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Flemish Art

( Originally Published 1913 )

That part of Europe occupied by Belgium and Holland was long known as the Nederlands, or lowlands. The northern portion, made up largely of the Rhine delta, was for ages a marshy tract. By shutting out the sea and preventing inundations from the rivers, the region has been made habitable and today comprises the kingdom of Holland; the southern part, now Belgium, was known during the Middle Ages as Flanders.

Both countries long chafed under the Spanish yoke. When independence was gained, racial differences began to manifest themselves more prominently than before. The Dutch, more purely Teutonic, became Protestants; their constant struggle with the sea made them self-reliant and independent. The Belgians showed themselves nearer of kin to the French, Spanish, and Austrians. They clung to the church which their rulers formerly imposed upon them, and their art was strongly influenced by it. They loved the luxuries of life and found the splendor of church processionals and fete days particularly appealing.

Miniature painting and book illumination were early perfected in Flanders. However, the thriving trade and rapid accumulation of wealth long absorbed the people to the exclusion of encouraging any extensive art. The early fourteenth century saw the foundation of the first school of Flemish painting having its center at Bruges, then an opulent city.

Passing from Italy to Belgium one leaves a region of seductive beauty for another of rigorous climate. Children no longer play about scantily clad; graceful draperies and airy scarfs do not afford sufficient protection against the cold. Unwieldy clothing conceals the human figure and makes it awkward and ugly. Beauty of form, grace of motion and clinging garments no longer stimulated the painter to seek for beauty in the incomparable lines of the body, and the first sight of early Flemish paintings is repellant and unpleasing.

Forced to look elsewhere for beauty these northern painters found it in nature, in landscapes, flowery meadows, in artistic grouping of people and buildings, and in a pleasing use of color. Less concerned in depicting their own moods upon canvas, they gave more faithful care to accurately copying whatever they saw before them. Practice in miniature work had produced artists painstaking in detail. Each bead in a string is patiently reproduced; every thread in a bit of lace carefully inserted. It has been said with truth: "The Italians raise our thoughts toward ideal beauty; the F show us the beauty of little things that are around us every day." Perfect features are not longer sought; instead, force of character. Masculine strength, feminine purity-these are to be found in Flemish portraits. The painters employ no flattery; they show the promise of youth or the record of mature life and old age. Guilds among them tended to insure fine workmanship. The best was emphasized, and as a result, indifferent or careless work was eliminated.

The Van Eycks were the founders of the Bruges School of painting. The whole family were gifted, but it has latterly been shown that Hubert possessed greatest inventive power. Although little is definitely known of this gifted family, it is supposed that Hubert was born about 1363, and his death occurred in 1426. Jan was about twenty years younger. Margaret, the sister, was a miniature painter, but none of her work survives.

The Van Eyck brothers discovered some method of mixing oil which insured their pictures a brilliancy and durability previously unknown. Just what was the secret, which was guarded in Flanders for some time, we do not know. In Cloister and the Hearth, wherein this family is shown, Margaret tells the secret to another, but while Reade laboriously collected data for his novel we cannot place particular credence in this ingenious story, which nevertheless serves well to bring the spirit of the times before us. Jan Van Eyck, in the employ of the Duke of Burgundy, was sent to Spain to paint the portrait of the Princess Isabel. His later pictures give evidence of his observation of new scenery and vegetation which this journey afforded.

Their greatest creation was the altarpiece done for the, Church of St. Bavon in Ghent. It is known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The conception is known to have been Hubert's, although he died before it was completed and Jan finished it. It was composed of two tiers of panels made to fold up like a screen. There were seven panels above, five below. The central panel of the higher row represented God the Father; on the right was St. John; on the left, the Mother Mary; groups of angels filled the panels adjoining these and on one end was the figure of Adam; on the other, that of Eve. The central panel of the lower tier constituted the principal theme of the whole, all the rest being accessory to it; the Adoration of the Lamb. The underlying idea was found in the Book of Revelations: "I beheld and lo in the midst of the throne . . . stood a lamb as it had been slain." The narrative continues that elders fell down in worshipful adoration before it and "sang a new song, saying: Thou art worthy to take the book and open the seals thereof ; for thou wert slain and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation; and hast made us kings and priests; and we shall reign in the earth." On the altar in the front of the picture stands the lamb; around it are groups of worshippers.

