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Movements, Styles, and Tendencies Northern European Renaissance
Northern European Renaissance Collage

Northern European Renaissance

Started: 1430

Ended: 1580

Northern European Renaissance Timeline

Quotes

"And since geometry is the right foundation of all painting, I have decided to teach its rudiments and principles to all youngsters eager for art."
Albrecht Dürer
"As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art."
Albrecht Dürer
"Tangible piece of luminous matter, they confront us with a reconstruction rather than a mere representation of the visible world."
Jan van Eyck
"I do as I can."
Jan van Eyck
"And what is the potential man, after all? Is he not the sum of all that is human? Divine, in other words."
Hieronymus Bosch
"I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger."
Desiderius Erasmus

KEY ARTISTS

Jan van EyckJan van Eyck
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Hieronymus BoschHieronymus Bosch
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Albrecht DürerAlbrecht Dürer
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"I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men."

Albrecht Dürer

Synopsis

The Northern European Renaissance began around 1430 when artist Jan van Eyck began to borrow the Italian Renaissance techniques of linear perspective, naturalistic observation, and a realistic figurative approach for his paintings. As other artists from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Low Countries began to incorporate these influences into their own work, the Protestant Reformation stepped in with its backlash against Italy's lofty idealizations of beauty surrounding the Roman Catholic Church. The extreme iconoclasm changed the face of Northern Renaissance art, leading to works that were decidedly humble, presenting a more toned down view of everyday reality. Art was taken off its glorified pedestal that had previously been occupied by only the rich and powerful and made accessible to the new burgeoning merchant classes.

Key Ideas

The Protestant Reformation extolled the virtues of man's ability to maintain a direct connection with God without the medium of church bureaucracy or figurehead, but rather an independent relationship through prayer, divine literature, and artwork. Art that portrayed religious figures or scenes followed Protestant theology by depicting people and stories absent of idolization, so in a more realistic vein.
Rather than draw upon classical Greek and Roman aesthetics like their Italian counterparts, Northern European Renaissance artists retained a Gothic sensibility carried over from woodblock printing and illuminated manuscripts, noted for somber moods and darker psychological undertones.
The popularity of printmaking in Northern Europe at the time allowed images to be mass produced and widely available to the public. Thus, the Protestant church was able to bring their theology to the people through artist-created books, prints, engravings, and pamphlets on a large scale. This spurred a vast market for the creation and distribution of works by artists, who were considered in their own way, to be divine creators.
With the times' departure from idealized artworks, Northern European artists ingeniously spurred a slew of new genre paintings that emphasized common scenes and subjects with a more moralistic glance at modern existence. This included landscape, portrait, animal, still life, biblical narrative, and rural labor and everyday life paintings.

Most Important Art

Northern European Renaissance Famous Art

Ghent Altarpiece (1431)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
This renowned polyptych painted on both sides, creates a naturalistic divine world illustrating an epic swath of biblical narratives. The work's symbolic iconography is complex and mysterious. For instance, it is questioned whether the central figure in the upper panel who is raising two fingers in blessing is Christ as Divine King or God the Father. For Christ has already been alluded to as the lamb in the lower central panel, referencing the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, visible above him.

In the upper left panel, the Virgin Mary, her gaze upon the sacred book she holds, evokes both traditional depictions of the Annunciation and the era's Protestant emphasis that an individual can connect directly to God through the reading of sacred texts. This concept is again depicted in the upper panel where St. John the Evangelist looks toward Christ, raising his right hand, while holding an open book resting on his knee. At the far end of both wings, Adam and Eve are depicted nude, Adam's arms covering his body, while Eve partially shields herself while holding an apple in her right hand. They are almost sculptural, and their precisely rendered expressions and body language, inhabiting an empty and narrow black space, convey a sense of penitence. The two are separated from the central trio by panels that depict angels engaged in song on the left, and a group of angels gathered around one playing a harp on the right. The wing's lower left panels depict the Just Judges and the Knights of Christ. On the right, a group of pilgrims and hermits, led by St. Christopher, move toward the central image of the Christ lamb. In a wide green landscape, with mountains and city towers in the distance, the linear perspective draws all eyes toward the Lamb, as a multitude of people including notable religious figures, saints, angels, ancient philosophers, and scholars gather to worship. The image visually expresses "After this I beheld...a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindred, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb." The population and complexity of the painting is profound, and as art critic Noah Charney noted, "It's easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world's first major oil painting, and...It's almost an A to Z of Christianity - from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the "mystic lamb" on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail."

