National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Netherlandish Painting in the 1400s

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The works on this tour were produced by artists from France, Germany, and the Low Countries between about 1400 and 1550, years when the culture of early modern Europe emerged from the social, political, and religious orientation of the Middle Ages. This period witnessed the development of capitalism, the rise of nation states, and the Protestant Reformation.

By 1400 Europe's population, devastated by plague and warfare in the preceding century, began to rebound. Much of the growth came in cities and towns, where a money economy produced an entirely new middle class of bankers, merchants, and skilled artisans who were increasingly well educated and receptive to new ideas. In the universities, philosophical nominalism, which held that the particulars of sensory experience are more "real" than abstract ideals, focused attention on man and the natural world. Soon the boundaries of that world were expanded by exploration. The pace of change was accelerated by the invention of movable type in the mid-1400s. More books were printed in the forty years before 1500 than had been produced during the entire Middle Ages.

Oil Painting in the Netherlands

Other developments revolutionized painting. A new market was created by the middle class for small versions of the painted panels found in church altarpieces for use in private devotions at home. Except for portraits, painting on panel had not previously commanded the same prestige among royal patrons as the more sumptuous arts of tapestry weaving and manuscript illumination. At this time, however, artists reproduced the domestic settings and cherished possessions of a new clientele. They did so with a meticulous eye narrowly focused on detail. And they used a new technique, oil painting. The introduction of oil paints in northern Europe, not invented but perhaps perfected by Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, allowed artists to build up layer after careful layer of translucent glazes, blending color and reflecting light to mimic appearances in a way not possible with the flat, opaque colors of quick-drying tempera paints. The realistic manner of these early Netherlandish artists soon replaced the artificial delicacy of the so-called International Style, which had dominated late Gothic art all across Europe.

The realism of these new paintings increased the viewers' sense that the scenes they witnessed were continuous with their own experience. In religious painting, whether on church altarpieces or private devotional panels, it prompted an empathetic, often emotional response that allowed viewers to share in the suffering of Christ and drew them into the same sphere as the Virgin and saints. These intimate images appealed to the direct and personal religious experience stressed in late medieval piety. In the Low Countries particularly, where this so-called devotio moderna (modern devotion) was centered, laymen and women joined religious confraternities to emulate Jesus in their everyday lives, influenced by such devotional literature as Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ.

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