National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Antwerp in the Early 1500s

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At the beginning of the sixteenth century, artists from all over northern Europe were drawn to the booming prosperity of Antwerp, in modern Belgium. With the silting up of the harbor in neighboring Bruges and new alliances that brought the English cloth and Portuguese spice trades into the city, Antwerp became the mercantile hub of Europe, where goods from the East, the New World, and the Old World changed hands. The city's cosmopolitan population, wealthy as well as diverse, was a magnet for artists and encouraged experimentation. Painters were little constrained by tradition, since Antwerp had never before attracted important artists. To satisfy their patrons' varied tastes, painters explored new subjects and worked in many different styles, sometimes self-consciously borrowing from the past, at other times taking new inspiration from Renaissance Italy.

The art and humanistic outlook of the Renaissance was imported to the north through travel, printed books, and published prints. Antwerp painter Jan Gossaert accompanied a diplomatic mission to Rome in 1508. He was probably the first artist from the Netherlands to go there. Others soon followed, taking home sketchbooks filled with their drawings of Rome's ancient monuments and the works of Italy's greatest artists. In Antwerp and elsewhere, artists began to adapt the poses of antique statues in their paintings, giving their figures more robust physiques and sculpted muscle. They incorporated ruins and ancient architectural motifs, sometimes in purely fanciful and ambiguous forms, but they continued to paint these new compositions with the same minutely detailed manner of earlier Netherlandish painting. In blending these elements from north and south, they created a unique, eclectic style.

New Subjects: Moralizing and Landscape Scenes

Painters also began to treat new subjects. Men like Quentin Massys, for example, played an active role in the intellectual life of their cities and began to mirror the ethical concerns expressed by humanist thinkers with new paintings that used secular scenes to impart moralizing messages. Vivid tableaux warned against gambling, lust, and other vices.

Artists were also attracted for the first time to landscape painting. Its appearance coincided with exploration and a rekindled interest in mapmaking and geography. Although some earlier artists had turned particular skill and attention to their outdoor settings, the first painter we know of to specialize in landscape was Joachim Patinir, in Antwerp. he created something new and distinctly northern that nonetheless became greatly popular and influential in Italy and the rest of Europe. These works, usually called "world landscapes," often had religious themes, but the figures are diminished in scale and importance. They are dominated by the vastness around them and are glimpsed as if from a high vantage point. The unfolding panorama embraces, with craggy mountains and tidy towns, both the wild and civilized worlds. A wealth of detail invites the viewer to inspect these pictures at close range, to travel through them with the eyes.


1426Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ
1431Joan of Arc burned at stake
1441death of Jan van Eyck
1453Guttenburg prints the 42-line Bible
Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks
1464death of Rogier van der Weyden
1465first printed music appears
1477the Netherlands come under Hapsburg control
1479marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella unites Spain
1495printer Aldus Manutius begins publication of a series of Greek authors
1507a German cartographer first proposes the name "America"
1516death of Hieronymus Bosch
Erasmus' Greek and Latin New Testament
1517Luther's posting of Ninety-Five Theses at Wittenburg launches Protestant Reformation
1519Magellan begins circumnavigation of the globe
1528death of Albrecht Dürer
1532Rabelais begins publishing Gargantua and
1534Henry VIII declares independent Church of England
1543Vesalius publishes revolutionary book on human anatomy
1544Sebastien Münster's atlas Cosmographia generalis
1545Catholic church convenes Council of Trent to meet the Protestant challenge
1555Peace of Augsburg divides Germany between Lutheran and Catholic states
1566Protestant iconoclasts smash religious images in the Netherlands
1569death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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