National Gallery – Early Art Of The Netherlands And Germany

ART developed late in the northern countries. Not until after the days of Giotto in Italy was there any painting of significance in Germany or in the Netherlands. The first German art was in the Carlovingian period, when it took rather the form of a craft, displaying itself principally in well-shaped vessels and utensils in clay and bronze. Illuminated manuscripts followed, where the style was much like Celtic work, and there was little attempt to portray anything beyond a decorative motive. In the early part of the eleventh century a formal type of drawing grew up, founded upon the principles of architecture. Pictures were not yet painted for their own sakes, the graphic arts being still employed only in books. The manuscripts of this period are numerous, but no real sign of promise was shown until the early thirteenth century. Then a new era began, and the work was a little nearer the Byzantine style than that which preceded it. At this time the art of painting was recognized, and there must have been artists of some reputation, for, in 1200, Eschenbach, in his ” Parzival,” alludes to them :

“… As our tale runs, No painter of Cologne or Maestricht Could have painted him more comely Than as he sat upon his horse.”

The school of Cologne is, indeed, the earliest of which any vestige has descended to modern times, while we know little about even this branch of the German school until late in the fourteenth century.

The first name that occurs in German art is that of Meister Wilhelm of Cologne. His scholars, Meister Stephen and others, are to be seen in the National Gallery.

The origins of Flemish art are still more obscure, but seem to have been manifested first in a species of coloured sculpture; and in the fourteenth century Flemish painting was confined principally to decorated bas-reliefs, being thus an adjunct to sculpture and architecture. The fact that this painting was done upon wood or stone necessitated early experiments with some more permanent pigment than tempera, and hence, through the exigencies both of climate and material, the claim that the Flemish artists discovered oil-painting in the modern sense is probably a just one. While, as we have seen, oil was occasionally employed as a vehicle in early art in Italy, it was usually in con-junction with wax, making an encaustic, or else used as a superficial glazing after the tempera painting was accomplished. But in the Netherlands the oil appears to have been employed as the direct medium. As the paint had to be dried in the sun, it was expedient that the panels on which the work was done should be of moderate size. So this limitation accounts for the impression which one has first upon entering a typical gallery of German or early Flemish pictures, — that everything is on a very small scale. Tempera was also used, it is true, but in this case it was a foreign importation, for, according to Van Mander, who wrote in the seventeenth century, ” painting with glue and egg was first brought to the Netherlands from Italy.” Thus, while the Italians learned oil-painting from Flanders, it would appear that the Flemings brought with them from the South the art of tempera painting. But their more severe climate made it inexpedient for them to benefit by their lesson, while to Italy the use of oils opened up new avenues to success. There was little wall-decoration at-tempted in the North; frescoes in Germany or the Netherlands are very infrequent.

Although German art was somewhat prior to that of the Netherlands, the Flemish school far outstripped its predecessor.

In the National Gallery the earliest German picture is a St. Veronica, No. 687, a smooth, neat little painting in tempera, in which the head of the Saviour imprinted on the napkin is life-size, while the figure of the saint is in about half-scale. It is an unimportant example of the early Cologne school. The early Germans adhered strictly to tradition, and a certain ritual of religious sentiment was observed by them; but the Flemish growth was toward naturalism, which was achieved suddenly and most unaccountably through the marvellous brothers, Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

Of the work of the elder brother, Hubert, there is no specimen here ; he was a more spiritual painter than Jan, and his technique, in some of his works, is softer and more sympathetic. But Jan van Eyck, coming from no defined school, must always stand forth as almost magical in his power of vivid portraiture. There is no satisfactory way of accounting for him; he seemed to spring, as the Myrmidons, from the stones, or as the fully armed Pallas from the head of Jove. A perfectly equipped master of technique, a remarkably finished craftsman, he came, complete and inimitable, from among the stiff, prim painters of his day. He was the first to portray a correct, though not especially noble, type of the human body. He rendered atmosphere well, depicted draperies with realism, and used rich and true colours. Great conscientiousness in portraying exactly what he saw was his leading characteristic. He was as careful to paint the shadow of an eyelash as he was to delineate the expression of joy or sorrow. His portraits are absolutely lifelike, although the quaint clothes, with their numerous angular folds, have in them an unavoidable element of the grotesque to modern eyes. The Van Eycks are famous chiefly for their great altar-piece of St. Bayou, the Adoration of the Lamb. Albrecht Dürer saw it in 1508, and recorded in his diary : ” It is an exceedingly precious and most intelligent work.” Jan van Eyck was probably born about 1390. The story of his discovery of oil-painting is in this wise. Having painted a panel in tempera, he had placed it in the sun to dry, and .the panel split, thus destroying his work. In his efforts to discover some medium which should dry in the shade, he experimented until, as one authority says, ” he solved some difficulty that had hitherto prevented the successful application of oil-colour to panel-painting “; and Vasari states that he found linseed-oil and nut-oil to be ” more drying than all others.” These, boiled with other mixtures, made the precious medium which had been so long sought. This is probably the extent of the reputed ” discovery “; like most successful discoveries, it consisted simply in aptly employing existing methods.

