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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Flemish Primitives, a basic description

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

Flemish primitives terminology, invented in the XIXth century, refers to the Flemish painters of the XVth century active in the southern Netherlands provinces. This current is also called the Nordic Renaissance. These artists, contemporaries of the Italian Quattrocento, maintain certain features of late Gothic (slender and slender forms, taste for illumination) but pay attention to the effects of perspective and the details. They combine a naturalistic treatment of reality and a subtle symbolic language. Although they are called primitive, their innovations are numerous and famous, in particular the improvement of oil painting and the use of the easel, most often for votive purposes.

History of movement

At the end of the XIVth century, in the Dutch provinces owned by the dukes of Burgundy (one of the great European powers), the economic situation is likely to encourage artistic exchange and to see blossom a court art. Artists' studios are developing, working for both wealthy sponsors and the Church.

Jan Van Eyck is based in Bruges, Rogier Van der Weyden, in Brussels. These two cities represent the main centers of activity of the period, without forgetting Ghent and Antwerp. These artists are renowned for their portraits, their meticulous realism, and without idealization, considerably renewing the genre. The models are no longer necessarily shown in profile (tradition inherited from ancient medals) but three-quarters or front, freeing the face and hands. This novelty gives portraits more presence and life.

Its thoroughness and great realism characterize the painting of the Flemish primitives. This modernity is linked to the use of oil painting, already known but considerably perfected by Van Eyck. This painter introduced the essence of turpentine, allowing a slower drying in the shade, which preserves the shine of the pigments. He would have kept it secret, only transmitting it to Rogier Van der Weyden. However, the technique was taken up by the Italians, who had previously worked mainly in tempera. The primitive Flemish achieve an unequaled finesse and depth thanks to the new glazing technique (superposition of thin layers of transparent colors).

The Flemish primitives mainly painted altarpieces, whose shape changed and became monumental at that time. A large central panel is exposed above the altar, surrounded by painted panels which can close like shutters according to the needs of the liturgy. Working mainly for the Church, they rarely deal with the nude, but most often with biblical or moral subjects when it comes to private devotional paintings. Foreign to the humanist culture, which is developing in Italy, they abandon mythological subjects.


art expert
Jan Van Eyck © Ghent St Bavo kerk


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