Introduction to Flemish Painting


Introduction to Flemish Painting

Introduction to Flemish Painting

The masterpieces we will encounter on this tour belong to a distinct artistic tradition known as the Flemish school. An area more or less coinciding with modern-day Belgium was host to a style of art and quality of skills not matched elsewhere in Europe. What made Flemish painting distinct was its technical brilliance combined with an acute attention to texture and the optical effects of light, known as naturalism. The period of its golden age was the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, during which artists mastered the medium of oil, which was immensely versatile and suitable for both the intimate and the epic scale.

This beautiful region included Flanders and Brabant, Hainault, Picardy and Artois. A relatively small territory, it was part of a much wider empire under the Dukes of Burgundy, and then, after the turbulence of religious and civil wars, the Habsburg monarchs, ruling their empire from Spain.

Flemish painting flourished particularly in a few principal cities, the primary commercial centres of what was among the most prosperous regions of Europe. Bruges was a famous artistic centre from the fifteenth century, where the Van Eyck brothers and Hans Memling settled at different stages, and again in the sixteenth, with Pieter Pourbus and his dynasty. By the seventeenth century, Antwerp had become the most important centre, with a growing wealthy mercantile class, keen to demonstrate both their affluence and religious devotion through the works of art they acquired. It had a competitive art market, in which artists strove to retain the patronage of discerning collectors. During the period of the Counter Reformation, the Catholic Church was a very important patron, as well as the Habsburg court. Peter Paul Rubens established his career in the city just as it was enjoying the onset of a brief period of peace, known as The Twelve Years Truce (1609–1621). Many promising students and collaborators were drawn to his large workshop, among them Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens. He also inspired later generations of painters including David Teniers the Younger.

It was during the course of the seventeenth century and largely due to the influence of Rubens’s unique style (a blend of Italian and Northern traditions) that Flemish painting became distinct from the styles of artistic centres in the northern provinces of the Netherlands, which gained formal independence from Spanish rule in 1648. However, the movement of artists between the north and south makes this distinction rather fluid.

This trail aims to highlight seven masterpieces in the Wallace Collection, which testify to the exceptional quality and variety of Flemish painting in this period. To find out more about the subject matter of each painting and the circumstances of their creation, please consult the online entries on Search the Collection.

Pieter Pourbus, An Allegory of True Love, c. 1547 (P531)

Pieter Pourbus (1523/4–1584) was one of the leading artists of the city of Bruges. He was twice appointed Dean of the painters’ guild and painted portraits, altarpieces and devised ephemeral decorative schemes, most famously for the triumphal entry of Charles V and Prince Philip (later Philip IV of Spain) into Bruges in 1549. He was also a skilled cartographer.

An Allegory of True Love is Pourbus’s masterpiece. In the foreground, we see a group of mythological and allegorical figures who personify the various manifestations of love. Their graceful, stylised poses demonstrate Pourbus’s response to Italian mannerism, paralleled in Antwerp by Frans Floris. A more local Flemish tradition is invoked in the lively landscape background and carefully observed detail.

Pieter Pourbus also established a dynasty of painters, the most celebrated of whom was his grandson, Frans II, a portraitist and Rubens’s contemporary. Rubens himself would explore scenes of courtship and love in lush landscape settings.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Holy Family with St Elizabeth and St John the Baptist, 1614–5 (P81)

Rubens (1577–1640) worked during the period when the Catholic Church was reasserting its power and authority in response to the Reformation. As a result, some of his most significant commissions were for altarpieces. He painted this one for his most important patrons, the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Albert and Isabella. They appointed Rubens their court painter and following Albert’s death, Isabella even entrusted Rubens with diplomatic missions on behalf of the King of Spain.

In this tender image of kinship, Joseph stands protectively behind the family group. The infants Jesus and St John the Baptist are held lovingly by their mothers, the Virgin Mary and St Elizabeth. Rubens delicately contrasts the faces of the youthful Mary and her much older relative, and conveys through expressions and gestures the bond that unites them all.

Peter Paul Rubens, Christ's Charge to Peter, c. 1616 (P93)

Rubens was best known for his depiction of monumental figures, often in dynamic poses, clothed in sumptuous colour and brilliantly lit, as we see here. In this scene, Christ is presenting the keys of his kingdom to St Peter with one hand and with the other pointing to his flock which Peter will feed. These are references to episodes from the Gospels of St Matthew and St John.

