16th Century German And Flemish Painting

OUR most natural first attitude toward early northern art is to use it as a foil for the contemporary Italian. We can appreciate Masaccio and Da Vinci at their best when we compare them with Van der Weyden or Albert Dürer. But this attitude is followed by another, the recognition of old German sincerity, honesty, and truth as at-tested by old German pictures. There is also an imaginative quality in German art which the Italian lacked, often disguised in fantastic and grotesque forms, but still thoughtful and profound.

The German art of the early sixteenth century was also Renaissance. It also shared, and succeeded in, the effort to return to nature and to revive the science of design. It also felt the influence of classic thought and literature and experienced the influence of Italy. Albert Dürer studied in Venice and the Renaissance traits are very clear in Holbein. But German art was more tardy than Italian, and in the early sixteenth century it is still so distinctly and peculiarly national that we can only remotely relate it to the larger movement.

These main things have to be said of German painting: First, that in face of the stained-glass windows of the northern Gothic its beginnings were much crippled by their rivalry. That wall surface of the churches which the Italian gave up to painting, the northerner gave up to stained glass. Hence for the fifteenth century, German and Netherland art was confined to panels for altar pictures, mostly of extremely small size. In general the medieval and Gothic ignorance of form was still the rule in the fifteenth century, though here we must distinguish in favor of the Netherlands as against Germany.

In the early sixteenth century when the two great names of Albert Dürer and Hans Holbein are in question for South Germany, we must give them place more as phenomenal geniuses for their given time and surroundings, less as highest representatives of an otherwise average excellence. Yet it is possible that a German critic would not draw this line.

In Dürer there was, aside from his not always successful struggle to throw off the bondage of German medieval tradition, a peculiar fantastic method and spirit individual to himself, and this we need to understand and discount. He was at his best in woodcuts and mainly active in this branch of art. His comparatively rare oil paintings are distinguished by marvelous painstaking minuteness, strong sense of character, and highly trained facility in use of the brush and pencil.

Hans Holbein belonged to a later generation, one more familiar as a whole with the new science and art of Italy, but he does not in any sense deny his birth-right. Obvious Italian influence is confined to the architectural details of his paintings (for instance the niche of the famous Meier Ma-donna in Dresden). He was much more successful than Dürer in obtaining commissions for oil paintings, many of which are in Basle, others in Hampton Court and other English collections, still others in various galleries. The most famous of all is the large Madonna in Dresden, although this painting is now thought to be a copy of its counterpart in Darmstadt.

Holbein was also an active designer of woodcuts, which just then were very popular in the North both for Bible subjects and other illustrative purposes. He also figured as a successful fresco painter both in London and in Basle, but all his wall-paintings have gone to ruin or have been destroyed.

A very slight acquaintance with these German painters will show their value for history. The quality and character of the people come to us through their art with marvelous suggestiveness.

We cannot quote for the Netherland sixteenth century, names of equal distinction with the great South Germans. Quentin Matsys is here the leading name an artist sharing with many of his country men the strange and suggestive trait of showing two entirely distinct styles, an earlier style of the old Flemish and Germanic quality and a later one borrowed wholesale from Italian models. The Italian influence was not, however, successfully assimilated in the sixteenth century, and we have seen that the distinction of Rubens lay in this assimilation.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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