JAN VAN EYCK (1390-1441) ARTISTIC GENIUS OF THE NORTHERN RENAISSANCE. AN EXPLORATION OF ART IN THE NETHERLANDS , GERMANY AND THE LOW COUNTRIES DURING THE 14TH AND 15TH CENTURIES. PART 1.

jan-van-eyck4

In this posting I am going to explore the art of Jan Van Eyck , a brilliant artist who lived in the 14th Century. His brilliance in all aspects of art singled him out as a truly  great innovator during this period.

Firstly I wanted to establish some technical terms which describe how figurative art developed in this period.

FORM-” may include the following treatment of pictorial space perspectival device , composition or arrangement of pictorial components and choice and arrangement of colour , tonal values , scale. Lunar perspective , vanishing point and picture plane, PICTURE PLANE- it is where the imaginary 3 dimensional world of the painting starts. The picture plane stands in relation to the illusory space of a painting as a window stands in relation to the view beyond it”.[1].

Matthew Wundrum an art critic gives some pointers  to the development of Renaissance art with particular reference to the Northern Renaissance.

” During the early renaissance painting rose to a position of primacy amongst the fellow disciplines for the first time  in the History of art”[2].

Commenting further Wundrum shows the connection between artist and spectator.

” A new relationship was born between the work of art and the spectator. The painting no longer sought merely to fufill a function but issued its own challenge to the person before it”[3]

” The real and the ideal , the secular and the sacred  ecstatic absorption and cool sceptism flourished side by side”.[4].

These are then the generalities of Renaissance art that Wundrum is discussing. Showing that art was now reflecting the real developments in art drawing and painting from real life. Here is depicted the art form of Realism which was to be an important feature in art in the 14th and 15th Centuries. ” we can therefore state the following it was not classical antiquity but the entry into art of the real world of human experience”.[5].

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The%20Ghent%20Altarpiece%20The%20Donor%20[detail]

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At the bottom of the Ghent altarpiece you can see that  the artist Van Eyck has inscribed his name.

” The Ghent Altar was begun at the same point before 1426 , the year of the death of its main artist identified as Hubert Van Eyck (1370-1426) (Jan’s brother). It was competed in 1432 by Jan van Eyck”. [6].

Wundrum continues to give importance to the North. ” and as the north , increasingly endeavoured to portray the individual as faithfully as possible-so the detail whether in portraits , in the representation of interiors and landscape acquired a significance never attained in the south”.[7].

” The term Detail realism has been coined to describe Netherlandish painting in the 15th Century”.[8].

The technical ability of the Van Eyck brothers , I will mention Hubert in passing but the brilliance of Jan I will concentrate on. Wundrum correctly shows how the guilds an important part of art in the 14th Century was able at times to show the technical development of paint from tempera to Oil. Vasari ( Art Historian of the period) assumed incorrectly that Jan Van Eyck had invented Oil painting . Wundrum puts the record straight.

” Netherlandish  painting of the early 15th century marked the decisive new chapter of colour in European painting. According to Vasari (Art Historian 1550) Jan van Eyck invented oil painting, while we may dispute the absoluteness of this claim it undoubtedly contains a kernel of truth”.[9].

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Madonna%20and%20Child%20at%20the%20Fountain

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Wundrum continues to show the importance of Oil painting and its development over tempera , the Van Eyck brothers but Jan in particular were instrumental in developing and helping to use tempera on occasions.

” In the age of the Van Eyck brothers Oil – a transparent binder -assumed increasing importance in Tempera painting”.[10].

” The paint surface thereby acquired a previously unknown depth and luminosity”.[11].

Although Van Eyck continued to paint portraiture it was the revolutionary  changes in religion especially with the Lutheran revolution in religious thought , the reformation and counter revolution that  had an influence on artists like Jan Van Eyck.

” Mutually related changes in religious thought and in society thus led to a new appreciation both of the individual and God’s creation as experienced via the senses. This process was reflected in the art of the 14th Century”.[12].

Useful commentary by Wundrum highlights the importance of Jan Van Eyck as an artistic genius  by none other than Raphael’s father.

” A few years later Giovanni Santi  (1435-1494) father of Raphael  (1483-1520) (the great Italian master of the 15th Century) also named Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van der weyden as amongst the most important artists of the century-albeit alongside a host of Italian masters”. [13].

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In my first reference I referred to the technical appreciation of art by discussing , form , the picture plane and perspective. Wundrum continues to give importance to how figurative paintings in the 14th Century were depicted, making sure that everything was properly displayed and giving the spectator the brilliance of 3 dimensional art.

” Typical of the high renaissance as of classical art is the perfect balancing of contradictory and hence seemingly mutual exclusive artistic positions. Real and ideal secular and sacred, movement and rest, freedom and how space , and plane  , line and colour are therefore reconciled in a happy harmony”. [14].

To conclude I will quote some comments by Kim Woods an Open University academic on artistic training and organisations. In part 2 I will concentrate on Jan Van Eyck and how others perceived him.

” Art at the turn of the 16th century , the guilds in the Netherlands were very powerful guardians of collective artistic , privilege and technical quality”. [15].

Woods goes on to show that Patrons of artists like Van Eyck were Monarchs , Dukes or Kings. They were the people who could afford art and would commission it. There were no galleries or Art establishment as we know of them today. ” Perhaps the most renowned of all Nederlandish  fifteen century painters Jan Van Eyck was painter to Philip the Good , duke of Burgundy from 1425 until Van Eyck’s death”. [16].

Woods in discussing the status of the artist suggests that Van Eyck’s status was high in the courts of the Netherlands. ” The fact that Philip was godfather to Van Eyck’s  child suggests his status at court was high”. [17].

This concludes my first part of Jan Van Eyck’s importance in the Northern Renaissance in the 14th Century. In Part 2 I will explore more aspects of Van Eyck as the foremost painter in the Netherlands of that period.

FOOTNOTES

  1. OPEN UNIVERSITY STUDY HANDBOOK 1 ACADEMIES , MUSEUMS AND CANONS OF ART A216. PG27-28
  2. RENAISSANCE – A STUDY BY MATTHEW WUNDRUM TASCHEN PG.6
  3. DITTO .PG.6
  4. DITTO  .PG.6
  5. DITTO PG.10
  6.  DITTO PG.10
  7.  DITTO  PG.10
  8.  DITTO .PG.10
  9.  DITTO PG.11
  10.  DITTO. PG.11
  11.  DITTO.PG.11
  12.  DITTO.PG.12
  13.  DITTO.PG. 13
  14.  DITTO.PG. 15
  15. THE CHANGING STATUS OF THE ARTIST THE STATUS OF THE ARTIST IN NORTHERN EUROPE ARTISTIC TRAINING AND ORGANISATION A216 PG.119
  16.  DITTO .PG.123
  17.  DITTO . PG.123

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