THE FLEMISH PEOPLE: Individually and nationally the Flemings were strugglers against adverse circumstances from the beginning. A realistic race with practical ideas, a people rather warm of impulse and free in habits, they combined some German sentiment with French liveliness and gayety. The solidarity of the nation was not accomplished until after 1385, when the Dukes of Burgundy began to extend their power over the Low Countries. Then the Flemish people became strong enough to defy both Germany and France, and wealthy enough, through their commerce with Spain, Italy, and France to encourage art not only at the Ducal court but in the churches, and among the citizens of the various towns.
FLEMISH SUBJECTS AND METHODS: As in all the countries of Europe, the early Flemish painting pictured Christian subjects primarily. The great bulk of it was church altar-pieces, though side by side with this was an admirable portraiture, some knowledge of landscape, and some exposition of allegorical subjects. In means and methods it was quite original. The early history is lost, but if Flemish painting was beholden to the painting of any other nation, it was to the miniature painting of France. There is, however, no positive record of this. The Flemings seem to have begun by themselves, and pictured the life about them in their own way. They were apparently not influenced at first by Italy. There were no antique influences, no excavated marbles to copy, no Byzantine traditions left to follow. At first their art was exact and minute in detail, but not well grasped in the mass. The compositions were huddled, the landscapes pure but finical, the figures inclined to slimness, awkwardness, and angularity in the lines of form or drapery, and uncertain in action. To offset this there was a positive realism in textures, perspective, color, tone, light, and atmosphere. The effect of the whole was odd and strained, but the effect of the part was to convince one that the Flemish painters were excellent craftsmen in detail, skilled with the brush, and shrewd observers of nature in a purely picturesque way.
To the Flemish painters of the fifteenth century belongs, not the invention of oil-painting, for it was known before their time, but its acceptable application in picture-making. They applied oil with color to produce brilliancy and warmth of effect, to insure firmness and body in the work, and to carry out textural effects in stuffs, marbles, metals, and the like. So far as we know there never was much use of distemper, or fresco-work upon the walls of buildings. The oil medium came into vogue when the miniatures and illuminations of the early days had expanded into panel pictures. The size of the miniature was increased, but the minute method of finishing was not laid aside. Some time afterward painting with oil upon canvas was adopted.
SCHOOL OF BRUGES: Painting in Flanders starts abruptly with the fifteenth century. What there was before that time more than miniatures and illuminations is not known. Time and the Iconoclasts have left no remains of consequence. Flemish art for us begins with Hubert van Eyck (?1426) and his younger brother Jan van Eyck (?-1440). The elder brother is supposed to have been the better painter, because the most celebrated work of the brothersthe St. Bavon altar-piece, parts of which are in Ghent, Brussels, and Berlinbears the inscription that Hubert began it and Jan finished it. This is the only work of Hubert in existence, and the supposition that he was a better painter than his brother is mere speculation. For historical purposes Flemish art was begun, and almost completed, by Jan van Eyck. He had all the attributes of the early men, and was one of the most perfect of Flemish painters. He painted real forms and real life, gave them a setting in true perspective and light, and put in background landscapes with a truthful if minute regard for the facts. His figures in action had some awkwardness, they were small of head, slim of body, and sometimes stumbled ; but his modelling of faces, his rendering of textures in cloth, metal, stone, and the like, his delicate yet firm facture were all rather remarkable for his time. None of this early Flemish art has the grandeur of Italian composition, but in realistic detail, in landscape, architecture, figure, and dress, in pathos, sincerity, and sentiment it is unsurpassed by any fifteenth-century art.
Little is known of the personal history of either of the Van Eycks. They left an influence and had many followers, but whether these were direct pupils or not is an open question. Peter Cristus (1400 ?1472) was perhaps a pupil of Jan, though more likely a follower of his methods in color and general technic. Roger van der Weyden (1400?1464), whether a pupil of the Van Eycks or a rival, produced a similar style of art. His first master was an obscure Robert Campin. He was afterward at Bruges, and from there went to Brussels and founded a school of his own called the SCHOOL OF BRABANT : He was more emotional and dramatic than Jan van Eyck, giving much excited action and pathetic expression to his figures in scenes from the passion of Christ. He had not Van Eyck’s skill, nor his detail, nor his color. More of a draughtsman than a colorist, he was angular in figure and drapery, but had honesty, pathos, and sincerity, and was very charming in bright background landscapes. Though spending some time in Italy, he was never influenced by Italian art. He was always Flemish in type, subject, and method, a trifle repulsive at first through angularity and emotional exaggeration, but a man to be studied.