As Jan van Eyck was far greater in the art of portraiture than in any other branch, London is fortunate in having what may be regarded as his greatest work. I refer to the portrait of Jean Arnolfino and his wife, No. 186. This picture, at a first glance, has much of the grotesque ugliness of Northern art, but on a careful examination it rings so true that, after a few minutes the observer wonders what it was about it that struck him as amusing. The key-note to his diversion is undoubtedly to be found in the unfortunate fashion of the hat worn by Jean Arnolfino, and that is not a matter for which we can hold the artist responsible. The picture, in 1516, was in the private collection of Margaret of Austria; the catalogue of her gallery describes it : ” An exquisite piece, closing with two shutters, in which are represented a lady and a gentleman standing in a chamber holding each other’s hand.” The shutters are no longer attached to the picture. It was purchased for the National Gallery, after several changes of ownership, in 1842. The thin, pale bridegroom, dressed in a fine combination of green and wine-colour, is raising his stiff hand in a solemn vow of fidelity to his flat-chested spouse. The picture might stop there; but, the more one looks, the more impossible it is to say where it does stop, if it stops at all. There is almost no limit to the detail. Look, for instance, into the convex mirror ; you can see the couple reflected; and, through an open door, another couple beyond; you have the feeling that only the limitation of your own eyesight prevents your detecting the very colour of their eyes ! There probably was never a more wonderful miniature treatment of tiny objects painted by man. The picture should be examined carefully.

There are two other portraits here by Van Eyck, Nos. 222 and 290. Both are virile and interesting.

Roger van der Weyden, who greatly influenced both Flemish and German art a little later than the Van Eycks, is represented in this room by two pictures, No. 711, a Mater Dolorosa, and No. 712, an Ecce Homo. The Deposition, No. 664, may also be by him. Van der Weyden, born in Tournay in 1400, painted pictures of religious scenes chiefly. He was influenced in his colouring by the tinted stone carvings which he saw about him. In 1440 he went to Bruges, where he painted many altar-pieces and sacred subjects. The tendency of the times was toward realism, — a contract for a picture painted at Bruges stipulates that the ” dead Christ ” shall be painted ” like a dead man,” in all respects. This might apply to the picture here.

The style of the work is essentially dramatic, without being objectionably so. This painting has also been attributed to Dirck Bouts.

Unfortunately, among the Flemish and German pictures in the gallery are many which are assigned entirely by guesswork. At various times they have been attributed to some master; later criticism has overthrown the theory, and they have been left nameless. But because the name cannot be specified is no reason for looking at these paintings as inferior in any way to those whose authenticity has not been questioned. Many of the finest German pictures are among them. For instance, take the most powerful double portrait, No. 653, of a man and his wife; whether we know by whom they are executed or not, they still are among the finest early portraits in London. The Death of the Virgin, No. 658, is so remarkable for the varied types of the heads, each being a thoughtful study apart from every other, that one is inclined to believe that one of the greatest names in Northern art should be attached to it. It has been attributed to Van der Goes. A recent writer is inclined to consider both of these works to be by Jacques Daret, a follower of Van der Weyden, besides No. 654, a Magdalen reading, acknowledged to be of the same school. The rich green and cool blue of this picture are very fresh, relieved by a touch of scarlet. The idea of realism in German art was carried only so far as to depict people as they then appeared, in the costumes and styles of the Netherlands; the higher idea of realism, in trying to portray scenes as they must have looked when they occurred, had not yet been grasped. What could be less like the Magdalen than this smug little Flemish person in her best clothes?