Both van Eyck brothers are credited with the work, as it's believed that Hubert initially designed the altarpiece, while Jan painted the panels and completed it. The mayor of Ghent Jodocus Vijd and Lysbette, his wife, commissioned the work for Saint Bavo Cathedral. The largest work in van Eyck's oeuvre, this is also the only work he created for a public audience.

Even though all of the religious imagery was widely drawn from tradition, it was profoundly innovative for its time due to van Eyck's masterly use of oil and realism, as seen in every detail right down to the pearls bedecking Mary's dress, each one a drop of grey with a single touch of white to create an iridescence. Van Eyck's precise observation is also evident in the singing angels, as musical scholars have been able to identify the note each angel is singing by the shape of the mouth. As Peter Schjeldahl, the contemporary art critic wrote, "His style is synthetic, a repertoire of finesses - some derived from manuscript illumination, which was then the most common mode of painting, and some from the advanced modeling of bodies and drapery found in the sculpture of the time...nothing beats the bristling inventiveness of the Ghent Altarpiece."

At the time the altarpiece was unveiled, it was hailed as not only a masterpiece, but also the singular work that epitomized the spirit and genius of Northern Europe. As a result of that status, the work has been stolen and recovered countless times. The panel on the lower left is a later copy, made to reproduce the stolen original, a theft still under investigation after decades.

Schjeldahl wrote, "Historically, it is a clutch of firsts: it represents the first really ambitious and consummate use of oil paint... and it marks the birth of realism as a guiding principle in European painting.... nothing that we know of anticipated the eloquence of van Eyck's glazes, which pool like liquid radiance across his pictures' smooth surfaces, trapping and releasing graded tones of light and shadow and effulgences of brilliant color."

Van Eyck's mastery of oil painting influenced Rogier van der Weyden and other Northern European artists of the era, as well as artists of the Italian Renaissance, and transformed subsequent Western art. The altarpiece has been referenced in movies and popular culture as seen in the book and movie The Monuments Men (2014).
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Northern European Renaissance Artworks in Focus:

Predecessors

The Italian Renaissance

The Mannerist Italian artist Giorgio Vasari first used the term rinascita, meaning rebirth, to define the Italian Renaissance in his The Lives of the Artists (1550). He saw the era as a rebirth of classical Greek and Roman aesthetics and ideals following the more staid Gothic era. However, the term "Renaissance" from the French came into widespread usage only following its first appearance in the historian Jules Michelet's Histoire de France (1855).

The artworks of the Italian Renaissance and the Northern European Renaissance were very different in style, subject matter, and visual sensibility. The Italian artists emphasized ultimate beauty in frescoes like Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512), paintings like Leonardo's Mona Lisa (1503-05/07) and Raphael's La Fornarina (1520), sculptures like Michelangelo's David (1501-1504), and architecture such as Bramante's Tempietto (1502). The overall effect was one of classical harmony and idealized form.

In contrast, Northern European artists emphasized realism. Developing the medium of oil paint, they created altarpieces and panel paintings for churches and chapels that reflected the more somber sensibility of the Protestant Reformation. Portraits focused not on beauty, but an authentic portrayal of the subject, with precise detail, objectively observed, that included its darker psychological elements. Instead of Greek and Roman art, Northern European artists drew upon the tradition of woodblock printing and manuscript illumination.

Illuminated Manuscripts and The Limbourgh Brothers

<i>Christ Enthroned</i> from <i>The Book of Kells</i> (c. 800) shows the bright color, gold framing of the composition, and intricate patterning from the Celtic tradition, that characterized the illuminated manuscripts of the era.
Christ Enthroned from The Book of Kells (c. 800) shows the bright color, gold framing of the composition, and intricate patterning from the Celtic tradition, that characterized the illuminated manuscripts of the era.

The International Gothic style of manuscript illumination represented the pinnacle of a long tradition. During the medieval period most books had been rare manuscripts, made by hand with vellum pages that contained brightly inked illustrations accentuated with gold and silver, which appeared "illuminated." Made by monks in scriptoriums, these manuscripts were primarily religious, including Bibles like the noted The Book of Durrow (650-700) or The Book of Kells (c. 800). Later volumes included bestiaries like The Westminster Abbey Bestiary (c. 1275-1290), drawing upon classical Greek and Biblical accounts of fantastic beasts, or books of prayer like The Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (c. 1324-1328).

