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Renaissance Art
Renaissance Art
📖 eBook - ePub

Renaissance Art

A Beginner's Guide

Tom Nichols

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📖 eBook - ePub

Renaissance Art

A Beginner's Guide

Tom Nichols

About This Book

The 15th century saw the evolution of a distinct and powerfully influential European culture. But what does the familiar phrase "Renaissance Art” actually describe? Through engaging discussion of timeless works by artists such as Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, Nichols produces a masterpiece of his own as he explores the truly original and diverse character of the artistic Renaissance. Tom Nichols is a lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Aberdeen, UK.

Information

Year
2012
ISBN
9781780741789

1

Realism and religion: early Renaissance art in Flanders

There are good reasons for beginning a discussion of the Renaissance with the art of Flanders. After all, it was here in the lowlands of north-west Europe that one of the main features of Renaissance art first became established: the close imitation of nature. From around the second decade of the fifteenth century onwards, Flemish paintings began to look very lifelike, featuring believable figures in settings that refer directly to the realities of life at the time. Such a move marked a clear turn away from the more otherworldly appearances typical of the Gothic style that had dominated throughout Europe in the preceding centuries (see box on this page).
If extraordinary lifelikeness was a central feature of much Renaissance art, so too was experimentation with artistic media and techniques. The Flemish artists discussed in this chapter used oil paint: this was particularly well suited to giving an effect of reality, and was soon to become the favoured Renaissance medium among painters. At the same time, a work such as the Arnolfini portrait (plate 1) by Jan van Eyck (before 1395–1441) is a secular painting: it is an early example of the non-religious art that gained a new foothold in the course of the Renaissance. It also provides an opportunity to consider another key Renaissance theme: the rising social status and fame of the artist.
GOTHIC STYLE
The Gothic style in art was predominant across much of medieval Europe from the mid-twelfth century onwards. In church architecture, it was characterised by strong verticals, the use of pointed arches, and elaborate decorative elements (e.g. tracery and finials). The term is also commonly used to describe paintings and sculptures in which a decorative approach is dominant over the imitation of nature. Gothic works do not attempt to give a consistent illusion of space and feature elongated, sinuous, and flattened forms. Surfaces are ornately worked and richly coloured, often using gold leaf. From the fourteenth century onwards the essential unreality of the Gothic style intensified further in exquisite works by artists such as Jehan Pucelle (c. 1300–c. 1350) and the Limburg brothers (c. 1390–1416), whose tiny miniature paintings on manuscripts possess a delicate refinement that reflects the elite culture of the Franco-Flemish courts. The word ‘Gothic’ was initially used as a term of abuse by Italian Renaissance artists who associated it with the ‘barbaric’ north European tribe of the Goths who had destroyed the Roman Empire and its classical art. But, as we shall see, the Gothic did not simply die out with the coming of the Renaissance. The two styles often overlapped and were not so opposed as it appears.
But if all this suggests a sharp break from the medieval past, Flemish realism was also underpinned by religious symbolism that linked it to older sacred values. The Renaissance did not, as is sometimes assumed, involve a simple move away from the religiosity of the middle ages, and Christianity remained a dominant force throughout the period. Examination of large-scale altarpieces by van Eyck’s followers Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–64) and Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482) will show that art continued to form the focus of public prayer in Flemish churches or chapels, as it had for many centuries all across Europe.
The superb realism of these works was clearly intended to intensify rather than disrupt on-going Christian devotions. Despite their familiar subject-matter, drawing on well-known figures or stories from the Bible, these religious paintings were intensely ‘site-specific’. That is, they were thought out with the values and aspirations of their patrons and viewing audience in mind, and were intended to respond to their specific settings. The particularities of place, patronage and viewing audience remained important in the Renaissance. But these considerations did not stand in the way of artistic innovation. Indeed, a new concern with making artworks look different from one another developed in Flanders, as elsewhere, such that by the end of the fifteenth century many works of art had taken on a unique appearance.
The impact of oils
In van Eyck’s portrait a lavishly dressed young couple are shown in full length, standing in what may be their bedroom. Unlike the odd elongated and flattened figures in paintings from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they are presented as lifelike individuals in recognisable everyday surroundings. When looking at the painting we completely forget that it is a flat object, so convincing is the illusion of three-dimensionality. The effect of reality is all the more astonishing given that it is conjured out of the fall of light through the window at the background left. We cannot see everything equally in the room: some things are half hidden by pools of shadow (the man’s feet, for example); and at a distance they have a tendency to lose their precise outline (the view reflected in the mirror).
