Flemish art and architecture, works of art and structures produced in the region of Europe known for centuries as Flanders. Netherlandish art is another term sometimes used for these works. Art produced in Flanders achieved special eminence c.1200 and in the 15th and 17th cent. Flanders was among the most culturally productive regions at other times as well.
The Medieval Period
During the Middle Ages, Flemish art followed the contemporary early Christian, Carolingian, and Romanesque styles. In the 12th cent. Rainer of Huy, Godefroid de Claire, and Nicholas of Verdun, among others, were noted for their work in metal and enamel. In the same century an important late Romanesque cathedral was built at Tournai (see Romanesque architecture and art). In succeeding centuries, the metalworks of Dinant lent their name to the French word dinanderie, for metalwork, and Flemish brass workers and copper workers produced sophisticated pieces.
Splendid examples of secular architecture were executed in the 14th and 15th cent., including the Ypres cloth hall and the city halls of Brussels and Louvain. At Tournai painting, sculpture, and tapestry-making also flourished. Flanders followed the French in their adaptation of Gothic styles until the late 14th cent., when Flemish artists contributed vigorously realistic figures to the elegant, more fragile French manner of painting and manuscript illumination (see also Gothic architecture and art). Jean de Cambrai introduced similarly powerful and realistic forms into French sculpture, along with André Beauneveu and Jacques de Baerze. Jean Bondol of Bruges was a leading illuminator and tapestry designer.
The marriage in 1369 of the daughter of the count of Flanders to the duke of Burgundy led to a concentration of artists around the wealthy Burgundian court. It was the center of activity for such painters and manuscript illuminators as Melchior Broederlam, the Limbourg brothers, the Boucicaut master, Jean Malouel, and Jan van Eyck. Claus Sluter executed the famous sculpture at the court-sponsored Carthusian monastery of Champmol.
The Northern Renaissance and Its Aftermath
In Flanders Renaissance works of art took on a character quite different from those of Italy. The masterpieces of 15th-century Flemish painting are remarkable for their acute observation of nature, symbolism in realistic disguise, depiction of spatial depth and landscape backgrounds, and delicate precision of brushwork. The achievements in symbolism (see iconography) and realism of Robert Campin (identified with the Master of Flémalle) and the Van Eycks, who mastered the technique of oil painting in the first third of the century, were continued in the second third by Roger van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts, and Petrus Christus. These artists refined the depiction of psychological expression, landscape, and space.
In the last third of the 15th cent. Hugo van der Goes and Hieronymus Bosch were especially sensitive to complex emotional expression and fantastic subject matter, while Hans Memling, Gerard David, Joachim Patinir, Quentin Massys, Justus of Ghent, and Joos van Cleef produced paintings in a calmer mood, based on the achievements of earlier Flemings with occasional influences from Italian art. In general, with the exception of the brilliantly original Pieter Bruegel, the elder, late 15th-century Flemish art followed Italian models, although it preserved interest in genre realism and landscape painting as seen in the works of Paul Brill, Gillis van Coninxloo, and others.
Italy attracted many 16th-century artists, such as Jan Gossaert and Jan van Scorel, who returned to Flanders and imported Italian Renaissance forms and motifs into the North. At this time the center of Flemish artistic activity moved to Antwerp, where a school of mannerist artists arose, more clearly influenced by Southern European aesthetic development (see mannerism). Frans Floris was a leading representative of this trend. The 16th-century landscape style, emphasizing exquisite detail and brilliant color, persisted in the works of Jan Bruegel, the elder; Roelandt Savery; Joost de Momper; and Gilles de Hondecoeter, who worked in Holland.
Achievements of the Seventeenth Century
With Rubens, Flemish art again became preeminent in Europe, and his influence dominated painting throughout much of the 17th cent. The greatest patron of Flemish art remained the church, and Rubens's greatest influence was exerted through his religious paintings rather than his portraiture or his apotheoses of European rulers. Elements of his energetic line, brushwork, and understanding of form, his rich, warm color, and his ideal of robust beauty were emulated in the work of his pupil Jacob Jordaens and in that of his more consciously elegant and more highly individual follower Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
Still life and genre painting also flourished in 17th-century Flanders. Outstanding still-life painters included Jan Bruegel and Frans Snyders; genre painters included David Teniers and Adriaen Brouwer. The principal exponent of classicism, the painter Abraham Janssens, brought elements of Caravaggesque painting to the Flemish school (see Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da). The graphic arts also flourished in Flanders at this time. The principal Flemish sculptor was François Duquesnoy, who practiced in Italy. Architecture in the later 16th and 17th cent. blended heavy northern decorative taste and steeply pitched roofs with Italian mannerist and baroque forms; the Antwerp town hall (1561–65) and Rubens's house (c.1610) are characteristic buildings.
The Eighteenth through the Twentieth Centuries
In the 18th cent. French rococo taste predominated in Flanders, but in the 19th cent. a flourishing Belgian school of romantic painters arose (see romanticism). They included Gustave Wappers, Hendrik Leys, and the genre painter Henri de Braekeleer (1840–88). Two other noted Belgians, Alfred Stevens and Henri Evenepoel, worked chiefly in Paris.
A number of figures stand out as exemplars of modern Belgian art. Foremost is James Ensor, an individualistic painter of grotesque personal visions whose major works were created by 1900. Important artists of the 20th cent. include the founders of Belgian expressionism, Jakob Smits and Eugene Laermans; the sculptor and painter Rik Wouters and later expressionist painters Frits van den Berghe and Constant Permeke; the internationally recognized exponents of surrealism Paul Delvaux and René Margritte; and the later painters of the abstract school Anne Bonnet and Louis van Lint. Victor Horta and Henri van de Velde are the major 20th-century Belgians architects.
See M. D. Whinney, Early Flemish Painting (1968); W. Gaunt, Flemish Cities (1970); L. and T. van Puyvelde, Flemish Painting (2 vol., tr. 1970 and 1972); M. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting (9 vol. in 10, tr. 1967–72).