The Limbourg brothers' <i>June</i> in the <i>Très riches heures du Duc de Berry</i> (c. 1412-1416) exemplifies the strong sense of spatial composition, brilliant color, and observation of ordinary life.
The Limbourg brothers' June in the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412-1416) exemplifies the strong sense of spatial composition, brilliant color, and observation of ordinary life.

The International Gothic style was exemplified by the Dutch miniaturist brothers Herman, Paul, and Johan Limbourg who became renowned for their Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1412-1416), an illuminated book of prayers to be said during the canonical hours. It was one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts made by known artists rather than monks. Scenes of contemporary life dominated the work of 130 illustrations, half of which were miniatures depicting scenes of court life, agricultural labor, and military expeditions, rendered in jewel-like colors.

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Northern European Renaissance Overview Continues

Robert Campin

<i>The Mérode Altarpiece</i>, (c. 1425-1428) first attributed to the Master of Flémalle, is now credited to Robert Campin and his workshop. The center panel depicts the Annunciation, Joseph engaged in carpentry on the right, and two patrons kneeling in the left panel.
The Mérode Altarpiece, (c. 1425-1428) first attributed to the Master of Flémalle, is now credited to Robert Campin and his workshop. The center panel depicts the Annunciation, Joseph engaged in carpentry on the right, and two patrons kneeling in the left panel.

Influenced by the Limbourg brothers, Robert Campin became the first noted master of Flemish painting. He pioneered the use of oil painting that characterized the North European Renaissance. Only a handful of works can be certainly attributed to him, as he seldom signed his work, a common practice in the Middle Ages. As subsequent scholarship has identified him as the Master of Flémalle, his masterwork is considered to be the Mérode Altarpiece (1427). Like most International Gothic artists, he primarily painted religious subjects but his contemporary settings depicting ordinary activities, simultaneously accurate in observation and symbolic in meaning, initiated the Renaissance approach. Rogier van der Weyden, an important artist, was first trained in his workshop.

Beginnings

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck's <i>Portrait of a Man</i> (1433), known commonly as <i>Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban</i>, is believed to be his self-portrait and the first instance of self-portraiture in oil. His motto is inscribed at the top of the frame, which he also made, saying the image is “United with its frame.”
Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man (1433), known commonly as Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, is believed to be his self-portrait and the first instance of self-portraiture in oil. His motto is inscribed at the top of the frame, which he also made, saying the image is “United with its frame.”

Jan van Eyck so mastered the virtuosity of oil painting that Giorgio Vasari was to erroneously credit him with the invention of the medium. Little is known of van Eyck's training or artistic background, as he first appears in records in 1422 as a painter for John III the Pitiless, ruler of Holland. We do know that Van Eyck was versed in Greek and Latin, the mark of the educated class. Subsequently, he became the court painter for Philip Duke of Burgundy until 1429. His pioneering masterpiece The Ghent Altarpiece (1431) launched the Renaissance in Northern Europe with its oil painting and realism. Subsequently he pioneered both self-portraiture with Portrait of a Man (1433) and portraiture with his The Arnolfini Portrait (1434). His technique and style influenced his contemporaries Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, and van der Weyden.

Jan van Eyck's signature in <i>The Arnolfini Portrait</i> (1434) is inscribed on the wall above the date and the convex mirror.
Jan van Eyck's signature in The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) is inscribed on the wall above the date and the convex mirror.

Van Eyck was the only 15th century Northern European artist to sign his works. He sometimes used the phrase "I Jan van Eyck was here," but more often used his motto "ALS IK KAN," meaning "As I can," a pun upon his name and the Dutch word for art. His motto, like that of the Italian Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti's, "A man can do all things if he will," reflected a distinctly Renaissance view of the artist as a divinely inspired genius.

The Printing Press and The Development of Print Making

A photograph of the <i>Gutenberg Bible</i> (1455) at the New York Public Library
A photograph of the Gutenberg Bible (1455) at the New York Public Library

With the advent of the printing press, invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1450, the idea of artists as inspired geniuses was proliferated. For the first time, sacred texts were accessible to any literate individual, and thinkers and artists could publish their own writing and artwork. Printing had a revolutionary impact on the era but particularly in Northern Europe. Gutenberg's Bible (1455), the first German version, made the sacred text widely available, and, though printed in Latin, translations into English and German followed in the 1520's. The new accessibility of the text corresponded with rising Protestant belief that an individual could have a personal relationship with God, without need of a mediating Pope or priest. Many of the first books were religious texts, and many of them were illustrated, leading a number of Northern artists to focus on print making for a more public audience. Artists began to make individual prints, and series of prints for the mass market, leading to an aesthetic independence of subject matter and style.

Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer's <i>Feast of the Rose Garlands</i> (1506) has been described by art historian Olga Kotková as “a very significant work of the European Renaissance...because it was born of the conjunction of two traditions: those of Germany...and of Venice.”
Albrecht Dürer's Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) has been described by art historian Olga Kotková as “a very significant work of the European Renaissance...because it was born of the conjunction of two traditions: those of Germany...and of Venice.”

Around 1500 knowledge of the Italian Renaissance began to have an impact on Northern European art, at first primarily through Albrecht Dürer, a master printmaker, engraver, draughtsman, and painter. Following a trip to Italy from 1494-1495, then 1505-1507, his work began to reflect a profound engagement with the philosophical and artistic currents of Renaissance Italy and Venice, as seen in his altarpiece Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506). He was heavily influenced by Venetian color and profoundly interested in Humanist philosophy, leading to a lifelong friendship with the German Humanist Conrad Celtis. He also corresponded with leading Italian painters such as Raphael.

Two pages from Albrecht Dürer's <i>Four Books of Human Proportion</i> (1532) show his scientific study that was based upon his belief that, “If you wish to make a beautiful human figure, it is necessary that you probe the nature and proportions of many people.”
Two pages from Albrecht Dürer's Four Books of Human Proportion (1532) show his scientific study that was based upon his belief that, “If you wish to make a beautiful human figure, it is necessary that you probe the nature and proportions of many people.”

Dürer's Four Books of Human Proportion (1532) and his work of geometric theory, Underweysung der Messung (1525), were the first such works by an artist from Northern Europe and included a scientific discussion of perspective.

Patronage of the Merchant Class

Unlike the Italian Renaissance where a few wealthy patrons, like the ruling Medici family in Florence or the Pope in Rome, commissioned most of the era's masterworks, the Northern Renaissance primarily produced art for a prosperous merchant class. As cities like Antwerp became commercial hub, prints, portraits, panel paintings, and even smaller altarpieces, all of which could be displayed in private homes, were much in demand. While some artists worked for a time for royal patrons, as seen in van Eyck's relationship with Philip the Duke of Burgundy, or Dürer's work for Frederick III of Saxony, they also derived much of their income from private patrons and a much broader public audience than the Italian artists.

The Protestant Reformation 1517

<i>Portrait of Martin Luther</i> by the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1532) shows the austere and powerful presence of the man whose thought dominated Northern Europe.
Portrait of Martin Luther by the Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1532) shows the austere and powerful presence of the man whose thought dominated Northern Europe.

The tenor of Northern European art, emphasizing humble life as Pieter Bruegel the Elder did, or showing the torment of Christ as Matthias Grünewald did, reflected the social and cultural currents of the time. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses, attacking the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, which sparked the Protestant Reformation in Germany. The Low Countries, now known as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, were ruled by the Catholic Hapsburg monarchy of Spain and roiled by religious conflict, waves of persecution, and iconoclasm's destruction of many noted, idealistic religious artworks, Artists negotiated the risks of the chaotic era with various strategies. Early ones like van Eyck and Dürer used complex iconography and ambiguous symbolism that could be variously interpreted while fitting within the prevailing religious atmosphere. Later artists of the era, like Hans Holbein the Younger, fled. In his case, he moved to England where he became the portraitist of Henry VIII's court. Cranach the Elder worked closely with the forces of the Reformation and turned away from his mythological subjects to religious topics and moral satires of contemporary life. His art, which pointed out the failings and flaws of human behavior, met with a favorable reception from both the Protestant public and the movement's leading thinkers.

Concepts and Trends

Humanism

Hans Holbein the Younger's <i>Portrait of Erasmus</i> (1523) depicts the Humanist scholar in his study in a portrait that conveys his intellectual presence.
Hans Holbein the Younger's Portrait of Erasmus (1523) depicts the Humanist scholar in his study in a portrait that conveys his intellectual presence.

Valuing classical Greek and Roman texts and emphasizing individual man's importance in the world on his own accord, Humanism was a dominant trend in Northern Europe. The new printing technology made possible the wide dissemination of works by leading thinkers such as the Dutch Desiderius Erasmus and the German Conrad Celtis.