Key to this approach is van Eyck’s use of linseed oil to mix his paint pigments. The impact of the given medium used in a Renaissance artwork on its final appearance should not be under-estimated. In the case of van Eyck, it was oil paint that allowed him to create so convincing an illusion of reality. Before him, most painters in Flanders and elsewhere in Europe had used egg tempera to bind their pigments together. Tempera painting was characterised by unnaturally bright and opaque local colours, and was typically used in combination with flat gold-leaf backgrounds, often applied by specialist gilders. Oil paint was a comparatively cheap and easy medium to use, and this may have encouraged van Eyck to abandon gold leaf. It was also slow-drying, allowing van Eyck to be more spontaneous as he worked. Given its translucency, colours could be built up in layers and blended into one another to give an accurate impression of the textures of objects, and of the variety of tones produced when light strikes them.
Our eyes can’t help but take in the subtle tones enlivening surfaces such as the back wall of the room, and objects such as the glinting rosary beads hanging next to the mirror, the elaborate chandelier, the lavish drapes of the bed, or the ornate gatherings of the woman’s fur-lined sleeve. Van Eyck’s oil technique makes us aware that natural appearances are always dependent on interaction between surfaces and ever-shifting patterns of light. In his painting, things such as a wall, some beads, a bed, or a sleeve are linked to living beings by these means. The same play of tones across a surface brings the male sitter’s face alive, and animates the being of the little dog, which (unlike the man and woman) boldly catches our eye. It would be wrong to assume that van Eyck actually invented oil painting. But though oil had often been used before, there is no doubt that he was the first to understand its potential to bring painting very close to the appearance of real life.
The rise of portraiture and the Flemish towns
Other works from the time of the Arnolfini painting tell us that van Eyck was not the only artist to turn to portrait painting in Flanders. The elusive Robert Campin (also known as the ‘Master of Flémalle’, 1378/9–1444), who worked in the town of Tournai, made a number of penetrating individualised portraits, as did his pupil Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels. Although portraits were certainly made in earlier centuries, the type became newly fashionable as the fifteenth century progressed.
The Arnolfini portrait features two historical persons, even if it is now unclear who they are. According to one theory, the painting shows Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami getting married, with the artist himself as a witness. The inscription on the rear wall of the room, perhaps deliberately written in a legalistic hand, and featuring the words ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ (Jan van Eyck was here 1434), is taken as evidence for this reading. So too is the ‘self-portrait’ of the artist that can be glimpsed in the reflection of the mirror. But there are no other examples of double portrait paintings being used as marriage documents in the period, and a document discovered in 1997 reveals that Giovanni di Arrigo and Giovanna Cenami did not marry until 1447, thirteen years after van Eyck’s painting, and six after his death.
Early inventories tell us that members of the Arnolfini are depicted, so the search is on to find other possibilities within the family. The male sitter has been re-identified as Giovanni di Nicolao, a cousin of the original Giovanni, who also traded in Bruges at this time. According to one recent scholar, Giovanni di Nicolao is shown with his wife Costanza Trenta, who had died in 1433. Van Eyck had already made a memorial portrait showing a dead sculptor or musician. But given the lack of overt references to death (for instance in the form of black clothing, or an explanatory inscription), it is more likely that Giovanni di Nicolao is shown with a second, though undocumented, wife.
Whoever is depicted in the Arnolfini portrait, it is clear that the painting lays much emphasis on the individuals shown, and this became an important Renaissance theme in European art (see plates 5 and 6). It is true that individuals have always existed everywhere, and that they were highly valued in many other societies. But it is also clear that in the Renaissance, a new emphasis was laid on the particulars of human appearance, as also on personality. What wider economic and social developments lie behind this new interest, and why did the new taste for portraits develop so strongly in the towns of early fifteenth-century Flanders?
By this time, the well-connected and accessible trading region of Flanders had become one of the most densely urbanised and economically vibrant parts of Europe. Bruges was the continent’s largest city and also one of its most socially progressive. It was an entrepôt, whose wealth was based on the export of woven wool, but which was also the centre of a fast-growing international market in luxury goods. In van Eyck’s portrait there is a careful display of the kind of high-quality manufactured goods on which the wealth of Bruges was based, although it is telling that not all the objects shown were locally produced. The convex mirror with ten inlaid roundels and the elaborate bronze chandelier may be Flemish, but the richly patterned woven rug is probably an import from Anatolia in Turkey.
