Robert Campin

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Robert Campin

The Flemish painter Robert Campin (ca. 1375-1444), probably to be identified with the anonymous Master of Flémalle, was the first great innovator in early Netherlandish painting and one of the founders of the "new realism" in the north.

Robert Campin was probably born at Valenciennes in the north of France. He is first recorded in 1406, when he became a free master in Tournai. In 1410 he acquired citizenship in that city. In 1423 he was elected dean of the painters' guild and also chosen one of Tournai's three city councilors, a post he retained until 1428.

In 1432 Campin was charged with adultery; the sentence was banishment from Tournai for a year and a pilgrimage to the south of France. The personal intervention of the daughter of the Count of Holland, however, caused the sentence to be commuted to the payment of a small fine. This unusual action is generally interpreted as an indication of Campin's great artistic importance.

The Tournai records further state that Campin took two apprentices in 1427: Jacquelot Daret and Rogelet de le Pasture. The latter pupil is usually identified with the great Rogier van der Weyden. Perceiving a close stylistic proximity between the works of Rogier and the Master of Flémalle, some historians have grouped all the paintings under Rogier's name. Most authorities, however, are able to identify two distinct artistic personalities and to discern a clear master-pupil relationship between Campin and Rogier.

Among the earliest works attributable to Campin is a small Nativity (ca. 1420). In this panel, which shows one of the first uses of oil as a binding medium for pigments, he combines a mastery of weighty, material forms with the strong illusion of three-dimensional space. His robust and earthy sense of realism is revealed in both the figures and the landscape setting, through which he achieves an unprecedented degree of physical actuality and dramatic immediacy. Further advances in illusion and expression are also seen in the fragmentary Betrothal of the Virgin (ca. 1420).

Of Campin's surviving works, the so-called Mérode Altarpiece (ca. 1426) is generally considered his masterpiece. Investing each natural object in the painting with symbolic meaning, he has succeeded in presenting sacred and metaphysical events in terms of a thoroughly plausible earthly reality. A one-point perspective is employed for the first time in northern painting to organize the setting and provide compositional unity. Inconsistent lighting and active patterning of the surface at the expense of pictorial unity, however, produce minor disharmonies.

The Virgin and Child before a Fire Screen (usually dated ca. 1428) reveals more fully than any other work Campin's uncompromising spirit of materialism. In an attempt to eliminate all unreal conventions he has even employed a domestic fire screen to suggest a halo for the Virgin.

In the final phase of his career Campin appears to have fallen under Rogier's influence. The Von Werl Altarpiece (1438) shows the slender and idealized figure types of Rogier as well as the influence of his richer and warmer color scheme.

Among the few surviving portraits attributable to Campin, the panels of A Gentleman and a Lady are his finest. Strongly plastic and palpably real, these pictures represent major advances in characterization and individualization for the art of portraiture.

Further Reading

The most important book on the Master of Flémalle is Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. 2 (1924; trans. 1967). It contains a sensitive stylistic analysis of most of the artist's known works. Friedländer later revised his opinion and joined the ranks of those scholars who identify Rogier van der Weyden as the Master of Flémalle. Mojmir S. Frinta in The Genius of Robert Campin (1966) has attributed certain works traditionally associated with Rogier to Campin, but his arguments have not gained wide acceptance. Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting: From Pucelle to Bruegel (1968), contains a chapter on the Master of Flémalle, who is identified with Campin.

Additional Sources

Schabacker, Peter H., Notes on the biography of Robert Campin, Brussel: AWLSK, 1980. □

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Robert Campin

c. 1376–1444


An Urban Painter.

Robert Campin (d. 1444) exemplifies the late medieval urban artist, with his middle-class connections and civic activism. A highly respected resident of Tournai, in Flanders, Campin held the positions of dean of the Guild of St. Luke (the guild of painters), member of the stewards (a committee entrusted with the accounts and finances of the city), warden of his parish, bursar of his church, and captain of the city militia. He was probably already a recognized painter in 1406 when his name first appears in the city archives. He received commissions from the local bourgeoisie, city officials, and clergy members, and he also lent his talent to the city by creating banners, coats of arms, and costumes for civic events. Formerly referred to by modern scholars as the Master of Flémalle (from a set of paintings wrongly ascribed to the Abbey of Flémalle on the Lower Rhine), Campin is well known for the realism of his work and especially for his inclusion of domestic details, such as those in his Salting Madonna of about 1430. His best known work, a triptych (three-panelled altarpiece) called the Merode Altarpiece (dated about 1425, now in the Cloisters Museum in New York), presents significant aspects of Flemish art. Filled with religious symbolism, this work comprises a wealth of domestic details painstakingly depicted with special care for realistic textures, surfaces, and portraits, generous draperies, and an intuitive use of perspective. In placing his religious subjects in domestic interiors, Campin brought a sense of actuality and reality to the divine that spoke more directly to his lay audience. This innovative way of treating religious scenes also echoes the contemporary piety that required a more "down to earth" and tangible experience of the divine. Campin collaborated with other important artists such as Jacques Daret and Rogier van der Weyden, whose careers flourished respectively in France and Flanders during the fifteenth century. His work remained influential well into the sixteenth century when a number of his compositions were still being copied or imitated.


Dirk de Vos, The Flemish Primitives; The Masterpieces: Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Dieric Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Gerard David (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002).

Felix Thürlemann, Robert Campin: A Monographic Study with Critical Catalogue (Munich, Germany; New York: Prestel, 2002).

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Robert Campin (käm´pĬn), 1378–1444, Flemish painter who with the van Eycks ranks as a founder of the Netherlandish school. He has been identified as the Master of Flémalle on the basis of three panels in Frankfurt-am-Main said to have come from the abbey of Flémalle near Liège. Campin was active in Tournai, having become a citizen of that city in 1410 and the dean of the painters' guild in 1423. To him have been attributed the Mérode Altarpiece in the Cloisters, New York City, a Nativity in Dijon, the Annunciation and Marriage of the Virgin in Madrid, the Madonna of Humility in London, and a number of other panels in various collections. His works are characterized by a robust and highly developed realism and concern for the details of daily life, which constituted an important stage in the stylistic progression leading to the art of Jan van Eyck. It is believed that Roger van der Weyden was apprenticed in Campin's workshop.

See E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (1953); M. S. Frinta, The Genius of Robert Campin (1966).

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Master of Flémalle: see Campin, Robert.

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Master of Flémalle: see Campin, Robert.