On one side of this is a procession of holy hermits, on the other, a procession of pilgrims, both exemplifying a contemplative life; the end panels have scenes representing active life -both being set forth as affording opportunity for worthy service.

Just how much of this masterly altarpiece was done by the elder Van Eyck is a question disputed among scholars; certain of the panels are known to have been painted by the younger brother. A conception of such magnitude places Hubert among the great painters of all ages.

This altarpiece had a precarious fortune. It was stolen, removed far from Flanders, robbed of its end panels-which are now in the art gallery of Brussels-and finally restored to the church for which it was painted scarcely the worse for its experience. Panels have been made to replace those missing and the visitor today is able to study the finest work of the Van Eycks in the Cathedral of Ghent.

Roger Van der Weyden (1400-1464), called sometimes "the pathetic one," because of his touching pictures, supplies a link between the Van Eycks and memlinc. He was once supposed to have studied with the Van Eycks but this is now discredited. He visited Italy and, without losing his individuality, acquired much from his sojourn there. His best works were religious and in religion he saw more of pain than joy. While not the equal of his illustrious predecessors in the use of color, he possessed an emotional intensity of religious fervour. Some regard the "Magi Worshipping the Star" as his most pleasing painting. Here he uses the figure of the Babe in place of a star-rays scintillating from it.

Hans memlinc (1435?-1494) was best loved of the early Flemish painters. He is thought to have studied with Van der Weyden. Bruges was then at the height of its prosperity and its palaces rivaled those of Venice. They were the proud possessions of merchant-princes, as in the Italian seaport, and like the Venetians, demanded those skilled in the use of the brush to beautify their splendid edifices. Among these memlinc was a favorite. Later it happened that Antwerp replaced Bruges in wealth of trade and the earlier city became divested of her art treasures, but few remaining today.

Memlinc is sometimes compared to Fra Angelico in that his pictures, like those of the gentle Dominican monk, reveal the soul. It was said that "Jan Van b~yck saw with his eyes; Memlinc with his soul." A certain sweetness of treatment characterizes many of his productions.

Gheeraert David (1460?-1523) belongs to the Bruges school. While born in Germany, he was admitted to the Guild of St. Luke in 1484. His pictures are not many but are full of charm. For faithfulness of detail and richness of color, they are worthy of comparison with those of his Flemish contemporaries.

Quentin Massys (1460?-1530) was the founder of the school of Antwerp. He first among these northern artists recognized that details must be secondary to the unity of the picture as a whole. He supplies a necessary link between Memlinc and Rubens. His pupil, John Gossart of Mabuse, known now as Mabuse, lost his individuality in imitating the Italians.


To the second Flemish school, the school of Antwerp, belongs the most illustrious of all Flemish painters-Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), born in western Germany, where his parents were temporarily living. He inherited much from his predecessors, but made all they had learned his own and employed it in new and surprising ways.

His life fell in stirring times. A year before his birth, Antwerp was nearly destroyed by the Spaniards, and exciting events happened constantly through his boyhood years. When seven, William of Orange was assassinated; when eleven, the Spanish Armada sailed to invade England.

His father was a physician who removed to Germany, where Rubens spent his early years. After the death of the father Rubens' mother took her little family back to Antwerp, where she had previously lived. For awhile Peter Paul was placed in the family of a nobleman as a page, but he soon induced his mother to let him study painting. Having finished his apprenticeship in Antwerp he went to Italy to study the great Italian masters in 1600. Here he soon fell under the notice of the Duke of Mantua, who afforded him patronage for some years. Returning in haste upon news of his mother's illness, he arrived too late to find her living. Not desiring to return to Italy he opened his studio in Antwerp. Orders poured in to him; nobles and men of wealth sat for portraits. Honored and widely sought, he enjoyed prosperity and satisfaction.

