German And Flemish Masters In The National Gallery


FOR more than a hundred years after Giotto had laid the keel of Italian painting German and Flemish artists plodded along the old road, which scores of untutored craftsmen had trodden before them. Painting as an independent art scarcely existed in the north before the middle of the fourteenth century. Hitherto it had either taken the shape of rude wall paintings, which bound it to the wheel of architecture, or broken out under the luxuriant fantasy of the miniaturist and illuminator as a costly embellishment of laboriously lettered books. The painter himself was as yet scarcely so much as an individual. A few, very few names come to the surface, but for the most part the workman is content to hide himself behind his handiwork, be it frescoed wall or illuminated page. The artist claimed no particular prestige or consideration, held himself no better than his fellow-men, and had certainly never heard of the feu sacré or inspiration. For in the Middle Ages painting was a trade carried on like any other trade by a company or guild, which regulated every detail of the craftsman’s work, even to the actual materials he should use, and appreciated sound workmanship far more than poetical flights of imagination.

About the middle of the fourteenth century, when in Italy Giotto’s immediate followers were busy corrupting his principles and seemed in danger of reducing painting once more to the monotony of a mechanical tradition, the schools of the north were slowly and painfully awakening to a new conception of the art, as an end in itself, instead of the mere accompaniment of other arts. Germany struck the first spark, but ere long the Netherlands caught fire, and lit a blaze which gave back fresh warmth and animation to the already flickering flame of German art.

In the Bohemian city of Prague, where Charles IV. held his court, gathering about him from all quarters of Germany, and even from foreign lands, artists to adorn his capital, a guild of painters was formed as early as 1348, but religious and social troubles and the Hussite wars extinguished this courtly, imperial art long before it came to maturity.

It was in the Rhine country that German art took firmer root, for here blossomed forth a school of ideal, religious painting, strongly tinged with the enthusiastic piety of the Mystics. The very soul and centre of this school was the old city of Cologne, which, together with Maastricht in the Netherlands, had long been lauded by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his ” Parsival ” as a home of painting. Cologne was indeed the natural head-quarters of this new and essentially German art. Here in this princely, ecclesiastical city of the Rhine—the Rome of the North—the new cathedral, as we see it pictured in Memlinc’s ” S, Ursula ” shrine, was rapidly rising. Here the Mystics, among them Master Eckhard, preached and taught, encouraging the people to new religious fervour, and doubtless every year the demand increased for pictures in the form of altar-pieces on panel to be presented to churches and monasteries or to adorn private chapels. By such gifts the pious donor might secure for himself a sure measure of consideration on earth if but a problematical reward in the heaven of his hopes. The older form of wall painting found little place in the new Gothic churches and cathedrals that were everywhere springing up. Great stained – glass windows filled the spaces formerly assigned to the painter, who now, emancipated and freed from his subordinate task of wall decorator, pursued the more independent art of painting on panel or stretched linen.

We know all too little of the early painters of Cologne who flourished towards the end of the fourteenth century. Their names, like most of their works, have perished, and from the wreckage little has emerged. One figure alone looms from out of the darkness, that of a certain Wilhelm Herle, whom an old chronicler of 138o acclaims as ” the best painter in Germany,” naïvely remarking that he could paint a man as though he were alive. We should scarcely subscribe to this opinion when confronted with the paintings attributed to this Meister Wilhelm and his followers, but then our eyes are sharpened by the trained observation and artistic experience of five centuries, and it is only with an effort of the imagination that we can force ourselves to see as men saw in those days, when, as Vasari said of the crowd who had applauded Cimabue’s ” Madonna” a century earlier, they had never beheld anything better.

Meister Wilhelm is little more than a name, for no details of his life have come down to us, and it is not even absolutely certain that he painted the group of pictures traditionally assigned to him. But in the absence of all positive fact his name is useful, and serves to distinguish the first brief period of artistic activity in Cologne. His paintings are notable for their sweet,bright freshness and warm colour. His delightful “Madonna with the Bean-flower,” in the Cologne Museum, em-bodies all the tenderness and mild sentiment of the school, exhibits also, in spite of the chronicler’s eulogy, its utter inability to paint a figure that could ever have been alive. His saints are tall, attenuated, boneless apparitions, intent no doubt on the inward beauties of the soul, but dead, it would seem, before their time to the physical life of the body.

We have only one unimportant example of this early school in the National Gallery, the “Legend of S. Veronica” (687), unfortunately hung too high to be seen properly. It represents S. Veronica holding before her the sacred handkerchief, upon which appears imprinted the face of Christ surrounded by a gold halo. Though the miraculous impression on the cloth is that of a life-sized head, S. Veronica is only about half the natural size. But this was the traditional composition, and even Schongauer adhered to it some hundred years later in his engraving of the same subject. She has something of the calm sweetness of the ” Madonna with the Bean-flower,” but the head of Christ is uninspired and commonplace. The picture seems to have been largely repainted, and the gold of the background and halo is dull and tarnished, the more so in contrast to the gaudy modern gilt frame which encloses it. There is a better example of this subject in the Munich Gallery, which may perhaps be by Meister Wilhelm himself.

