It was Vasari who erroneously said that Jan van Eyck had “invented” the oil painting and since then this has been sometimes repeated. Oil painting (that is, linseed oil) was already in use long before. In the contract signed by the Catalan Ferrer Bassa to make the wall paintings of the Monastery of Pedralbes, in Barcelona, he promised to use this technique. This happened a century earlier than the paintings of Van Eyck, exactly in 1341. What Jan Van Eyck achieved, though, was a profound development of the oil painting technique by solely using it and by developing new techniques in handling both oil paint and transparent glazes.
One of the painters of that first Flemish generation that also mastered the use of oil paint was Robert Campin (ca. 1375 – 26 April 1444). This great artist was first called the Master of Flémalle, by the small town of Flémalle near Liège (currently in Belgium) where one of his works comes from, or the Master of Mérode, because of a portentous triptych attributed to Campin and his workshop, representing the intimacy of the Holy Family which belonged to the noble Belgian lineage of Mérode and that today is in the Cloisters Museum in New York.
Campin worked in Tournai (Belgium) from 1404 to 1444, and therefore was rather a predecessor (or in any case contemporary) than a successor to the Van Eycks. The excellence of Campin’s work and his independence prove that the development of the Flemish school of painting was something inevitable. Robert Campin also painted a beautiful panel for the Burgundy Court called the “Adoration of the Child” or “Nativity” (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, France). Here we see again the phenomenon of technical perfection accumulated through centuries by medieval French painting; but, in addition, we perceive in the myriad of precious domestic details and aristocratic local backgrounds something that was exclusively Flemish. This panel from the Dijon Museum, painted around 1420, is one of the most charming and beautiful works of the 15th century.
His “Virgin and Child before a fire screen” (National Gallery, London) was painted later, perhaps around 1440. The holy figures appear human to excess and give us a taste for the fidelity and cordiality of the home. In these works and in the “Santa Barbara reading” panel (Prado Museum) from the Werl Triptych, the characters portrayed offer us one of the highest visions of inner peace because of the predilection they show for the interiors of their houses or landscapes of the Flanders region, where they have descended to live as mere mortals. They are mired in mystical anointing, but always reveal earthly characters.
The generation following the Van Eycks and Campin was gloriously represented by another artist: Rogier van der Weyden (or Roger de la Pasture, in the French version of his name, 1399 or 1400 – 18 June 1464). He was born in Tournai (a then Flemish region were French was spoken), but Rogier literally translated his name into Flemish making it Van der Weyden. It is known that he did his apprenticeship with Campin and that was accepted in the Tournai painters’ guild in 1432. He then moved to Brussels, where he acquired great reputation, and died in 1464. Van der Weyden also traveled: of the visit he made to Italy in 1449 and his contact with Leonello de Este, in Ferrara, scholars have always made special mention. Italians showed great admiration for his works, and Van der Weyden in turn, wanted to imitate them, but the two artistic spirits never merged: neither Italy deviated from its efforts to produce the resurrection of the Classical spirit, nor did the Lower Countries reach, until many years later, to part with its Gothic humanism and hence adopting the Classical forms shown by the Italy of the Renaissance. This is why Rogier van der Weyden is the best example of what the contact between northern and southern Europe could then produce. His altarpiece with the “Descent from the Cross” (Prado Museum) is a tragic composition showing drama even in the profusely angled folds of the clothing of its figures, in deep sorrow and pain, who wear big cloaks and turbans. It was painted in the form of a triptych (but its lateral panels are now lost) and was commissioned by the Greater Guild of Crossbowmen of Leuven and it should have caused great sensation at the time because several copies are preserved, thanks to which we can appreciate, despite their inferior quality, the monumentality of the original painting.
The genius of van der Weyden, less ambitious in originality and invention than that of Van Eyck, wasn’t fully revealed in theatrical compositions such as the “Descent,” but in paintings with the Virgin and the divine Child. The Virgins of Jan van Eyck were maidens dressed in large red cloaks strolling inside cathedrals or sitting on a throne of gray stone. Those of Van der Weyden are ladies covered at most with a transparent veil. These Madonnas were very admired especially in Spain. Saint Teresa, in her book The Foundations, said that a gentleman lord from Cinco Villas “had built a church for an image of Our Lady, indeed worthy of veneration. His father sent it from Flanders to her grandmother or mother (I don’t remember which one) by a merchant, and he became so fond of it that he had it for many years and then, at the time of his death, he sent it to be placed in a large altarpiece that is such one of the nicest things I have seen in my life (and many people say the same)”. The testimony of this Saint is of high value, but the same should be said by Queen Isabel, who placed a triptych of Van der Weyden in her royal chapel in Granada (the Miraflores Altarpiece). It is appropriate to note here that a good number of the capital works of Flemish art come from Spain, where they were transferred before the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.
Some of the Virgins of Van der Weyden were only panels from a diptych that are now divided, with the portrait of the owner represented praying in one of the panels. Those portrayed were usually dressed in black, but their faces reflect the only thing they want to show: their strong personality. Rarely these Flemish knights praying to the Virgin were portrayed with a landscape background or an open window, in general, they are identified by their coat of arms or nicknames.
In his commissioned portraits, van der Weyden typically flattered his sitters. He often idealized or softened their facial features, allowing them a handsomeness or beauty, or interest or intelligence they might not have in real life. He often enlarged their eyes, better defined the contours of the face, and gave a much stronger jaw than the subject may have possessed. Among his most celebrated portraits are those of Philip the Good, his third wife Isabella of Portugal and their son Charles the Bold.
Rogier van der Weyden was highly influential not only in France and Germany, but also in Italy and Spain. In sum, with the exception of Petrus Christus who was a disciple of Jan van Eyck, traces of Rogier van der Weyden’s art can be found in all 15th century artists, to varying degrees.
Memento Mori: (From the Latin, meaning “remember death” or “remember that you will die”). The term refers to an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. The expression ‘memento mori‘ developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.
Vanitas: (From the Latin adjective vanus meaning “empty” and referring specifically to “emptiness”, “futility”, or “worthlessness”, the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and pursuits are transient and worthless). A symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Best-known are vanitas still lifes, a common genre in Netherlandish art of the 16th and 17th centuries.