A classical scholar and Catholic priest, Erasmus was known as the "Prince of the Humanists." His work was wide-ranging, including new translations from Greek and Latin of The New Testament (1516), a satirical look at religion in his In Praise of Folly (1511), and Adagia (1508), a compendium of Latin and Greek proverbs. His thinking on religious matters informed the Reformation, while at the same time, he essentially saw no conflict between being a Christian and a Humanist and followed an approach he called "the middle way" between faith and knowledge.

Hugo Bürkner's <i>Portrait of Conrad Celtis</i> (1854) shows his subject wearing a poet's laurel wreath on his hat with German insignia.
Hugo Bürkner's Portrait of Conrad Celtis (1854) shows his subject wearing a poet's laurel wreath on his hat with German insignia.

Conrad Celtis was a noted poet, scholar, and historian who widely promoted Humanist ideals for their own sake, without attempting to connect them to Christian ideals. His first major work was Germania Illustrata (1500), a poetic description of Germany that extolled the culture of his native land. His work was wide ranging, as he studied the natural sciences, lectured on poetry and rhetoric, founded a number of literary societies, and launched a college for mathematics and poetry. And he had a profound influence on Albrecht Dürer, a lifelong friend and working colleague.

Prints and Engravings

The genius of the Northern European Renaissance was most notably expressed in print-making. Drawing upon a Northern tradition of woodblock prints, and exploiting the new technology of the printing press, artists like Bruegel, Hans Holbein the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Albrecht Durer, created masterworks in the medium (each of these artists succeeded in masterly paintings as well).

Dürer's famous <i>The Four Horseman</i> (1498) is the third woodcut of his illustrations for <i>The Apocalypse</i> and was reproduced later in Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament (1522)
Dürer's famous The Four Horseman (1498) is the third woodcut of his illustrations for The Apocalypse and was reproduced later in Martin Luther's German translation of the New Testament (1522)

Dürer revolutionized the potential of print making as an independent medium for art, developing its dramatic and tonal capabilities, and exploring new imagery. His various series like The Apocalypse (1498) and the Large Woodcut Passion (c. 1497-1500), based on religious narratives, launched his fame throughout Europe. Subsequently, he made individual prints like Adam and Eve (1504) and series of images called his Meisterstiche (master engravings) that included prints such as Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513). As art historian Jacob Wisse noted of his prints, "Their technical virtuosity, intellectual scope, and psychological depth were unmatched by earlier printed work."

Bruegel the Elder's <i>Big Fish Eat Little Fish</i> (1557) is a haunting image depicting the Latin proverb, juxtaposing scenes from ordinary life, like the two fishermen in the boat, with the fanciful.
Bruegel the Elder's Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557) is a haunting image depicting the Latin proverb, juxtaposing scenes from ordinary life, like the two fishermen in the boat, with the fanciful.

Bruegel came from a family of four generations of print makers and artists, and from 1555 to 1562, worked primarily with At the Four Winds, an Antwerp publishing house. He designed engravings that often translated proverbs, morals, and parables into contemporary scenes, as seen in his Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557). Visual treatments of proverbs had been popular, dating back to early 15th century books of the hours. Often the interest in proverbs combined an appreciation of the common sense of the people of Northern Europe with moralistic purpose.

Hans Holbein the Younger's <i>The Rich Man</i> (before 1526) from <i>The Dance of Death</i> (1526) shows a wealthy man, trying vainly to bribe Death away.
Hans Holbein the Younger's The Rich Man (before 1526) from The Dance of Death (1526) shows a wealthy man, trying vainly to bribe Death away.

Han Holbein the Younger's work often served a moralistic purpose as well, as seen in his famous series of woodcuts, The Dance of Death (1526), depicting Death's arrival in various scenes where ordinary people are engaged in everyday activities. Such works were reminders of mortality, urging people to live a virtuous life.

Cranach the Elder, closely associated with the Protestant Reformation due to his close friendship with Martin Luther, created prints portraying Luther and his family, as well as other Protestant leaders. His other artwork often illustrated Protestant themes printed in pamphlets and distributed to proselytize the faith.

Portraits

Petrus Christus's <i>Portrait of a Young Girl</i> (c. 1470) was influential for innovatively depicting its subject with a three-dimensional realistic background.
Petrus Christus's Portrait of a Young Girl (c. 1470) was influential for innovatively depicting its subject with a three-dimensional realistic background.

