Today I would like to take the opportunity to talk a bit about a part of the history of art that's very near to my heart: the Flemish Primitives.
Personally I'm very fond of this topic because it ties in with the history of my country and my love for medieval and late medieval culture. To me, it's fascinating to see how the early book-illustrators and miniaturists branched out to canvas and proceeded to be a driving force in the 15th and 16th century.
They were called the "Primitives" not because of a perceived lack of refinement, but because of the groundbreaking changes when it came to topics, iconography and materials used in paintings. During this article, I will hope to relate a brief history of these painters and why they are of such importance to the art as we know it today.
Though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date of the start of the movement, it is generally said that it started with
the works of Jan Van Eyck
, among others. The Flemish Primitives-movement, also called the Early Netherlandish Painters is generally recognizable by it's use of complex and abundant religious iconography. A good example of it can be found in the following painting by Robert Campin, of which the explanation can be found here
Besides their changes in terms of topic-depiction, they also shaped the way we make art today when it comes to the medium with which the art was made. While up until the 15th century the dominant paint was egg tempera, it all changed by artists like Van Eyck choosing to work with oil-based paints to better allow for an accurate representation of light and shadows, textures and metal. Another option was the use of glue, which was inexpensive but a lot more soluble and thus has lead to less preserved canvases. Well-known painters to make use of the glue-based paint are Quentin Matsys
and Dieric Bouts
As a final part of why these artists shaped the art-world and helped determine it's current state is the fact that they helped establish the importance of the artist. While artists were interchangeable during the medieval ages and works weren't signed, this will begin to change with the era of the Primitives. The first generation was self-sustained and well-off and as such could afford to work on commission-base only for the church (for altar-pieces) and rich patrons (for portraits). This means they could establish a name for themselves, a brand almost.
In conclusion, I personally find it extremely fascinating how the artists who started as miniature painters could work their way up to making a name for themselves as portraitists and miniature painters, working as a innovative force in the painting-field and paving the way for new techniques by the use of oil-based paint and an accurate and realistic representation of their world. As such, it is no wonder that their paintings still stand as great informative pieces to get a glimpse into the late medieval world and household thanks to their detailed representations, as well as an inspiration for artists.