Hans Memlinc was the greatest of the early Flemish masters. In his Madonna with St. George, an Angel and the Donor, No. 686, we see him at his best. Memlinc lived and worked in Bruges, — there is no record of where he was born, but the event must have taken place about 1430. He occupied a position in the Flemish school similar to that of Fra Angelico among the Italians ; his pictures are poetic and charming, filled with beauty and pure lofty sentiment. Technically his work is based upon the traditions of tempera painting : tempera has to be laid on delicately at first, and gradually deepened by vigorous touches ; tempera pictures are often shaded by hatchings, as are drawings ; thus, from mere force of habit, having begun his career as a painter in tempera, Memlinc used his oils much as his predecessors used their less pliable medium.

Memlinc’s landscapes are especially charming. In Van Eyck’s cooler tones the landscapes suggest the budding freshness of spring, while in Memlinc’s compositions they have more of the ripeness of summer. A pupil of Van der Weyden, he is more like the Van Eycks, and may be considered the last worthy representative of their school. While Memlinc was a religious painter, the gloomy side of life did not impress him at all, and he painted joyous visions of the same subjects as those loved by the Beato. He is at times almost sentimental in his refined treatment of themes. Yet, withal, the human gladness was as dominant a note as the celestial in his painting : in looking at his Madonna in the National Gallery, No. 686, one of the first things that strikes the beholder, is the fact that the baby is a real child. It may be painfully thin ; it may not be endowed with beauty; but there is an ex-pression of infant contentment on its face which one misses in most early pictures of the Nether-lands. The detail of the picture is entirely lovely ; the two charming vistas on either side of the throne could not be more romantic. St. George is rather a slender warrior to have overcome a dragon; but when one glances at the head of the monster lying at his feet, it is easy to imagine his being able to slay so tame a serpent. The head looks as much like that of a benign greyhound as anything. The kneeling donor, too, lacks strength. But in the sweet white-robed angel playing the lute, Memlinc is perfectly at home, and it is the most satisfactory thing in the picture.

The two panels, No. 747, are ascribed to Memlint, and with good reason. The same lack of power in designing the masculine figure is exhibited in these saints, namely, St. Lawrence and the Baptist. No. 709 is a Madonna extremely like the one in No. 686, but is probably the work of a pupil. The portrait of a man, No. 943, has been supposed to be a likeness of Memlinc, but later criticism has rather failed to countenance this theory. Passavant found it in possession of Mr. Aders, and pronounced it a Memlinc, probably a portrait of himself as he appeared in the hospital where he was taken with a wounded arm after the battle of Nancy. But later authorities think it to be by Dirck Bouts, claiming that the painting was done fifteen years anterior to the date of Nancy. It is dated 1462. It was once the property of the poet, Samuel Rogers.

Memlinc’s colour was often laid so thin that the drawing underneath may be easily detected. While he has all necessary respect for the painting of accessories, he always observes the great rule that the face is of more importance than the clothes.

One of the most striking of the unnamed Flemish pictures is No. 783, the Exhumation of St. Hubert. The rendering of the Gothic architecture is delightful, and the figures are well drawn and very expressive. The varying types of the ecclesiastics are studied with keen appreciation. The worldly bishop is there, and the unworldly monk; the superstitious priests, and the reverent bishop who swings a censer, are as true to life as the irreverent acolytes smiling in the background. This picture is strongly reminiscent of the work of Ouwater, a fifteenth-century Netherland painter.

The Dutchman Engelbertz is represented by a very lovely Madonna and Child, No. 714. The vine-clad tree growing in the central part of the background suggests the system of arrangement adopted by Girolamo da Libri in his picture, No. 748, in the Veronese room, although the style is quite dissimilar.

Very decorative is the tall panel of the Count of Hainault and His Patron St. Ambrose, No. 264. Another interesting picture, excellent in its perspective, is the Adoration of the Kings, No. 1079, which is often attributed to Gherardt van der Meire. The little street vista in the background is captivating. There are two interesting portraits of men, which might be named Optimism and Pessimism. One, No. 947, represents a thrifty, bright-eyed man wearing a gold chain and holding a scroll in his hand; the other, No. 1036, is a cadaverous personage, with one hand resting on a human skull, and two pansies held in the other.

