Art in Flanders, 1585–1700

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In 1579, driven by economic interests and supported by Protestants who wished to be free of repressive religious policies, a group of provinces of the northern Netherlands declared their independence from Philip II, the Habsburg king of Spain (ruled 15561598). The division of the Netherlands into two regions, the Netherlands in the north and what became known as Flanders in the south, was effected on 17 August 1585 when Philip II's commander-in-chief and governor of the Netherlands, Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, accepted the surrender of the rebellious city of Antwerp, although it was not until the Treaty of Münster in 1648 that the separation was legally recognized.

Although artists traveled between the two regions, Flanders, along with the rest of Catholic Europe, developed a culture very different from that of the northern Netherlands. In Flanders, Antwerp remained the center of artistic production. Two masters in this city, Maerten de Vos (15321603) and the more internationally well-known Otto van Veen (also called Octavius Vaenius, 15561629) played a major role in producing large-scale altarpieces to replace those that had been destroyed during the iconoclastic riots and those surviving works that no longer seemed appropriate after the Council of Trent (1563) dictated that religious paintings should be clear in both narrative content and visual structure and should engage the emotions of the worshiper.

Van Veen was eclipsed in 1608 by the return to Antwerp from Italy of his former pupil, Peter Paul Rubens (15771640). For eight years, Rubens had studied antique sculpture and the art of his Italian contemporaries as well as those of the preceding century. Almost immediately, he was offered important commissions by the church, wealthy citizens such as lawyer and burgomaster Nicolaas Rockox and merchant Cornelis van der Geest, and monarchs both at home and abroad. The style of works executed immediately after his return to Antwerp, such as his Samson and Delilah, painted for Rockox (c. 16091610, National Gallery, London), or the Raising of the Cross (16101611, Antwerp Cathedral), combined the strong figurative style of Michelangelo, Caravaggesque light effects, and warm Venetian coloring. These were followed by the more classical Descent from the Cross (16121614, Antwerp cathedral), which may have responded to the more conservative sixteenth-century tradition as well as the clarity demanded by Counter-Reformation dogma. Dynamic composition and strong emotional effects returned in such works as his Battle of the Amazons (c. 1618) and the Fall of the Damned (c. 1620, both Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

From the early 1620s, Rubens began designing monumental painting cycles and cycles of tapestries for monarchs across Europe, some of which went hand-in-hand with important diplomatic missions. He often created preliminary oil sketches for these that were used by members of his vast studio in their execution of the works. These included cycles for the Jesuit church in Antwerp (destroyed by fire in 1718), the French queen Marie de Médicis (16221625), her son Louis XIII (16221623), archduchess Isabella (16251627), King Charles I of England (16291635), and Philip IV of Spain (16361638). Rubens also oversaw the production of a large number of prints, creating both independent designs and reproductions of his own works in other media.

Among the many artists with whom Rubens collaborated, two assistants stand out: Anthony Van Dyck (15991641) and Jacob Jordaens (15931678), both of whom had become independent masters before working with him on his cycle Mysteries of the Rosary (c. 16171620, St. Paul's Church, Antwerp). Van Dyck worked in Italy between 1621 and 1627, and in London between 1632 and 1640. His paintings display an animated virtuosity, elegant figures, and free paint handling that bring to mind the late work of Titian. Jordaens, who never went to Italy, created scenes populated by more down-to-earth folk characters animated by colorful local detail. After the death of Rubens in 1640 and Van Dyck in 1641, Jordaens was overloaded with commissions, particularly for allegorical and mythological subjects. The figures in his late paintings come close to caricature, and the compositions are more decorative.

Wealthy and sophisticated urban patrons created a demand for paintings in a wide variety of independent genres, many produced for the open market. Artists such as Hendrick van Balen I (1574/751632), Frans Francken II (15811642), and David Teniers I (15821649) created cabinet-sized history paintings of small-scale mythological or religious scenes located in landscape settings or architectural interiors (often painted by a different artist) as well as small copies of the work of better-known masters.

Genre paintings, showing several figures engaged in contemporary everyday activities, depict a wide range of themes. Scenes of peasants were popular, as they helped both to establish the distance of the urban patron from rough country life and to bring to mind the leisurely country life of the aristocracy. Pieter Breughel the Younger (15641638) and Jan Breughel (called "Velvet" Breughel, 15681625), sons of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 15271569), painted copies and pastiches of their father's work in addition to inventions of their own. Adriaen Brouwer (1605/061638), David Teniers the Younger (16101690), and David Rijckaert III (16121661) also produced popular images of lowlife characters. At the other end of the spectrum, elegant courtly scenes were painted by Hieronymus Francken I (15401610), his nephew Hieronymus Francken II (15781623), and the latter's brother Frans Francken II (15811642), along with Sebastiaan Vrancx (15731647) and Louis de Caullery (before 15821622). Scenes showing the influence of Caravaggio were created by Gerard Seghers (15911651) and Theodor Rombouts (15971637), while Italy provided the settings of genre paintings by Jan Miel (15991664) and Michiel Sweerts (16241664). Many of these images allude to popular aphorisms or embody a moral lesson.

