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Rogier van der Weyden Photo

Rogier van der Weyden - Biography and Legacy

Flemish Painter

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

Biography of Rogier van der Weyden

Childhood and Early Training

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.

In the mid-1420s, Van der Weyden began his training as an artist by entering the workshop of Robert Campin, one of the most prominent artists in Tournai and dean of the painters' guild. Van der Weyden probably worked as Campin's assistant for several years before he was officially registered as an apprentice in 1427, an event that likely occurred (as scholar Dirk de Vos proposes) because of new regulations in the Tournai painters' guild that required artists to be officially registered as apprentices before they could become independent practitioners.

It is possible that Van der Weyden also gained a university education, as on November 17, 1426 he was honored by the city of Tournai as "Maistre (Master) Rogier de la Pasture." The title "master" was granted only rarely to artists, indicating not that they had completed their apprenticeship, but rather that they had achieved some other distinction, which is not clearly defined but may have reflected university studies. The sophistication of his compositions and iconography might also indicate that he gained an academic title.

In 1426, he married Elisabeth Goffaert, the daughter of a Brussels shoemaker. The couple went on to have four children: son Cornelis (b. 1427) who became a Carthusian monk; daughter Margaretha (b. 1432); son Pieter (b. 1437) who went on to become a painter; and son Jan (b. 1438), who became a goldsmith.

A contemporary view of the city of Tournai (in modern-day Belgium), Van der Weyden's hometown.

For much of the 1420s, Tournai experienced political and social upheaval, as power shifted between civic government, the French king, and the Burgundian dukes. Although Van der Weyden seems not to have been present at the sale of his father's house on his death in 1426, Dirk de Vos notes that it is nonetheless likely he was in Tournai throughout this period.

Van der Weyden became an independent master of the Tournai guild on August 1, 1432, having completed the requisite four years as a registered apprentice. He was also probably prompted by his master Robert Campin being sanctioned by the guild and his workshop forbidden for a time from taking on new commissions. Two small panels picturing the Virgin and Child in a Niche (c. 1425-30, Museo Thyssen-Bornemizsa, Madrid) and Saint George and the Dragon (c. 1425-30, National Gallery, Washington) are among the earliest works that may be attributed to Rogier, made while he was still in Campin's workshop. He continued to produce paintings in Tournai, including the celebrated Descent from the Cross (c. 1430-35, Museo del Prado, Madrid), and also polychromed sculptures and painted architectural elements for churches.

From Campin, Van der Weyden learned skills in the detailed realism seen in his earliest paintings. Both artists were interested in meticulous observation and in finding a balance between surfaces, volumes, and pictorial space, but stylistic distinctions are complicated by the collective nature of workshop practice, and by an ongoing lack of agreement among art historians over the constitution of Campin's oeuvre, and whether it can be equated with the output of an artist sometimes designated as the "Master of Flémalle."

During his time in Tournai, Van der Weyden probably also met painter Jan van Eyck, who visited the city and attended a reception held by the painters' guild in 1427, possibly as the guest of honor. As two of the most celebrated artists of their time, they must have known and appreciated each other's work throughout their careers.

Mature Period

<i>Jean Wauquelin Presenting his Chroniques de Hainaut to Phillip the Good</i> (c. 1447, Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels) is Van der Weyden's only known miniature painting, made in tempera on parchment. It shows the Duke of Burgundy receiving from its author the very book in which this image appears and includes portraits of Phillip and other identifiable court members, exemplifying the kinds of patrons for whom Rogier worked.

By late 1435, Van der Weyden had moved to Brussels, the new capital of the Burgundian state. He was likely drawn there by a special commission he received to paint four large-scale works in the Brussels City Hall. From then on, aside from a few return visits to Tournai, Van der Weyden's principal residence and workshop was in Brussels, on the "Golden Street" near Coudenberg Palace, the residence of the Duke of Burgundy. In March 1436, he was mentioned as the "Painter to the City of Brussels," a position that seems to have been created especially for him around the time of his move. It is at this time that he adopted the Flemish version of his name. His Brussels workshop was large, and he likely had several assistants there, including his son Pieter (who took over the workshop when his father died) and his nephew Louis le Duc.

The commission for the City Hall consisted of four huge paintings that combined measured some 65 feet (20 meters) wide. The scenes depicted the Legends of Trajan and Herkinbald, historical examples of the administration of justice, and were placed in the "Golden Chamber" of the City Hall. Numerous commentators, including Albrecht Dürer and Giorgio Vasari, praised the panels' skill, and they are the only works the artist is known to have signed. Unfortunately, the building and its contents were destroyed in the bombardment of Brussels in 1695, during the Nine Years' War between France and a group of European powers, although a partial copy in tapestry of the works (made in the 1450s and now in the historical museum in Bern, Switzerland) retains some sense of their content and style. Rogier's work on these panels must have occupied much of his time in the 1440s; only about ten other known surviving works date to this decade, although his workshop assistants probably produced others. Thanks to his growing wealth and status, he was able to give to the poor, donate a large altarpiece to the Carthusian monastery at Scheut, outside Brussels, and hold an administrative position for a time at a charitable foundation.