By Van der Goes (1430 ?1482) there is but one authentic example, and that an altar-piece in the hospital of S. Maria Nuova, Florence. It is stiff in the draperies and severe all through. He probably followed Van der Weyden, as did also Justus van Ghent (last half of fifteenth century). Contemporary with these men Dierick Bouts (14101475) established a school at Haarlem. He was Dutch by birth, but after 1450 settled in Louvain, and in his art belongs to the Flemish school. He was influenced by Van der Weyden, and shows it in his detail of hands and melancholy face, though he differed from him in dramatic action and in type. His figure was awkward, his color warm and rich, and in landscape backgrounds he greatly advanced the painting of the time.
Memling (1425 ?1495?), one of the greatest of the school, is another man about whose life little is known. He was probably associated with Van der Weyden in some way. His art is founded on the Van Eyck school, and is remarkable for sincerity, purity, and frankness of attitude. As a religious painter, he was perhaps beyond all his contemporaries in tenderness and pathos. In portraiture he was exceedingly strong in characterization, and in his figures very graceful. His flesh painting was excellent, but in textures or landscape work he was not remarkable. His best followers were Van der Meire (1427 ?1474 ?) and Gheeraert David (1450?-1523). The latter was famous for the fine, broad landscapes in the backgrounds of his pictures, said, however, by critics to have been painted by Joachim Patinir. He was realistically horrible in many subjects, and though a close recorder of detail he was much broader than any of his predecessors.
FLEMISH SCHOOLS OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY: In this century Flemish painting became rather widely diffused. The schools of Bruges and Ghent gave place to the schools in the large commercial cities like Antwerp and Brussels, and the commercial relations between the Low Countries and Italy finally led to the dissipation of national characteristics in art and the imitation of the Italian Renaissance painters. There is no sharp line of demarcation between those painters who clung to Flemish methods and those who adopted Italian methods. The change was gradual.
Quentin Massys (1460 ?1530) and Mostert (14741556 ?), a Dutchman by birth, but, like Bouts, Flemish by influence, were among the last of the Gothic painters in Flanders, and yet they began the introduction of Italian features in their painting. Massys led in architectural backgrounds, and from that the Italian example spread to subjects, figures, methods, until the indigenous Flemish art became a thing of the past. Massys was, at Antwerp, the most important painter of his day, following the old Flemish methods with many improvements. His work was detailed, and yet executed with a broader, freer brush than formerly, and with more variety in color, modelling, expression of character. He increased figures to almost life-size, giving them greater importance than landscape or architecture. The type was still lean and angular, and often contorted with emotion. His Money-Changers and Misers (many of them painted by his son) were a genre of his own. With him closed the Gothic school, and with him began the ANTWERP SCHOOL, the pupils of which went to Italy, and eventually became Italianized. Mabuse (1470 ?-1541) was the first to go. His early work shows the influence of Massys and David. He was good in composition, color, and brush-work, but lacked in originality, as did all the imitators of Italy. Franz Floris (1518 ?-1570) was a man of talent, much admired in his time, because he brought back reminiscences of Michael Angelo to Antwerp. His influence was fatal upon his followers, of whom there were many, like the Franekens and De Vos. Italy and Roman methods, models, architecture, subjects, began to rule everywhere.
From Brussels Barent van Orley (1491 ?1542) left early for Italy, and became essentially Italian, though retaining some Flemish color. He painted in oil, tempera, and for glass, and is supposed to have gained his brilliant colors by using a gilt ground. His early works remind one of David. Coexie (14991592), the Flemish Raphael, was but an indifferent imitator of the Italian Raphael. At Liege the Romanists, so called, began with Lambert Lombard (15051566), of whose work nothing authentic remains except drawings. At Bruges Peeter Pourbus (1510 ?-1584) was about the last one of the good portrait-painters of the time. Another excellent portrait-painter, a pupil of Scorel, was Antonio Moro (1512 ?1578 ?). He had much dignity, force, and elaborateness of costume, and stood quite by himself. There were other painters of the time who were born or trained in Flanders, and yet became so naturalized in other countries that in their work they do not belong to Flanders. Neuchatel (1527 ?1590 ?), Geldorp (15531616 ?), Calvaert (1540 ?1619), Spranger (15461627 ?), and others, were of this group.
Among all the strugglers in Italian imitation only a few landscapists held out for the Flemish view. Paul Bril (15541626) was the best of them. He went to Italy, but instead of following the methods taught there, he taught Italians his own view of landscape. His work was a little dry and formal, but graceful in composition, and good in light and color. The Brueghelsthere were three of them also stood out for Flemish landscape, introducing it nominally as a background for small figures, but in reality for the beauty of the landscape itself.