The pastoral subjects of some genre paintings were thematized more directly in landscape paintings popular with wealthy urban merchants who were buying country houses, reading pastoral poetry, and enjoying bucolic plays. Notably, sixteenth-century visual conventions remained fashionable well into the seventeenth century: world landscapes with a high horizon viewed from above, with distances indicated by a sequence of three colors. Also collected were woodland views depicted from the near distance with towering decorative foliage by such artists as Kerstiaen de Keuninck (c. 15601632/33), Joos de Momper (15641635), and Alexander Keirincx (16001652) before his move to Amsterdam in 1628. Jan Wildens (15861653) painted scenes of the hunt while seascapes were created by Bonaventura Peeters (16141652), and scenes of Mediterranean ports by Hendrik van Minderhout (16321696).

Hendrik van Steenwijck II (c. 1580before 1649), Pieter Neeffs I (c. 1578after 1656), and Wilhelm Schubert von Ehrenberg (1630/37c. 1676) created town views and architectural interiors in which the buildings (often churches) are frequently identifiable. These perspective views exaggerate the recession of backgrounds and the size of buildings (relative to their diminutive human figures) to a great degree; the scenes appear almost imaginary. Images of art collections (some of which were also imaginary) within an oversized interior were created with similarly exaggerated architectural conventions. Some of these by Frans Francken II and David Teniers II (16101690) embody allegorical themes referring to painting, or to the sources of the objects that comprised such collections (nature and man-made art). Jan "Velvet" Breughel created a series of the Five Senses in collaboration with Rubens (16171618, Prado, Madrid). Perhaps the best known of this type of work is The Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (1628, Rubenshuis, Antwerp) by Van der Geest's curator Willem van Haecht, which includes actual portraits of Antwerp painters as well as the archdukes and King Ladislas Sigismund of Poland.

Country life was also celebrated in animal still lifes that alluded to the hunt, a prerogative reserved for the nobility and princes in earlier periods. Frans Snyders (15791657) and Paul de Vos (c. 15961678) depicted living animals and close-up views of animals in hunting scenes, while Jan Fijt (16111661) painted still lifes of dead game. Still lifes of subjects ranging from perishable foods in so-called breakfast pieces by Osias Beert (c. 15801624) and elaborate kitchen pieces by Frans Snyders to valuable ewers in gold and silver by Clara Peeters (1594after 1657?) show objects displayed across a table top. Flowers emerged as a separate still-life genre around 1600. Perhaps the best known of these are by Jan "Velvet" Breughel, who meticulously rendered in a single bouquet portraits of actual flowers drawn at different times and in different locations. His pupil, the Jesuit painter Daniel Seghers (15901661), produced flowers woven into wreaths and festoons, often surrounding images of the Virgin and other devotional subjects. Jan Davidsz. de Heem (16061683/84), who moved to Antwerp from Utrecht shortly before 1635, created elaborate, sometimes flamboyant spreads of fruits, flowers, and meats, often set off by a curtain theatrically pulled back overhead.

In one way or another, each of these genres helped to create and reaffirm the self-image of an established aristocracy and the growing urban patriciate who identified with it. No genre did this more directly than portraiture, commissioned not only by ecclesiastics, rulers, and the nobility but also by a broad range of the bourgeoisie. Until around 1620 the forms remain relatively conservative, updating conventions inherited from the sixteenth century: bust or half-length pairs on two panels, the husband on the heraldic left of his wife, set before austere backgrounds. Increasingly, however, wealthy merchants began to commission portraits in the full-length format formerly reserved for members of courts across Europe, and in more informal poses. Group portraits of nuclear families in domestic or landscape settings (sometimes called conversation pieces) began to be produced in the second half of the seventeenth century by artists such as Gonzales Coques (16141684) and Gillis van Tilborch (1625c. 1678).

See also Antwerp ; Aristocracy and Gentry ; Art: The Art Market and Collecting ; Bruegel Family ; Daily Life ; Peasantry ; Rubens, Peter Paul ; Van Dyck, Anthony .


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Ann Jensen Adams

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Art in Flanders, 1585–1700

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