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Rogier van der Weyden Photo

Rogier van der Weyden

Flemish Painter

Born: 1399-1400 - Tournai, France (now Belgium)
Died: June 18, 1464 - Brussels, Burgundian state (now Belgium)
Movements and Styles:
Northern Renaissance
Rogier van der Weyden Timeline

Summary of Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden was one of the most significant and influential artists of the Flemish Northern Renaissance, along with Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin. He became the official painter of the city of Brussels, and made work for the Duke of Burgundy, ruler of the region at the time. The figure groups and compositions for portraits and Biblical scenes that Van der Weyden devised inspired generations of later artists, and his ability to represent intense emotions was recognized as one of his signature contributions to European art.

Like his contemporaries, he emphasized close observation and meticulously detailed representation, balancing this illusionistic realism with an equal interest in strong, linear surface design. Although none of the existing works ascribed to him is signed, his distinctive style, combined with recent detailed technical examinations and numerous documents identified by scholars, has enabled art historians to assemble a coherent - if often debated - body of work by him. Dirk de Vos in his catalogue raisonné on the artist counted thirty-six surviving works and about forty that have been lost, noting that care must be taken to distinguish Van der Weyden's hand from those of his workshop assistants.

Accomplishments

  • Van der Weyden's greatest impact may have been in the depiction of emotions. He is credited as the first European artist to paint figures visibly weeping, and the powerful visual effect of his carefully orchestrated compositions, with figures often placed in shallow spaces that seem to extend toward the viewer, heightens the impact of the emotions those figures express. As Michelangelo is said to have commented almost a hundred years later, perhaps with Van der Weyden in mind, "Flemish painting... will please the devout better than any painting of Italy, which will never cause him to shed a tear, whereas that of Flanders will cause him to shed many."
  • His compositions were highly influential, thanks in part to the standard workshop practices of the time, which often involved literally reusing the same drawn pattern in different works. He is also said to have developed the format of the devotional portrait diptych, in which a sitter in prayer faces a depiction usually of the Virgin and Child, a format that other artists also replicated.
  • Like many of his contemporaries, Van der Weyden often incorporated illusionistic elements in his paintings, exploring the boundaries between three-dimensional sculptures and structures and the flat surface but life-like colors of painting. Where Jan van Eyck included a mirror in some of his works, to imply the viewer's presence in front of the painting, Van der Weyden surrounded several of his images with painted frames, which the figures in the scene often touched or overlapped, suggesting that the painted scene extended outward beyond the frame. His intention was to enable the viewer to experience the image in a more immediate way, as if it were occurring in the viewer's own space and time.

Biography of Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden Photo

Roger (or Rogier) de la Pasture was born in Tournai, a town ruled by the French king but surrounded by territory controlled by the dukes of Burgundy, and now part of Belgium. His father Henri de la Pasture was a successful master cutler, part of Tournai's thriving industry of knife production, and his mother was demoiselle Agnès de Waterlos (or Watrelos). When he later moved to Brussels, he translated his name to the Flemish Rogier van der Weyden, and because of the numerous variants of his name in different documents - as well as the loss of documents and art over the course of time - much of his biography is uncertain and has long been subject to debate.

Important Art by Rogier van der Weyden

Descent from the Cross (1430-35)

Considered to be Van der Weyden's masterpiece, Descent from the Cross depicts the crucified Christ being lowered from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Packed into the shallow composition are several other figures, including Mary Cleophas, John the Evangelist, Mary Salome, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. The work was probably commissioned by the Leuven guild of crossbowmen for their chapel Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten (Our Lady Outside the Walls). Later, Mary of Hungary, governess of the Netherlands, installed it at her castle in Binche, south of Brussels, and the painting was then acquired by her nephew, King Philip II of Spain, from whose collection it was eventually placed in the Prado museum.

This work was created in the same period that Van der Weyden was completing his apprenticeship with Robert Campin, whose influence can be felt, for instance, in the hard surfaces, precise details, and taut linearity of the figures. Indeed, there is a fragment depicting the Bad Thief (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) that once belonged to a large Descent from the Cross triptych and is usually attributed to Campin or the Master of Flémalle, that bears striking stylistic similarities to Rogier's panel. This underscores the exchange of ideas and techniques that occurred in the workshop context.

All the elements of this painting are intended to affect the viewer in an immediate, viscerally emotional way. This includes the gestures and expressions of grief each of the figures displays and the parallels between Mary's body as she swoons and the lifeless body of her son. These details exemplify the concept of the "imitation of Christ" central to the Modern Devotion movement of the period that encouraged followers to feel and identify directly with Christ's suffering. Even the tightly compressed space and spatial and conceptual ambiguities in the image enhance the immediacy and presence of the figures. Art historian Dirk de Vos suggests that Van der Weyden aimed to evoke two ideas simultaneously, of a life sized, carved altarpiece with polychromed figures, its corners filled with carved, gilded tracery, and of a tableau vivant with living actors on an illusionistic stage. Art historian Lorne Campbell asserts that the composition was meant to create a sense of unease in the viewer, as evidenced by such details as the way the ladder appears behind the cross at the top, and in front of it at the bottom.