Portraiture was an economic mainstay for many Northern European artists, and the mastery of oil painting allowed for artistic virtuosity, precise realism, and psychological portrayals (there is a reason why Willem de Kooning in the 20th century famously said "Flesh is the reason oil painting was invented"). Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Hans Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck, and Albrecht Dürer were all noted portraitists. The masterworks of Van Eyck and Dürer included self-portraits that became foundational to the form, in technique and sensibility. While Holbein the Younger and Cranach the Elder made iconic portraits of the notable leaders of the day, Holbein portrayed the English court, and Cranach the leaders of the Reformation. Christus created portraits like his Portrait of a Carthusian (1446), showing an anonymous monk, and his Isabel of Portugal with St. Elizabeth (1457-60), as well as Portrait of a Young Girl (c. 1470). Rogier van den Weyden's portraits like his Portrait of a Woman (1460) were noted for their sculpted facial features and realistic expression.

Altarpieces

Jan van Eyck's <i>Dresden Triptych</i> (1437) includes a scene of the Annunciation done in grisaille on the outer side of the winged panels.
Jan van Eyck's Dresden Triptych (1437) includes a scene of the Annunciation done in grisaille on the outer side of the winged panels.

The religious masterpieces of the Northern European Renaissance were altarpieces, created in a multiple-panel format of which the side panels could be folded inward for preservation and portability. Artists including Hans Baldung Grien, Dierec Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, and Matthias Grunewald did their most noted works in the format. Most of these works were commissioned for or by monasteries or churches. But many members of the prosperous merchant class and private individuals also commissioned the works such as Jan van Eyck's Dresden Triptych (1437). In some altarpieces, portraits of the donors were also included, as seen in Hugo van der Goes's Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1475), Portrait of Tommaso Portinari c 1470), and Portrait of Maria Portinari, (c. 1470-72). The Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch would draw inspiration from these early altarpieces in his triptychs.

The Invention of New Genres

Albrecht Dürer's woodcut <i>The Rhinoceros</i> (1515) became the iconic image of a rhinoceros for the next four centuries, influencing countless artists, including Salvador Dali. T.H. Clarke, the art historian, recorded “probably no animal picture has exerted such a profound influence on the arts.”
Albrecht Dürer's woodcut The Rhinoceros (1515) became the iconic image of a rhinoceros for the next four centuries, influencing countless artists, including Salvador Dali. T.H. Clarke, the art historian, recorded “probably no animal picture has exerted such a profound influence on the arts.”

The Northern European Renaissance was responsible for introducing various new genres that would become long lasting motifs in Western art. Joachim Patinir pioneered the celebration of landscape in works like Flight into Egypt (1516-1517), a genre that Bruegel further developed in works like Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565). Bruegel also developed the genre of depicting rural life as seen in The Peasant Dance (1568), a signature subject that led him to be dubbed "peasant Bruegel" for his accurate portrayals of village existence. Albrecht Dürer's The Large Piece of Turf (1503) informed the development of still life painting. He also pioneered the genre of depicting animals as seen in his watercolor Hare (1502), or his woodcut The Rhinoceros (1515).

Later Developments

The Northern European Renaissance ended around 1580, primarily due to the outbreak of the Eighty Years War in 1568 as the Lowland countries fought for independence and religious freedom from the Spanish Hapsburg government. It might also be said that the heart of the movement stopped when Pieter Bruegel the Elder died in 1569. The war lasted until 1648, ending with the recognition of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg as independent countries.

In the subsequent Dutch Golden Age Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Johannes Vermeer drew upon the inspiration, techniques, and genres of the Northern European Renaissance in both oil painting and printmaking.

Additionally, each Northern European Renaissance artist went on to have a long-lasting influence. Matthias Grünewald's work influenced the Expressionists and Neo-Objectivists like Otto Dix and Georges Grosz, as well as Pablo Picasso, and the Surrealist Max Ernst. Jan van Eyck was foundational to the works of the Pre-Raphaelism, as Hieronymous Bosch's work was to the Surrealists like Salvador Dali and Joan Miró. Hans Holbein the Younger's portraiture influenced Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and British portraiture beginning in the 1700s. Bruegel's peasant genre launched the painting of everyday life as a trend in Western art, found in the subsequent movements of Realism (and the many strands of it to this day), Naturalism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism, to name a few.

The innovations of the Northern European Renaissance so informed Western art, that art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, referencing the realism and self-staging of Dürer and van Eyck and the idiosyncratic vision of Bruegel and Bosch, has argued (rather boldly) that they, rather than the Italian Renaissance artists, laid the groundwork for modern art.


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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

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