In 1619 Rubens was sent on diplomatic business to Spain. The truth is that had Rubens not been an artist he would probably have been remembered for his diplomatic skill. As it was, his gift for drawing and painting caused his other services to be forgotten. Upon his return he received his famous commission from Marie de Medici to paint scenes from her life for her new' palace. Part of the work being done in France and all of it open for exhibition afterwards, Flemish art at this period acted directly upon French artists who thronged to study the works of the great master in color and human form.

After the completion of this work he visited Madrid on business of state, remaining to do some painting. Later lie was received at the court of Charles L, who knighted him. While in England he decorated the dining-hall of Whitehall with scenes from the life of James I.

In 1630, Rubens' first wife having been dead for some years, he married the beautiful Helen Fourmont, whose picture he painted so many times.

Rubens was fond of painting groups and often filled his canvases full to overflowing. In the use of color and reflected light, in form and outline and perfection of revealing the human form he stands out pre-eminent. The physical always predominated in his characters; one feels the old Greek exuberance of health and vigor and beauty. He who seeks for the spiritual in art must seek elsewhere. It was left for Ruben's famous pupil to give back the soul to Flemish painting.

Van Dyck

Anthony Van Dyck was born in 1599 and died a year after Rubens. He, too, began his work in Antwerp. His father was a manufacturer of fine silk and woolen stuffs and his mother was celebrated for her skillful needlework. There is no doubt but that the young artist inherited much of his delicate sense of the artistic from his mother.

After Rubens returned from Italy, Van Dyck entered his studio. When nineteen he was admitted to the Guild of St. Luke-a guild composed of skilled workmen of whatever vocation. About 1622 he set out for the usual trip to Italy, deemed prudent and certainly helpful for an aspiring painter; Venice particularly charmed him. His later success with colors was not a little due to the influence of this Queen of the Adriatic.

Van Dyck was very fond of painting luxurious fabrics, laces and jewels. The wealthy merchants of Genoa welcomed him and he made large sums from his portraits. It is to be remembered that before the invention of photography to obtain a portrait from a painter was the only means of leaving one's likeness for heirs and descendants. In spite of the wealth showered upon Van Dyck he spent most of it in extravagant living. He thought that by studying his subject unawares he was greatly aided in revealing his true qualities. For this reason he maintained wide hospitality, dining his favorite patrons. It was this lavish manner of life that aroused the censure and jealousy of his contemporary Flemish painters, so that later Van Dyck was glad to take refuge in England and escape their petty attacks.

Charles I. and members of his court welcomed the elegant Flemish artist. Best known of all the Van Dyck paintings are the portraits made of this unfortunate monarch and his children. The queen, Henrietta Maria, was a favorite subject, as were many of the English nobles. With the troublous times that shortly overtook the realm, Van Dyck suffered a financial falling off which seriously affected his extravagant habits. A marriage with a wealthy woman was negotiated but two years later the artist died, only forty-two years of age.

The work of master and pupil contrast very strikingly in certain particulars. Rubens was given to crowding his pictures; Van Dyck used only a few figures, often one alone. He chose to reveal in the one portrait the soul with its share of human experiences. Whereas Rubens allowed the animal spirits of his subjects to predominate, Van Dyck's people are more subtle and refined. While Van Dyck borrowed from his illustrious teacher, nevertheless he worked out his own individuality so thoroughly that it would never be possible to confuse the paintings of one with those of the other.

Since the seventeenth century, Belgium has produced few gifted artists. In very recent years Lawrence Alma-Tadema, born in Holland but trained in Antwerp, has gained renown by his Egyptian scenes. However, he has become English by adoption.

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