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Art in the Netherlands

Art in the Netherlands

During the Renaissance, much of present-day Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg were part of the duchy* of Burgundy. This region, called the Burgundian Netherlands, experienced a great flowering of the arts in the 1400s and early 1500s. Wealthy patrons* such as the Burgundian ruler Margaret of Austria promoted the arts and shaped artistic tastes.

Artists and artisans* in the Netherlands produced a great variety of artworks and luxury goods, ranging from paintings and sculptures to fine jewelry and tapestries. These works were in great demand not only within the Netherlands, but also across the continent. The cities of Bruges and Antwerp were major centers for the distribution of art, helping to spread Netherlandish art and styles throughout Europe.


Painting. The Netherlands became famous for painting during the Renaissance. The artists of the Netherlands worked in several kinds of paint, including watercolor and tempera (egg-based) paints. However, they were best known as masters of oil painting.

Since the Middle Ages, painters had used oil-based glazes to add a shiny finish to tempera paintings. However, the painters Jan and Hubert van Eyck revolutionized oil painting in the early 1400s by mixing the oil directly into the pigments (colored powders). This produced a glossy paint that caught the light. By applying multiple layers of this thin, tinted oil, artists could build up a painted image gradually, in great detail. The thin coats of oil paint enabled artists to blend brush strokes so finely that they were nearly invisible.

Thanks in part to the use of oils, Netherlandish painters were able to capture the intricate details and light effects of the physical world. Their works reveal the textures of fabrics and metals, reflections in objects, the glimmer of jewels, and the brilliance of natural light. Landscapes and city scenes are elaborate. The Netherlandish masters were also praised for their ability to portray deep emotion in religious paintings.

The reputation of artists of the Netherlands spread throughout Europe. Perhaps the best known was Jan van Eyck, court painter to the Burgundian ruler Philip the Good. His fame reached as far as Italy, and ruling families such as the Medici in Florence and the Este in Ferrara sought to acquire his works. Rogier van der Weyden, another painter who worked for Philip the Good, also attracted many admirers in Italy, Germany, and Spain. He ran a busy workshop, and his paintings and style were widely imitated. Hieronymus Bosch gained renown for the elements of fantasy he brought to scenes based on biblical themes. Spanish, French, and Austrian monarchs collected his works, and weavers based tapestries on them.

Several Netherlandish painters of the 1500s traveled to Italy and imitated Italian classical* styles and subject matter. Painter Jan Gossaert, who visited Rome in 1508, worked many Italian elements into his pictures while following the style and technique of Flemish* art. Other well-known Netherlandish painters included Dirck Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. One of the last great Netherlandish painters of the Renaissance was Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Many of his masterful paintings present scenes from country life.


Gold and Other Metalwork. During the Renaissance, fine works of gold and gems had a larger role than just adorning a person or decorating a building. They also reflected an individual's power and status. People wore gold jewelry to show membership in knightly orders, loyalty to a ruler, or friendship with another nation. The dukes of Burgundy collected vast amounts of precious gold work. In addition to jewelry, they owned statues, busts, and reliquaries*, as well as fine enameled cups and spoons decorated with elaborate pictures.

During the 1400s the cities of Brussels and Bruges served as the main centers of the goldsmith's art. In the 1500s, the jewelry production shifted to Antwerp, which still enjoys a reputation for gem cutting. Netherlandish gold work also reached other parts of Europe. In Italy, Lorenzo de' Medici owned a Burgundian-made reliquary in the shape of a crystal goblet, with a gold lid decorated with gems and pearls.

The names of only a few master goldsmiths still survive. Jan de Leeuw, the head of the goldsmiths' guild* in Bruges in 1441, appears in a 1436 portrait by Jan van Eyck. Another famous goldsmith, Gérard Loyet, created an exquisite gold reliquary and life-size statues of his patron, Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy.

Artists in the Netherlands also produced works in other metals, notably bronze. At St. Michael's Abbey in Antwerp, the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, the second wife of Charles the Bold, has ten magnificent bronze statuettes by Brussels artist Jacque de Gérines. A bronze sculpture of Mary of Burgundy, Isabella's daughter, appears on her tomb at the Church of Nôtre-Dame in Bruges. In the southern Netherlands, artists working in brass created pieces for religious monuments, chandeliers, and tableware.


Tapestry and Embroidery. Tapestries—heavy cloths with elaborate pictures woven into the fabric—were among the most valued art forms in the Renaissance. They varied widely in quality and price. The finest pieces often contained silk, silver, gold, and even gems. They required considerable time and effort to produce.