There are two curious panels representing Christ appearing to the Virgin after his crucifixion, Nos. 1086 and 1280. Neither of these is attributed to any known artist. No. 1086 has been embellished by a curious set of conversational scrolls proceeding from the mouths of the characters.

A very fine painter who followed Memlinc is Gerhardt David. Two large and typical specimens 0f his work may be seen here. A Canon and His Patron Saints, No. 1045, and the Marriage of St. Catherine, No. 1432. The canon, kneeling and gazing into heaven, is surrounded by most ornate detail in the persons of the much-bedecked St. Martin and St. Donatian. The panel was originally a part of an altar-piece in St. Donatian in Bruges. The regal splendour of the vestments of these figures is unsurpassed. The third figure, the patron St. Bernardine, is humbly attired in the habit of his order. The execution of every part of this beautiful picture is of great delicacy. In the background may be seen the traditional beggar, waiting with pardon-able anxiety for the cloak of St. Martin.

The Marriage of St. Catherine, No. 1432, is very devotional in spirit. It is rich in tone and colouring, and dignified in composition. It is worthy to rank with Memlinc’s works, and, indeed, the background view, though strictly architectural, instead of rural or pastoral, is as fine as any of this school. Gerhardt David has only been granted his full deserts within recent years, when Mr. James Weale, through careful research, has given him his legitimate appreciation.

Evidently by a follower of David is the Deposition, No. 1078. Observe the figure of St. John; it is almost Italian in its beauty, and quite lacks that long line from eye to mouth which gives such a hard expression to most Flemish faces of this period. It has been suggested that the beautiful and expressive picture of St. Giles Protecting a Hind, No. 1419, may be a valuable example of the work of Mostaert, a brilliant disciple of David. The fair-haired figure at the left is probably a portrait of the artist himself.

The German school, which started so promisingly in Cologne, became absorbed in the Flemish. Before its final disappearance, however, it produced some painters of note whom we will now consider.

Stephen Lochner, called Meister Stephen, was a famous painter of altar-pieces. The German revival under him was short-lived, but brilliant. The Ger-mans still used the gold backgrounds which had obtained in the Cologne school, but their treatment of the human form was an advance upon the older art. Meister Stephen drew his figures in better proportion, and in the picture ascribed to him in the National Gallery the types are very interesting. No. 705 shows the figures of three saints, Catherine of Alexandria, with St. John and St. Matthew on either side. There is great charm about these figures, that of the young Evangelist being especially lovely. The colour is soft, and yet lively.

One of the artists of the German revival in the fifteenth century is known as the Master of the Lyversberg Passion, because his chief work was a picture in Lyversberg of that name. He is believed to have painted the panel, No. 706, a Presentation in the Temple. Few of these German painters were known by name, the picture of St. Dorothy and St. Peter, No. 707, being by the Master of the Cologne Crucifixion, an artist who responded strongly to the Flemish influence, while among the Westphalian artists of the fifteenth century we have several works by the Meister von Liesborn, so called be-cause of his numerous pictures in the abbey of that city. The series of panels by this master are rather hard and crisp in touch, as if they had been drawn from models of painted wood. The long panel with the Crucifixion, No. 262, is an interesting departure from the conventional gold background, and also exhibits a good deal of appreciation of the value of the repeating figure as a decorative motive. The first figure at the left of the cross is that of St. Anne, who carries in her arms the Virgin, who, in her turn, is holding the infant Saviour ! A curiously naïve genealogical sequence !

In No. 250, the Lion of St. Jerome and the Hind of St. Giles are standing up in a most grotesque way. No. 251 has more grace in its composition, although these richly vested ecclesiastical saints can-not hold their own with the Patrons of the Canon in No. 1045, which we have recently examined.

Among the great unnamed is a fascinating young woman, No. 722, who sits smiling from under her large head-dress. She is quite captivating. A fly has alighted on the stiff draperies, and is excellently painted. She holds in her hand a sprig of forget-me-not.