The Descent from the Cross also had an immediate impact on other artists, many of whom in subsequent years emulated or directly copied the composition or its figures. The first copy, known as the Edelheere triptych (Museum M, Leuven), was made by an unknown artist as early as 1435, and de Vos lists fifteen other existing versions or interpretations in paintings and prints, among only the most important examples.

The Magdalen Reading (1435-38)

The Magdalen Reading (1435-38)

This work is one of three surviving fragments of a large altarpiece that probably depicted the Virgin and Child with Saints, as evidenced by a later drawing that seems to record a more complete portion of the altarpiece. The Magdalen would have been in the lower right corner of the composition, flanking the seated Virgin and child. Most scholars consider this an early work of the mid-1430s, when Rogier’s connections with Robert Campin may still have been close.

Mary Magdalene is accompanied by her characteristic attribute, the jar of ointment with which she is said to have anointed Christ's feet. She is richly dressed in a fur-lined overdress and a cloth of gold underdress, and reads a volume, probably a Bible, held in a cloth cover used to protect valuable books. Mary's absorption in her reading indicates her pious devotion. The two partially visible figures beside her are most likely Saint John the Evangelist in red, kneeling before the Christ Child, and Saint Joseph in a blue cloak, standing behind the Magdalene.

Van der Weyden executed this painting with a remarkable level of detail, including the jewels adorning the hem of Mary's dress, the legible letters in her book, and the tiny figures in the distant landscape outside the window. Mary's elegant and slightly stylized and simplified features and hands are also characteristic of Rogier's work, although some writers find other aspects of the painting, such as the cabinet and the floor, to be less skillfully handled, indicating that they may have been painted by Rogier's assistants.

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (c. 1435-40)

Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (c. 1435-40)

Although the condition of this painting has deteriorated, it is one of Van der Weyden's most significant works, probably painted for the Brussels guild of painters - whose patron saint was Luke - in just the period when Van der Weyden moved to that city. The Gospel of Saint Luke covered Mary's life in some detail and therefore the saint came to be considered the first to portray her. This work may be the earliest known example to depict Saint Luke creating a portrait in the presence of his sacred models. He is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child in a richly appointed room, drawing with a metalpoint on a small sheet; beyond them is an enclosed garden, which alludes to Mary's virginity, and two small figures looking out over a parapet at the river lined with urban buildings. The scene underscores the humble, earthly nature of the figures; Mary has no halo or crown, but sits at the foot of the throne, embodying her humility, and breastfeeds the child to highlight their physical connection. The cityscape in the background consists of typical Flemish buildings, suggesting that the scene takes place in surroundings like the viewer's own.

Saint Luke is compositionally very similar to Jan van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c. 1435, Musée du Louvre, Paris), which was completed in virtually the same period. Presumably, Van der Weyden could have seen Van Eyck's panel in Bruges, before it was sent to Autun in Burgundy, Chancellor Rolin's hometown. Both scenes take place in similarly elegant rooms with tiled floors, tripartite doorways, and two background figures observing a river view. The similarities point to both the inspiration that Rogier seems to have drawn from Van Eyck's work and the innumerable variations he introduced to arrive at his own original composition.

The probable initial location of Van der Weyden's painting in the Brussels painters' guildhouse, or in their chapel in the Cathedral of Saint Gudule (where Van der Weyden was later buried) may account for the three close copies of the work (now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg; the Alte Pinakothek, Munich; and the Groenigemuseum, Bruges) that were made in later decades, as well as numerous repetitions or interpretations of individual figures, particularly that of the Madonna and Child. One example of a direct copy of the background cityscape and the two figures observing it can be found in a painting that dates to about 1500 by an unknown Brussels artist labelled the Master of the Embroidered Foliage (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA), demonstrating the long-lasting popularity of Rogier's composition and the persistence of workshop patterns and practices. The Boston Saint Luke is also likely to have been the work that Albrecht Dürer described as a "Sanct Lucas Tafel" (Saint Luke panel) when he saw it on his 1520 visit to Brussels, further demonstrating the international renown of the painting.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Rogier van der Weyden
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Movements & Ideas
Artists
  • Hans Memling
    Hans Memling
  • No image available
    Zanetto Bugatto
  • No image available
    Martin Schongauer
  • No image available
    Louis le Duc
  • No image available
    Vranck van der Stockt
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees

"Rogier van der Weyden Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
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First published on 23 Jan 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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