WHILE fifteenth-century Italy was rising from the new birth of art into the full perfection of her powers, wonderful things were also taking place on the other side of the Alps. The impulse of awakening was felt all over Europe, and in the north, as well as in the south, a new era opened with the new century. The form in which the art spirit expressed itself would naturally vary with temper and environment. Even Venice, as we have seen, differed materially from Florence in her art. Much more would the Flemish cities differ alike from Venice or Florence. In the Middle Ages the northern temper had worked itself out in Gothic architecture, and in the Renaissance, the same temper must inevitably work out an equally distinctive style of painting.
In the first place, mural painting, which was so prominent in Italian art, was of almost no account in Flanders and Germany. The style of building neither required nor admitted it. Religious painting took the form of many panelled altar-pieces. The art effort was, so to speak, concentrated in small spaces. This, as to mere externals. As to methods, the fifteenth-century Flemish loved, above all things, the minute detail. They regarded no smallest thing as insignificant, and dignified even the most commonplace trifles with skilful craftsmanship. To beauty of line they preferred richness of stuff: large-figured brocades and Oriental hangings, garments trimmed with fur, or embroidered with gems, heavy crowns of gold and jewelled brooches. So, too, to go deeper, it was not beauty of feature they cared for in the human face, but the exact delineation of surface, the careful re-production of every irregularity or blemish, the minute tracing of every seam and wrinkle which makes for expression or character. Their art was addressed to the mind as well as to the eye. Such qualities were all favourable to portrait painting. It was as if North-ern Europe were the soil designed by nature for the growth of this particular branch of art.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the two brothers Van Eyck gave a great impetus to the material side of painting by their methods of using oil. To what extent they were either discoverers or inventors is of no consequence to us. The fact remains that their practical application of this medium greatly benefited their own countrymen and the Italians as well. The Ghent altar-piece, which was their joint production, finished in 1432, brought Flemish art by a single stride, into line with contemporary Florentines. It did more. It set up a standard of portrait painting for all the fifteenth-century Flemish to follow. The donors of the picture, Jodocus Vyt and his good wife Isabella, kneeling with sanctimonious gravity on the outer shutters, are delineated to the very life. There is no artistic evasion here. The task is not made purposely easy by posing the figures in pro-file, or reducing them to half length. The painter faced his problem squarely and solved it successfully. Jodocus is uncompromisingly himself in every line of his big commonplace face, and every wrinkle of his fine old hands. Isabella, too, is neither prettier nor plainer than in real life, somewhat careworn, but wearing her years and honours with dignity. The Canon George de Pala, donor of the altar-piece in the Bruges Academy, is a marvel of character revelation. A book in one hand, pince-nez in the other, he kneels on the pavement in complacent self-sufficiency, the coarse aggressive face heavily seamed with lines of self-indulgence. The Chancellor Rollin, donor of the altar-piece in the Louvre, is a man of quite different type, sincere and devout.
Other portraits by Jan Van Eyck keep up to the same standard of psychological significance. Instead of the rather wooden profiles, such as his Italian contemporaries were painting, he portrayed the open countenance. The portrait of the painter’s wife, in the Bruges Academy, is an interesting and beautiful picture of a woman not specially interesting or beautiful herself, and this because she lets us read her open face so frankly. Another fine portrait by Van Eyck is of an old man in the Vienna Gallery. The face is smooth-shaven, showing the modelling of the nice mouth. There is a lovely net-work of lines around the kindly eyes, and though he is as plain as plain can be, he is thoroughly attractive and likable. The Man with a Turban in the National Gallery is refined and distinguished, with thin, sharp features, and expressive eyes.
The ” Man with the Pinks ” is ludicrously ugly. A modern portrait painter would pose him to bring out his best points, and soften his defects. Van Eyck was quite innocent of such flattery. It would even seem as if he purposely arranged the head to the man’s disadvantage, turning upon us the full battery of his oddities. Can it be that Van Eyck was something of a humourist? More likely, however, he took an artist’s keen delight in overcoming difficulties. He compels our admiration of this man, spite of his ugliness : the puffy places under the eyes, the ill-shaped nose, the large projecting ears, the disagree-able mouth. The marvellous fidelity of detail, the beautiful rendering of textures, and the sense of vitality go to make this a master-piece of realism. The ” Man with the Pinks ” is thirty years earlier than Mantegna’s Cardinal Mezzarata, which is the first Italian full face portrait to compare with it. In still another feat did Van Eyck forestall Mantegna the full-length portrait. The double portrait of Arnolfini and his Wife, standing together in the vows of betrothal, is indeed practically two centuries ahead of time in mastery of technique. The quaintness of the costumes enhances the charm of this work: the long, fur-edged cape of the lover, with the huge broad-brimmed hat; the bride’s voluminous train and the white head-dress draped over the horns of her coiffure. The solemn earnestness of the young man, looking out of the picture with upraised hand, the shyness of the maiden looking down demurely, give sufficient dramatic quality without detracting from the portrait character. The strong individuality of the man makes us sure of the likeness : the rather slanting eyes, the large nose, and the unusually narrow cleft chin. He is more interesting, because more individual, than his betrothed, and indeed it seems true of Van Eyck’s work in general, that the men’s portraits are better than women’s. One might go farther and say that ugly men are better subjects than handsome men, and that ugly old men are still better than ugly young men! These preferences are not peculiar to Van Eyck : they are characteristic of the Northern portrait painters, both Flemish and German. Youth and beauty do not offer sufficient scope for their peculiar gifts. Their chief aim, whatever the subject, man or woman, young or old, is to make the portrait expressive. Hence they used largely the three-quarters views, and laboured scrupulously to reproduce the individuality. The fifteenth-century Flemish portraits are, therefore, on the whole, more sophisticated than contemporary Italian works.
