, c. 14661530) provide a good example of this diversity. The composition of his Lamentation, the central panel of an altarpiece created for the Antwerp Joiners' Guild (15081511, Musée des beaux-arts, Antwerp), recalls that of a painting of the same subject by Rogier van der Weyden, while the scene is suffused throughout with a soft Italian light; the flanking wings are mannerist in style. Like many of his contemporaries, Massys also worked in other genres, including portraiture, such as the diptych friendship portraits of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Pieter Gillis (1517, Palazzo Barberini, Rome; and Longford Castle, Wiltshire) created as a gift from Erasmus to Sir Thomas More, and secular works that seem to have moralizing associations, including the Money-changer and his Wife (1514, Louvre, Paris) and Ill-Matched Lovers (c. 1520/25, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

Courts continued to be a vital center for artistic production. After establishing himself as a master in Antwerp, Jan Gossaert (or Jan Mabuse, c. 14781532) traveled to Rome in the service of Philip of Burgundy, where he copied antique sculpture and may have seen some works by Michelangelo. The work he produced upon his return, such as his Danaë (1527, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), combined archaizing elements of the northern tradition with some of the first elements in the north of an Italian experience: classicizing architectural settings, linear perspective, and occasional references to Roman sculpture. Gossaert's work had an important impact on the next generation of artists, including the late prints of Lucas van Leyden (c. 14941533).

Lucas created the monumental triptych with The Last Judgment as a memorial in the Pieterskerk for the lumber merchant Claes Dircksz. van Swieten (15261527, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden). Its relatively traditional iconography was presented in intense bright coloring and included several different levels of perspective. Lucas's roughly two hundred engravings, influenced by the work of Albrecht Dürer and, later, Marcantonio Raimondi, gained for him an international reputation while he was still alive.

After training with Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen in Amsterdam, and possibly also briefly with Gossaert in Utrecht about 15151517, Jan van Scorel (14951562) traveled extensively, including a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and a year as the curator of the Vatican collections under the Dutch Pope Adrian VI, before returning to Utrecht. There he established a thriving studio where his works were much in demand by patrons ranging from ecclesiastics and aristocrats to humanists and city magistrates. Three panels painted for the Utrecht Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims (Centraal Museum, Utrecht), of which he was a member, and one for that in Haarlem (c. 1528, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), are among the earliest group portraits painted in the northern Netherlands. His religious paintings range from the intimate Mary Magdalen (c. 1530, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) to monumental altarpieces such as the Finding of the True Cross (c. 1540, Grote Kerk, Breda). Scorel trained two important artists, Maerten van Heemskerck (14981574) and Antonis Mor (1516/20c. 1576). The latter moved to Antwerp by 1547 and established the format for imposing court portraiture for noble patrons throughout northern Europe and the Habsburg empire.

It was during the sixteenth century that the features of both landscape and still life, which had previously existed largely as subsidiary elements in religious works and portraiture, became a larger constituent of some paintings. Joachim Patinir (c. 14851524) was described by Albrecht Dürer as "the good landscape painter." His figurative subjects, suchasthe Landscape with St. Jerome (c. 15201524, Museo del Prado, Madrid), are usually buried in a "world landscape," a vast panorama filled with incidental detail and viewed from a so-called bird's-eye perspective. Patinir creates recession through color zones, going from warm brown in the foreground through green and finally to a cool background of blue and gray. This, and the abstract, craggy rock formations serving as mountains, highly influenced landscape imagery for nearly a century.

Works of art created in the Netherlands in the second two-thirds of the sixteenth century were produced in the midst of dramatic social change and tumultuous political and religious strife, culminating in the iconoclastic riots that swept through Catholic churches and destroyed countless works of art in 1566. Religious tensions and social changes produced a culture of uncertainty and anxiety for many, which in turn created a demand for, and appreciation of, works that engaged the viewer's consideration of the complexities of life. The subject or message of these works is not always clear; pictures frequently present puzzles rather than didactic messages.

This seems to be the case with the work of Pieter Aertsen (c. 1508/091575) who frequently buried his religious subjects in the background of large-scale still lifes, such as his Butcher's Stall with the Flight into Egypt (Uppsala University Art Collections, Sweden), dated 10 March 1551, the middle of Lent. The carcasses in the foreground might have brought to mind the old, largely abandoned practice of giving meat to the poor during Lent, while the Holy Family in the background offering alms to a beggar and his son would certainly have advocated generosity to the poor. The painting seems to ask the viewer to consider his or her own wealth in light of the kindness of the Holy Family, rather than simply condemning wealth outright.

Some of the most original and complex works of the century were produced by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 15271569), who left an indelible impression on subsequent generations of artists. Bruegel began his career designing engravings and then turned to creating enigmatic paintings based on popular proverbs as well as peasant scenes and religious subjects for patrons that included humanists and wealthy businessmen. His Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562, Musée royaux des beaux-arts, Brussels) depicts a concatenation of bizarre creatures that recall the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 14501516); the Netherlandish Proverbs (1559, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) represents nearly one hundred proverbs in the guise of the daily activities of the inhabitants of a Flemish village. His moving Christ Carrying the Cross (1564, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) sets the event in a Flemish world landscape and buries Calvary in the far distance.

While many of these works challenge the viewer with thought, the Catholic Church responded with others that were emphatically didactic. The muscular bodies in Frans Floris's (c. 15191570) striking Fall of the Rebel Angels (1554, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) recalls the figures of Michelangelo that he studied in Rome. The work's theme asserts the power of the Catholic faith in a century convulsed with Protestant rebellion.

See also Art: The Art Market and Collecting ; Bruegel Family ; Painting ; Prints and Popular Imagery ; Reformation, Protestant .


Gibson, Walter. "Mirror of the Earth": The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting. Princeton, 1989.

Harbison, Craig. The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context. New York, 1995.

Kunst voor de beeldenstorm: Noordnederlandse kunst 15251580. 2 vols. Edited by W. Th. Kloek, W. Halsema-Kubes, and R. J. Baarsen. Exh. cat. The Hague, 1986.

Moxey, Keith. Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation. Chicago, 1989.

Osten, Gert von der, and Horst Vey. Painting and Sculpture in Germany and the Netherlands, 1500 to 1600. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1969.

Silver, Larry. "The State of Research in Northern European Art of the Renaissance Era." Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 518535.

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New York, 1985.

Ann Jensen Adams

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Netherlands, Art in the


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