It was almost coincident with the decline of this early Cologne art that the cities of Flanders, Bruges and Ghent, came into prominence as the pioneers of a new, vigorous and lifelike school of painting. Under the beneficent sway of the Dukes of Burgundy, Flanders had reached the height of her prosperity. Bruges was the principal port of the north. The ships of every nation rode in her harbours ; every language might be heard in her streets. Bruges, like Pisa, is now a dead city, haunted only by the ghosts of her former greatness. It is hard to believe to-day that the quiet old inland town, with its silent streets and waterways and its air of sleepy tranquillity, was once the scene of bustling activity and of pageants fully as magnificent as those that taxed the energies of Florentine artists. Yet something of the spirit of the fifteenth century seems to linger round her Gothic churches and quaint gabled houses and to ring out from her ancient belfry. Time indeed has rolled on and passed her by.

The origin of this Flemish school of painting is still obscure. Suddenly, as it seems in our imperfect knowledge of the events, there arose an artist who, by his own unaided efforts, created an art of painting, complete, perfect, sophisticated. Hubert van Eyck had no predecessors worthy the name, and, in the artistic kingdom he established for himself, no rivals. Was Netherlandish painting born in a night, rising in full beauty and majesty Aphrodite-like from the foam, or emerging like some gay-winged butterfly from the dull, withered chrysalis? Fate has been singularly unkind in destroying the last links of the chain which should unite the new art of the van Eycks with the rude efforts of their predecessors in Germany and the Netherlands. If however it could be proved, as seems likely, that Hubert van Eyck actually studied in Cologne, we should have a direct connection between the early religious painters of the Rhine and their more mundane, and infinitely more accomplished successors in the Netherlands. But the differences between the two schools are strongly marked from the outset, even though in Hubert’s works some faint perfume of the idyllic sweetness and mystic solemnity of Rhenish art still lingers. If the Germans cared first for ideal sentiment, for the expression of a religious fervour in which natural truth was left out, the Flemish painters grasped robustly at the facts of nature and followed unswervingly their own instincts of common-sense and reality. We have here just the differences we might expect between the practical, active, commercial atmosphere of the Netherlandish towns and the more spiritual air of the old cathedral city. Indeed the early school of Cologne stood to that of Bruges in something the same relation as “soft” Siena to keenly intellectual Florence, and like the school of Siena it died gently and painlessly of its own inanition.

But the greatest and most vital development, which gave to Flemish painting its peculiar power and its pre-eminence as a colour school, was the discovery of an oil medium by which the disadvantages impeding the older methods of painting were overcome. Oil as a medium for painting had already been known for a long time, but its use was confined to the rougher kinds of decorative work, such as the colouring of stone statues and carvings. For the more delicate kinds of painting it was, as then used, far too thick and clumsy a medium, and panel pictures had always been painted in some form of tempera with egg or size, and afterwards varnished. This tempera painting, however, though admirably adapted to the minute, delicate work of the miniaturists, had its limits and drawbacks when applied on a larger scale. The medium dried so quickly that the colours put on in small brush strokes were unable to blend ; hence a lack of softness and vivacity. On the other hand, the varnish which was applied after-wards over the surface of the picture had a tendency to dry very slowly unless exposed to the heat of the sun or the fire. An old legend relates how Jan wan Eyck, having painted a picture with infinite care and pains, varnished it and set it in the sun to dry, when the heat split the panel, arid his labour was brought to nought. This story, whether it be true or false, illustrates the difficulties experienced by early painters on the very outskirts of their art.

The new discovery, for which from Vasari’s day on-wards the van Eycks have always received the credit, was twofold. First, a means was found of purifying oil so that it became sufficiently flowing and limpid for the most delicate work ; and secondly, with this medium was incorporated a quick-drying and colourless varnish, which should obviate the necessity for applying a separate varnish to the surface of the painting. This discovery worked a revolution, raising painting from a minor and subordinate craft to the dignity of a great and independent art ; for the new method allowed a richness and flow, a depth and transparency of colour unknown before. Flat delineation gave way to vigorous modelling, a new power of expressing the solidity of objects by contrasts of light and shadow. Yet with all its greater freedom and breadth the varnish medium admitted of the utmost minuteness and finish. It seemed almost as though the delicate miniature painting of the Middle Ages had been born again with new vigour on a much larger scale, and, now divorced from penmanship, had entered upon an independent and splendid career. The new method seems to have been perfected by the early years of the fifteenth century, but history is silent as to the stages through which it was brought to this completeness. In. less than a hundred years it was practised not only in Flanders and Germany but also in Italy, where it gradually superseded the traditional tempera painting.

( Originally Published 1904 )

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