The same custom prevailed in Northern Europe as in Italy, of introducing portrait figures into religious compositions, especially in the Adoration of the Kings. Roger van der Weyden’s celebrated picture in Munich represents Duke Philip the Good, in the guise of the eldest king, while Charles the Bold impersonates the youngest. The painter does not even try to make the expression suit the occasion, but in the case of the younger man, paints a thoroughly characteristic portrait, full of fire and passion.
Roger van der Weyden was a pupil of Jan Van Eyck, and became in turn the master of Memling, thus passing on the influence of the earlier master to successive generations. Hans Memling was indeed a painter of great delicacy, and marked sense of beauty. His heads have more sweetness and less severity than in the work of his predecessors, while his colours are more luminous and transparent.
Like all his contemporaries, Memling had a field for portrait painting in introducing the figures of donors into altar-pieces. This fashion is carried to an amusing extreme in the Madonna in the Louvre, adored by a man and his wife, with nineteen children! The seven sons kneel behind their father, and the twelve daughters behind their mother, and it must be confessed that the sons are as much alike as peas in a pod, and the daughters, as the seeds of an apple. This was portrait painting by the wholesale, a whole family at reduced rates, when it could scarcely be expected that the painter could take pains to individualize. Willem Morel and his wife occupy the wings of the altar-piece of St. Christopher in the Bruges Academy, and they, too, have a goodly family to present proudly to the saint. A portrait bust of Morel is in the Brussels Museum, and is presumably a study made at the same time as the altar-piece.
More celebrated is the portrait of Martins van Nieuwenhove, donor of the Madonna in St. John’s Hospital, Bruges. His hands are clasped above his breviary, and he gazes absently before him with the rapt expression of a saint. This picture is a composition in every sense of the word, the background being one of the most fascinating examples of the Flemish love of detail. Two casement windows of leaded glass fill the wall space, one having a charming bit of stained glass in an upper pane. Through an open lower sash, one sees a landscape with a bridge and tower, every detail being exquisitely rendered. Such accessories may not be necessary to the art of portraiture, but when they are kept in true subordination, they add a charming attraction peculiar to the Flemings. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini and his Wife is an example in point, the interior of the room being a miracle of skill.
Some of Memling’s portraits of donors have become separated from their original companion panels, and are now in galleries. Such is the charming youth in Leipzig, and such, the thoughtful young man of the Uffizi, and another example is in the Hague Gallery. In all these cases, the expression is very devout. Memling had a strong vein of religious sentiment, and he made his donors, willy nilly, ml reverently the part they assume. His other scattered portraits show him in a more objective and realistic vein. Anton von Burgund at Chantilly is characteristic and interesting, a young man in a tall hat, with pronounced individuality. Niccolo Spinelli, in the Antwerp Gallery, holds a coin in one hand, looking out gravely, and a young dandy in Cologne pleases us with his own self-satisfaction. An older man in the Staedel Institute, Frankfort, seems of gentle and amiable nature. Memling’s characterizations are not vigorous like Van Eyck’s; his sense of beauty apparently softened character as well as features, but the conscientious Flemish spirit is always in evidence, and united with a gift of idealization, made him an attractive and interesting portrait painter.
There was a demand for Flemish painting even in Italy. The agent of the Medici in Bruges, one Portinari, ordered of Hugo van der Goes an altar-piece for the hospital church of S. Maria Nuova at Florence. The wings contained portraits of the man and his wife, the former with two little boys, and the latter with a little girl. The portraits have the characteristic Flemish quality of the period, painted with great care and force. The odd thing is the comparative scale of the donors and their patron saints, who tower above the other figures like giants. Justus of Ghent was another Fleming whose work was carried into Italy, he himself being summoned by Duke Federigo of Urbino to paint the portraits of the duke and duchess.
As a rule, however, the Flemish painters of this time had little to do with courts and princes. Their work was usually done at home, and for that sturdy middle class which built up the commercial prosperity of the Netherlands. Whereas portrait painting in Italy was the exclusive luxury of the aristocracy, north of the Alps it was the delight of the bourgeoisie : merchants and craftsmen, men of solid worth and industry. Could we hang together all the portraits of this school, they would represent people of about the same class, and of similar mental and moral calibre, not brilliant or highly imaginative, but possessed of the stronger virtues. The men were honest and industrious, the women, domestic and modest. This class of people did not affect the study of classic literature as an amusement, and did not care much for mythological art. Their plainer and more prosaic tastes inclined them to the subjects they could best understand, and what could they understand better, or more greatly enjoy, than their own likenesses? Thus the art of portrait painting took firm root on fertile soil.
Making the transition in Flemish art from the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, was Quentin Massys, who lived till 1530. His portraits were not numerous, but we may cite as worthy companions of the pictures grouped here, his two portraits of the Chancellor Carondelet. One of these is in the Louvre, and the other in Munich. The man gazes directly out upon us, with square open face, and firm thin lips. He is handsome, in the sense that he has great dignity of character, and strong, well modelled features. At Frankfort is a portrait of a man with spectacles, looking up from a book which rests on a ledge before him. It is an interesting and suggestive face, though the pose is rather meaningless. This brings us to the end of our chapter in the beginnings of Flemish portrait painting. A century later the Flemings were again heard from with no uncertain tone in the progress of this art.