SEVENTEENTH – CENTURY PAINTING: This was the great century of Flemish painting, though the painting was not entirely Flemish in method or thought. The influence of Italy had done away with the early simplicity, purity, and religious pathos of the Van Eycks. During the sixteenth century everything had run to bald imitation of Renaissance methods. Then came a new master-genius, Rubens (1577-1640), who formed a new art founded in method upon Italy, yet distinctly northern in character. Rubens chose all subjects for his brush, but the religious altar-piece probably occupied him as much as any. To this he gave little of Gothic sentiment, but everything of Renaissance splendor. His art was more material than spiritual, more brilliant and startling in sensuous qualities, such as line and color, than charming by facial expression or tender feeling. Some-thing of the Paolo Veronese cast of mind, he conceived things largely, and painted them proportionatelylarge Titanic types, broad schemes and masses of color, great sweeping lines of beauty. One value of this largeness was its ability to hold at a distance upon wall or altar. Hence, when seen today, close at hand, in museums, people are apt to think Rubens’s art coarse and gross.
There is no prettiness about his type. It is not effeminate or sentimental, but rather robust, full of life and animal spirits, full of blood, bone, and muscleof majestic dignity, grace, and power, and glowing with splendor of color. In imagination, in conception of art purely as art, and not as a mere vehicle to convey religious or mythological ideas, in mental grasp of the pictorial world, Rubens stands with Titian and Velasquez in the very front rank of painters. As a technician, he was unexcelled. A master of composition, modelling, and drawing, a master of light, and a color-harmonist of the rarest ability, he, in addition, possessed the most certain, adroit, and facile hand that ever handled a paint – brush. Nothing could be more sure than the touch of Rubens, nothing more easy and masterful. He was trained in both mind and eye, a genius by birth and by education, a painter who saw keenly, and was able to realize what he saw with certainty.
Well-born, ennobled by royalty, successful in both court and studio, Rubens lived brilliantly and his life was a series of triumphs. He painted enormous canvases, and the number of pictures, altar-pieces, mythological decorations, landscapes, portraits scattered throughout the galleries of Europe, and attributed to him, is simply amazing. He was undoubtedly helped in many of his canvases by his pupils, but the works painted by his own hand make a world of art in themselves. He was the greatest painter of the North, a full-rounded, complete genius, comparable to Titian in his universality. His precursors and masters, Van Noort (15621641) and Vaenius (15581629), gave no strong indication of the greatness of Rubens’s art, and his many pupils, though echoing his methods, never rose to his height in mental or artistic grasp.
Van Dyck (15991641) was his principal pupil. He followed Rubens closely at first, though in a slighter manner technically, and with a cooler coloring. After visiting Italy he took up with the warmth of Titian. Later, in England, he became careless and less certain. His rank is given him not for his figure-pieces. They were not always successful, lacking as they did in imagination and originality, though done with force. His best work was his portraiture, for which he became famous, painting nobility in every country of Europe in which he visited. At his best he was a portrait-painter of great power, but not to be placed in the same rank with Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez. His characters are gracefully posed, and appear to be aristocratic. There is a noble distinction about them, and yet even this has the feeling of being somewhat affected. The serene complacency of his lords and ladies finally became almost a mannerism with him, though never a disagreeable one. He died early, a painter of mark, but not the greatest portrait-painter of the world, as is sometimes said of him.
There were a number of Rubens’s pupils, like Diepenbeeck (15961675), who learned from their master a certain brush facility, but were not sufficiently original to make deep impressions. When Rubens died the best painter left in Belgium was Jordaens (15931678). He was a pupil of Van Noort, but submitted to the Rubens influence and followed in Rubens’s style, though more florid in coloring and grosser in types. He painted all sorts of subjects, but was seen at his best in mythological scenes with groups of drunken satyrs and bacchants, surrounded by a close-placed landscape. He was the most independent and original of the followers, of whom there was a host. Crayer (1582-1669), Janssens (15751632), Zegers (159 1651), Rombouts (15971637), were the prominent ones. They all took an influence more or less pronounced from Rubens. Cornelius de Vos (15851651) was a more independent mana realistic portrait-painter of much ability. Snyders (15791657), and Fyt (1609?1661), devoted their brushes to the painting of still-life, game, fruits, flowers, landscapeSnyders often in collaboration with Rubens himself.