Renaissance tapestries illustrated a wide variety of subjects, ranging from religious and historical images to scenes from everyday life. People hung tapestries to decorate their homes and to set the scene for special events. Rulers proclaimed their high status by lining their war tents and barges with splendid tapestries and displaying them during processions. In 1461 Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, dazzled the citizens of Paris by hanging a wealth of tapestries in and on the building where he stayed while attending the coronation of the French king Louis XI.

Merchants managed the manufacture and sale of tapestries. They financed the work, kept stocks of designs, and hired weavers, often dividing large orders among many weavers in different cities. Buyers could purchase tapestries new or used or have them made to order. The greatest tapestry centers of Europe were the Burgundian cities of Arras, Tournai, and Brussels. By the mid-1500s, Antwerp had become the hub of the international tapestry trade. The Burgundian court sponsored and promoted the tapestry industry.

Nobles throughout Europe sought out Netherlandish tapestries and the weavers who produced them. The Medici family in Florence not only collected Netherlandish tapestries but also made a profit by selling them to other Italian rulers. Pope Leo X hired the highly admired weavers of Brussels to produce a series of tapestries for the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, using designs by the Italian artist Raphael.

Embroidery was another specialty of the Netherlands. Many pieces contained the finest silk, gold thread, and seed pearls. Skilled embroiderers could "paint" with thread by using tiny stitches in extremely delicate color ranges of silk. Workers in Burgundy employed this technique to produce beautiful altar hangings and religious garments.


Illuminated Manuscripts. The art of manuscript illumination* had flourished in the Netherlands since the 1300s, and Burgundian rulers promoted it in the 1400s. Philip the Good assembled the largest library in northern Europe, with roughly 1,000 volumes, and about half of these were illustrated. The manufacture of manuscripts became a highly organized industry. Studios divided work among various specialists who created text, borders, and artwork.

The decorations in Philip's books are in a formal, somewhat artificial style. In the late 1400s and early 1500s, the so-called Ghent-Bruges school in the southern Netherlands introduced a new style of illumination. It featured more realistic figures and spacious interior and exterior settings. Pastel shades increasingly replaced the primary colors favored in earlier manuscripts. Decorations in the margins of the books changed from plant designs to realistic optical illusions—flowers and other objects that seemed to cast shadows onto the pages of the manuscript.


Woodwork and Other Sculpture. Wooden altarpieces* carved in the Burgundian Netherlands were in great demand throughout Europe. Inexpensive compared to art forms such as gold work and tapestries, these works appealed to members of the middle class. Burgundy's position as a center of international trade helped promote sales of sculpted altarpieces. The great trade fairs at Antwerp were especially important. Items that passed through this city carried a mark guaranteeing their quality. Foreign merchants who sold their goods in Antwerp often brought back carved altarpieces, among other products, to sell in their native lands.

The production of carved altarpieces developed into an important industry. Workshops were run by master woodworkers, who took orders, purchased raw materials, divided the work, and sold the finished products. Altarpieces were fairly standard in their size and subject matter, making them easier to manufacture in bulk. A typical altarpiece generally consisted of a raised, rectangular center panel with separate sections on each side. The center panel featured a carving of a story or scene, and the side panels were often painted.

Netherlandish artists also produced freestanding sculptures in wood, stone, or plaster. Typical sculptures represented Christ, the Virgin Mary, and crucifixes. One statue of Mary made in Antwerp, called the Granada Madonna, is said to have been carried into battle against the Moors* by the Spanish monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.

(See alsoArt; Books and Manuscripts; Fairs and Festivals; Illumination; Netherlands. )

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

see color plate 11, vol. 1

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* reliquary

container for storing pieces of bone or items belonging to a saint or other holy person

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

The King of Prints

Lucas van Leyden, an artist of the early 1500s, was the most famous printmaker in the Netherlands. His fine use of shading gives his prints a remarkably soft quality, as if they were paintings rather than line drawings. He also had a rare ability to express a sense of light and darkness in the print medium. His best-known print, David Playing the Harp Before Saul, captures the complex emotions of a mad king soothed by music.

* illumination

hand-painted color decorations and illustrations on the pages of a manuscript

* altarpiece

work of art that decorates the altar of a church

* Moor

Muslim from North Africa; Moorish invaders conquered much of Spain during the Middle Ages

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