Late Period

In the final decades of his life, Van der Weyden painted a number of portraits of European nobility, including this <i>Portrait of a Lady</i> (1460, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC).

Documents suggest that in the Holy Year of 1450 declared by Pope Nicholas V (the same year that his daughter Margaret passed away), Van der Weyden traveled through Italy to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Along the way he encountered Italian artists and patrons, including the Este family of Ferrara and the Medici family of Florence, both of whom commissioned works from him. In June 1455 he received another important commission, for a triptych for the high altar of a church in Cambrai, a town south of Tournai. Despite a number of documentary details, the subject of the paintings is not known, and they cannot be connected with any currently known works. Most of his portraits date to this later period, and often take the form of a devotional diptych - a format he is credited with inventing - consisting of the patron facing a depiction of the Virgin and Child. He continued to work on a variety of projects, from polychroming sculptures to advising the Duke of Burgundy, and his renown continued to grow. This is demonstrated by such examples as the request in about 1460 by Bianca Maria Visconti, Duchess of Milan, to have her court painter go to Brussels to apprentice with Van der Weyden, which he accepted.

Van der Weyden died on June 18, 1464 in Brussels and was buried in the Chapel of Saint Catherine in the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudule. The epitaph on his gravestone described him as "Master Rogier, the famous painter... So skilled were you at rendering the shape of things, Brussels mourns over your death..." and the painters' guilds of both Brussels and Tournai held memorial services for him.

The Legacy of Rogier van der Weyden

The Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudule, where Rogier van der Weyden is buried

Rogier van der Weyden was one of the most influential artists of his time, along with his master, Robert Campin, and Jan van Eyck. These three painters shaped Northern Renaissance art most notably through the close observation and meticulously detailed representation of human figures and their surroundings. "In Flanders," Michelangelo is reported to have commented of his predecessors, "they paint with a view to external exactness... They paint fabric and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges..." This attention to external appearances also heighted the realism of their works and amplified viewers' emotional responses to it.

Van der Weyden's compositions and style held great influence over successive generations of Flemish painters, including Petrus Christus, Dieric Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. His direct legacy was partly the result of his large and busy workshop, in which he trained other artists (most of them unknown) and developed drawings and model books that were reused to produce new paintings. While the only documented apprentice was the court painter to the Duchess of Milan, Zanetto Bugatto, Memling must also have spent time in Van der Weyden's workshop. Memling adapted many of Van der Weyden's compositions into his own interpretations, and his idealized, graceful figures, and dignified portraits also appear to draw inspiration from Van der Weyden's work. Study of the underdrawings in Memling's early work has revealed that he initially approached drawing in a similar manner to Van der Weyden. Memling also became well known for devotional diptychs that placed the praying patron alongside the image of the Virgin and Child.

Hans Memling, who was likely a student or assistant of Van der Weyden, adapted Van der Weyden's devotional diptych format, which pictures the donor on one panel, praying to the Virgin Mary and Christ child on the other, as in this <i>Diptych of Maarten Nieuwenhove</i> (1487, Memling Museum, Bruges).

Van der Weyden's influence also reached further, to Italy, Spain, Germany, and France. German painter and engraver Martin Schongauer was inspired by Van der Weyden's compositions and figure types in the later 15th century, and Dürer sought to view his works during a trip through the Netherlands in 1520-21. Van der Weyden's innovative iconographic motifs, from Mary holding the Christ Child or mourning his death to the depiction of patrons in direct contact with sacred figures, were widely copied and emulated by later artists.

Van der Weyden remains a reference point for contemporary artists such as Bill Viola, who has cited the Descent from the Cross as a source for his own work in video. Viola's 2003 exhibition The Passions focused on the depiction of emotions through expression and gesture and included video portrait diptychs that clearly recall Van der Weyden's work. Viola's use of figures that initially appear to be still photographs but are in fact recorded in very slow motion also seems to echo Van der Weyden's exploration of the boundaries between painted images, sculpture, and staged tableaux vivants. Other contemporary artists who draw inspiration from Old Master paintings and similarly explore realism and the boundaries between two-dimensional and three-dimensional art include Titus Kaphar, who often adds to or cuts through the surface of his paintings, and Kehinde Wiley, some of whose paintings emulate the work of Northern Renaissance artists.

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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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