Living at the same time with these half-Italianized painters, and continuing later in the century, there was another group of painters in the Low Countries who were emphatically of the soil, believing in themselves and their own country and picturing scenes from commonplace life in a manner quite their own. These were the ” Little Masters,” the genre painters, of whom there was even a stronger representation appearing contemporaneously in Holland. In Belgium there were not so many nor such talented men, but some of them were very interesting in their work as in their subjects. Teniers the Younger (16101690) was among the first of them to picture peasant, burgher, alewife, and nobleman in all scenes and places. Nothing escaped him as a subject, and yet his best work was shown in the handling of low life in taverns. There is coarse wit in his work, but it is atoned for by good color and easy handling. He was influenced by Rubens, though decidedly different from him in many respects. Brouwer (1606 ?1638) has often been catalogued with the Holland school, but he really belongs with Teniers, in Belgium. He died early, but left a number of pictures remarkable for their fine “fat” quality and their beautiful color. He was not a man of Italian imagination, but a painter of low life, with coarse humor and not too much good taste, yet a superb technician and vastly beyond many of his little Dutch contemporaries at the North. Teniers and Brouwer led a school and had many followers.
In a slightly different vein was Gonzales Coques (1618-1684), who is generally seen to advantage in pictures of interiors with family groups. In subject he was more refined than the other genre painters, and was influenced to some extent by Van Dyck. As a colorist he held rank, and his portraiture (rarely seen) was excellent. At this time there were also many painters of landscape, marine, battles, still-life–in fact Belgium was alive with paintersbut none of them was sufficiently great to call for individual mention. Most of them were followers of either Holland or Italy, and the gist of their work will be spoken of hereafter under Dutch painting.
EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY PAINTING IN BELGIUM: Decline had set in before the seventeenth century ended. Belgium was torn by wars, her commerce flagged, her art-spirit seemed burned out. A long line of petty painters followed whose works call for silence. One man alone seemed to stand out like a star by comparison with his contemporaries, Verhagen (1728-1811), a portrait-painter of talent.
NINETEENTH-CENTURY PAINTING IN BELGIUM : During this century Belgium has been so closely related to France that the influence of the larger country has been quite apparent upon the art of the smaller. In 1816 David, the leader of the French classic school, sent into exile by the Restoration, settled at Brussels, and immediately drew around him many pupils. His influence was felt at once, and Francois Navez (17871869) was the chief one among his pupils to establish the revived classic art in Belgium. In 1830, with Belgian independence and almost concurrently with the romantic movement in France, there began a romantic movement in Belgium with Wappers (18031874). His art was founded substantially on Rubens ; but, like the Paris romanticists, he chose the dramatic subject of the times and treated it more for color than for line. He drew a number of followers to himself, but the movement was not more lasting than in France.
Wiertz (18061865), whose collection of works is to be seen in Brussels, was a partial exposition of romanticism mixed with a what-not of eccentricity entirely his own. Later on came a comparatively new man, Louis Gallait (18i0-?), who held in Brussels substantially the same position that Delaroche did in Paris. His art was eclectic and never strong, though he had many pupils at Brussels, and started there a rivalry to Wappers at Antwerp. Leys (1815 -1869) holds a rather unique position in Belgian art by reason of his affectation. He at first followed Pieter de Hooghe and other early painters. Then, after a study of the old German painters like Cranach, he developed an archaic style, producing a Gothic quaintness of line and composition, mingled with old Flemish coloring. The result was something popular, but not original or far-reaching, though technically well done. His chief pupil was Alma Tadema (1836), alive today in London, and belonging to no school in particular. He is a technician of ability, mannered in composition and subject, and somewhat perfunctory in execution. His work is very popular with those who enjoy minute detail and smooth texture-painting.
In 1851 the influence of the French realism of Courbet began to be felt at Brussels, and since then Belgian art has followed closely the art movements at Paris. Men like Alfred Stevens (1828-), a pupil of Navez, are really more French than Belgian. Stevens is one of the best of the moderns, a painter of power in fashionable or high-life genre, and a colorist of the first rank in modern art. Among the recent painters but a few can be mentioned. Willems (1823-), a weak painter of fashionable genre; Verboeckhoven (1799-1881), a vastly over-estimated animal painter ; Clays (1819-), an excellent marine painter ; Boulanger, a landscapist ; Wauters (1846-), a history, and portrait-painter ; Jan van Beers, a clever genre painter ; and Robie, a painter of flowers.