The figure of Christ demonstrates Rubens’s profound study of the human body, from direct observation as well as from classical sculpture and pictorial sources. The compositional arrangement of the figures in the foreground of a confined space recalls the work of Caravaggio that Rubens had admired in Rome. The bright colours, tight brushwork and sculptural rendering of the figures are typical of Rubens’s style of this period, shortly after his return from Italy. All these qualities would have made the composition stand out in a dark, candle-lit chapel.

Anthony Van Dyck, Paris, c. 1628 (P85)

Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641) was described in 1620 as Rubens’s principal assistant yet little is known of the exact nature and length of their association. Though he undoubtedly learned much from the Flemish master, this painting is an excellent example of how Van Dyck’s work departed from his.

Rubens painted several versions of the Judgment of Paris, an episode from ancient mythology. In these, Paris, in the guise of a shepherd, is about to judge who is the fairest between the three goddesses, Minerva, Juno and Venus (he would eventually make the disastrous choice of Venus, which led to the Trojan War).

Instead, in this painting, Van Dyck depicts Paris without the goddesses, holding the prize of the golden apple. He is deliberating his decision, much like an artist before his canvas and his subject. This analogy was not lost in the nineteenth century, when the painting was known as a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of Paris, based on a possible but slight physical resemblance between artist and subject.

Jacob Jordaens, An Allegory of Fruitfulness, 1620–9 (P120)

Younger than Rubens and Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678) became the leading painter in Antwerp after their deaths. He specialised in portraits, humorous scenes of daily life and revelry, history paintings, and scenes such as this one which are inspired by classical sources.

The densely packed composition with large figures is typical of Jordaens. This painting, probably begun during The Twelve Years’ Truce (1609–1621), is a celebration of peace and the fecundity and bounty that it brings. The central figure holding a cornucopia personifies Plenty, who is surrounded by the followers of Bacchus, the god of wine, music and sensuality.

This painting is one of two versions of the same theme depicted by Jordaens. The other, in the Royal Museum of Fine Art, Brussels, shows the figure of Plenty with her back turned towards us. When technical analysis was carried out on this painting, it was discovered that our figure was also originally in the same pose as in the Brussels painting, but that Jordaens subsequently repainted her to face the viewer.

Michael Sweerts, Portrait of a Man, c. 1650 (P241)

This small portrait presents something of a mystery, because there is no known documentation about its commission and the identity of the sitter remains uncertain. The painter Michael Sweerts (1618–1664) was born in Brussels and was in Rome by the age of twenty-eight, where he worked mainly for Dutch merchants, before Cardinal Camillo Pamphili became his patron. He is known to have set up informal artists’ academies, both in Rome and in Brussels, following his return there.

Sweerts is believed to have painted this in Rome, between 1646 and c. 1656. It is painted on copper, a smooth support which allows for careful rendering of details, for example in the ruffles of the sitter’s sleeves and the brocade on his cloak. The brushwork is carefully blended, creating a highly finished effect. Elements such as the column and balustrade endow this very small painting with the air of a large, more formal portrait. However, the landscape behind, his outdoor dress and the gloves in his hands give us a sense that the gentleman depicted is on a journey. He may be the Amsterdam merchant Jean Deutz, who visited Rome and became the artist’s partner in the textile trade. The sitter’s averted, enigmatic gaze is a distinctive feature of Sweerts’s portraiture.

David Teniers the Younger, A Riverside Inn, c. 1645–50 (P196)

In the nineteenth century, this painting was referred to as ‘the diamond’ due to its brightly coloured and jewel-like execution. It was precisely this type of genre scene that established David Teniers the Younger’s (1610–1693) high reputation in Antwerp, and resulted in his appointment as Dean of the Guild of Saint Luke in 1644–5, as well as prestigious commissions. In some ways, Teniers can be seen as following in Rubens’s footsteps. Like him, Teniers was appointed court painter to the Habsburg Governor of the Netherlands — in Teniers’s case, to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. He also bought a country estate from the second husband of Rubens’s widow, Helena Fourment, a sign of the elevated social status he had attained.

This beautiful painting rewards very close examination in order to admire fully the range of the artist’s brushwork, from the rapid, lively rendering of the decorative shapes of the leaves of the tree at the centre, to the meticulous depiction of the barrels and earthenware in the foreground. The pale, delicate colouring softens the effect of the coarser elements of the painting. It has that balance of poetic depiction of landscape with the rustic realism of the figures that we admire in Rubens, although Teniers took the realism a step further.

This trail accompanies our current exhibition, Rubens: Reuniting the Great Landscapes (3 June – 15 August 2021). Exhibition in partnership with VISITFLANDERS.

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