The Northern art of the sixteenth century centred rather about Antwerp than Bruges, where the Van Eycks and Memlinc had held sway. About the time of the voyage of Columbus, the Antwerp school of painters began its prosperous course, which was to culminate in Rubens and Van Dyck. Among the first names which we meet in reviewing the steps of its progress, is that of Quinten Massys, who joined the Guild of St. Luke in 1491.

In the National Gallery are two pictures by this artist, No. 295, framed together; they represent the Saviour and the Virgin. The workmanship is delicate, and the sentiment refined and tender. Spiritual feeling is evident in the faces, and the romantic softness of Italian influence may be detected. One is surprised to learn that Massys began life as a blacksmith, and, to win the love of a woman, agreed to give up his trade, and turn his attention to painting. The lady, in making this a condition, evidently realized his talent, and proved herself to be a dame of excellent diagnostic ability.

When Quinten Massys painted figures in the open air, he frequently worked in partnership with Patinir, a delightful delineator of pastoral themes, who added the backgrounds for Massys. Of Patinir’s work we have here a good opportunity to judge, for there are several characteristic pictures by him in the National Gallery. Patinir is one of those artists who, born in a beautiful valley, never in after life quite grew away from his early impressions. Although his life was mainly spent in Antwerp, he clung to his memories of the delightful scenery of the Meuse, and painted it often. In his panel of the Crucifixion, No. 715 (in which some critics consider that Massys has added the figures), this exquisite rolling country is well portrayed. In No. 716, too, the real import of the picture is a study of the river; the figure of St. Christopher with the Christ Child on his back, is incidental. The river in this picture is more pleasing than the some-what imaginative No. 1298, which is too fantastic with its crags and its little plume of a tree. The four pictures of religious subjects, Nos. 717, 945, 1082 and 1084, are peaceful and refined, and less wild in their geological phenomena. The crinkly draperies are essentially Flemish, and remind one in their amplitude of the draperies of Van Eyck, except in the St. John on Patmos, No. 717, where the feeling is quite Italian.

Another painter of this period, and resembling Patinir in many ways, is Henri Bles. He was also born in the valley of the Meuse, his name, or, rather, nickname, being derived from a white lock of hair on his forehead. His work in the National Gallery is not very illuminating as to his ability. His Crucifixion, No. 718, is hard and metallic, and has little interest : the contorted Magdalen and the angels with chalices are stagey and unsympathetic. The only other picture given to him is a Magdalen, No. 719, which is utterly theatrical, and in no sense a religious picture, although the face is charmingly pretty.

There is an interesting portrait in russet tones by Mabuse, No. 656, of a man holding a rosary. Jan Gossart, commonly called Mabuse, was a fine painter of likenesses, and he is well represented here. There are two other portraits of his in this collection : No. 946, of a man with gloves; and also a somewhat recent acquisition, No. 1689, which has now been assigned to this artist. It represents a man and his wife, sordid and weary, but forcibly painted.

The stiff, fashionable little Magdalen, No. 655, is ascribed to Bernard van Orley, and the two portraits, Nos. 1231 and 1094, are by Sir Antonio Mor, or Moro, who painted a good deal in Spain, al-though a pupil of Mabuse, and also worked in England.

The stately little portrait, No. 1042, is by Catharina van Hemessen, a woman painter of some reputation in her day. With a true feminine appreciation of good fabrics, she has rendered the interesting costume of her subject in a delightful way.

Rottenhammer’s Pan and Syrinx, No. 659, is full of action, and mellow in tone. This artist was much imbued with a love for Italian art, and his work shows it in every detail. This painting is on copper.

Jan Scorel, the Bohemian and original character who studied with Mabuse and Dürer, and wandered about in a highly erratic fashion, arriving finally in Italy, and working with Raphael and Michelangelo, is here credited with a Holy Family, No. 720, and a pleasing portrait, No. 721. Mrs. Witt gives both of these pictures to Gerhardt David, but they are quite as characteristic of Scorel himself, the type of face in both instances being far less forbidding than most of David’s.

Cornelissen, the master of Scorel, is the painter of two good portraits of Donors, which evidently were the side-shutters to some altar-piece, No. 657. Their patron saints, Peter and Paul, stand guard over these worthy Netherlanders.

Here, too, is Gerard von Honthorst’s picture of Peasants, No. 1414, who, warming themselves amidst their homely surroundings, form a prophetic illustration of the hold which genre painting was destined to take upon Northern art.