PRINCIPAL WORKS:Hubert van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb (with Jan van Eyck) St. Bavon Ghent (wings at Brussels and Berlin sup-posed to be by Jan, the rest by Hubert) ; Jan van Eyck, as above, also Arnolfini portraits Nat. Gal. Lon., Virgin and Donor Louvre, Madonna Staedel Mus., Man with Pinks Berlin, Triumph of Church Madrid; Van der Weyden, a number of pictures in Brussels and Antwerp Mus., also at Staedel Mus., Berlin, Munich, Vienna; Cristus, Berlin, Staedel Mus., Hermitage, Madrid; Justus van Ghent, Last Supper Urbino Gal.; Bouts, St. Peter Louvain, Munich, Berlin, Brussels, Vienna ; Memling, Brussels Mus. and Bruges Acad., and Hospital Antwerp, Turin, Uffizi, Munich, Vienna ; Van der Meire, triptych St. Bavon Ghent ; Ghaeraert David, Bruges, Berlin, Rouen, Munich.
Massys, Brussels, Antwerp, Berlin, St. Petersburg ; best works Deposition in Antwerp Gal. and Merchant and Wife Louvre ; Mostert, altar-piece Notre Dame Bruges ; Mabuse, Madonnas Palermo, Milan Cathedral, Prague, other works Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Antwerp; Floris, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Vienna; Barent van Orley, altar-pieces Church of the Saviour Antwerp, and Brussels Mus.; Cocxie, Antwerp, Brussels, and Madrid Mus.; Pourbus, Bruges, Brussels, Vienna Mus.; Moro, portraits Madrid, Vienna, Hague, Brussels, Cassel, Louvre, St. Petersburg Mus.; Bril, landscapes Madrid, Louvre, Dresden, Berlin Mus.; the landscapes of the three Breughels are to be seen in most of the museums of Europe, especially at Munich, Dresden, and Madrid.
Rubens, many works, 93 in Munich, 35 in Dresden, 15 at Cassel, i6 at Berlin, i4 in London, 90 in Vienna, 66 in Madrid, 54 in Paris, 63 at St. Petersburg (as given by Wauters), best works at Antwerp, Vienna, Munich, and Madrid ; Van Noort, Antwerp, Brussels Mus., Ghent and Antwerp Cathedrals ; Van Dyck, Windsor Castle, Nat. Gal. Lon., 41 in Munich, 19 in Dresden, 15 in Cassel, 13 in Berlin, 67 in Vienna, 21 in Madrid, 24 in Paris, and 38 in St. Petersburg (Wauters), best examples in Vienna, Louvre, Nat. Gal. Lon.; and Madrid, good example in Met. Mus. N. V.; Diepenbeeck, Antwerp Churches and Mus., Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Frankfort ; Jordaens, Brussels, Antwerp, Munich, Vienna, Cassel, Madrid, Paris ; Crayer, Brussels, Munich, Vienna ; Janssens, Antwerp Mus., St. Bavon Ghent, Brussels and Cologne Mus.; Zegers, Cathedral Ghent, Notre Dame Bruges, Antwerp Mus.; Rom-bouts, Mus. and Cathedral Ghent, Antwerp Mus., Beguin Convent Mechlin, Hospital of St. John Bruges; De Vos, Cathedral and Mus. Antwerp, Munich, Oldenburg, Berlin Mus.; Snyders, Munich, Dresden, Vienna, Madrid, Paris, St. Petersburg ; Fyt, Munich, Dresden, Cassel, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Paris ; Teniers the Younger, 29 pictures in Munich, 24 in Dresden, 8 in Berlin, 19 in Nat. Gal. Lon., 33 in Vienna, 52 in Madrid, 34 in Louvre, 40 in St. Petersburg (Wauters); Brauwer, 19 in Munich, 6 in Dresden, 4 in Berlin, 5 in Paris, 5 in St. Petersburgh (Wauters); Coques, Nat. Gal. Lon., Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich Mus.
Verhagen, Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent, and Vienna Mus.; Navez, Ghent, Antwerp, and Amsterdam Mus., Nat. Gal. Berlin ; Wappers, Amsterdam, Brussels, Versailles Mus.; Wiertz, in Wiertz Gal. Brussels; Gallait, Liege, Versailles, Tournay, Brussels, Nat. Gal. Berlin ; Leys, Amsterdam Mus., New Pinacothek Munich, Brussels, Nat. Gal. Berlin, Antwerp Mus. and City Hall ; Alfred Stevens, Marseilles, Brussels, frescos Royal Pal. Brussels ; Willems, Brussels Mus. and Foder Mus. Amsterdam, Met. Mus. N. Y.; Verboeckhoven, Amsterdam, Foder, Nat. Gal. Berlin, New Pinacothek, Brussels, Ghent, Met. Mus. N. Y.; Clays, Ghent Mus.; Wauters, Brussels, Liege Mus.; Van Beers, Burial of Charles the Good Amsterdam Mus.