The prominence of foreign families such as the Arnolfini was itself a reflection of the special position of Bruges as a centre of international trade. The family were Italian merchants from Lucca in Tuscany and this Mediterranean origin, with its whiff of exoticism, is neatly indicated by the oranges placed on the bench to the left of the painting, a luxury southern fruit not readily available in 1430s Bruges. But this internationalism should not confuse our perception of a link between the realistic Renaissance style used in van Eyck’s portrait, and the new urban and mercantile classes of the towns. The creation of such a portrait reflects the rise of a new social class, whose money came not from inheritance, land, or military conquest, like that of the feudal aristocracy of the medieval period, but from trade.
The rise of towns such as Bruges also offered leading inhabitants a new kind of social mobility and freedom. In the more fluid and culturally mixed market-based societies of Lowland Flanders individual people now had more opportunity to fashion themselves. This newfound freedom lies behind the growing taste for personalised painted portraits. Prominent individuals increasingly took the opportunity to shape their identities for the benefit of families, friends, competitors – and themselves.
The changing status of the Renaissance artist
In 1425, Jan van Eyck was appointed court painter to the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, one of the wealthiest rulers in northern Europe. Van Eyck’s employment at the prestigious Burgundian court, whose sphere of influence stretched from southern central France to the borders of Denmark, indicates that he enjoyed a very high professional profile. This is also evident in the Arnolfini portrait, where the artist makes two references to himself. In the first place he includes a signature. This is not at all untypical in works of the Renaissance. Van Eyck usually placed them on the frames of his paintings. In this example, however, the signature is positioned at the upper centre directly between the two sitters. Its flamboyant Gothic script is enlarged so that it presses forward from the back wall toward the picture surface. The wording boldly suggests the artist’s creative presence in his work: ‘Van Eyck was here’ indicates his role, not as witness to a wedding, but rather as the proud inventor of a new kind of picture.
Van Eyck referred to himself again as the male figure in blue glimpsed in the mirror. Setting aside the marriage theory, the artist’s double self-inscription within his painting is a sign of his own high professional status and fame. We must be careful here, for it is clear that such references are not allowed to disturb the visual dominance of the patron figures at the front of the image: his self-portrait is little more than a tiny reflected blur. And artists’ signatures in Renaissance paintings were as likely to be included as commercial-style trademarks. But van Eyck’s self-references none the less challenge a common assumption held in the medieval period: that it was the rich and socially prominent patrons, rather than the makers, who were finally responsible for them. They announce the arrival of the more confident and professionally ambitious figure of the Renaissance artist.
Van Eyck’s decorous yet insistent references to himself in the Arnolfini portrait reflect the rising professional and social profile of visual artists in the fifteenth century. Paintings, like many other artworks, had long been made in workshops, typically located in lower-class areas of town, often near to the chemists’ shops where painters purchased their pigments. In these workshops, teams of artisan artists and their apprentices typically worked in collaboration with one another, and with craftsmen such as gilders and carpenters (see figure 8 below, for example). Because artists worked with their hands their art was widely seen as nonintellectual (the term used was ‘mechanical’). Like other artisans, visual artists were apprenticed to their trade as young as ten or eleven, and so did not go to school or university. Painting and the other visual arts were not taught at school or in the universities, where the curriculum was based on non-practical, typically language-based, disciplines (the so-called Liberal Arts) first established in classical times.
Van Eyck was not the first artist to enjoy an elite position at a leading court and an international reputation. And we have seen that the Arnolfini portrait, like many other of his works, was not made for the Burgundian court. But his elevated professional position clearly had an impact on the kind of progressive paintings he made. He won renown as a uniquely creative individual whose paintings were seen as extraordinary and unprecedented inventions of high cultural (and probably monetary) value. Like many other Renaissance artists, he often seems to draw attention to this new valuation within his works, reflecting on the nature of his craft within the painting itself. In the Arnolfini portrait, his elaborate signature is placed close to the mirror in which his self-portrait is glimpsed. The idea that painting itself was like a mirror in its capacity to imitate reality was becoming a commonplace in the period.
Renaissance art: north and south
We need to ask: what features make van Eyck’s portrait typical of the Flemish or ‘Early Netherlandish’ school, as it is sometimes called? We can get at an answer by comparing it briefly with similar works made in Italy in this period. Portraiture did emerge as an important image type south of the Alps, though nothing comparable with the visual directness of van Eyck’s painting appeared until much later in the fifteenth century. The painter’s Lucchese patrons may have been attracted to van Eyck precisely because his style seemed novel, so very unlike what they could have expected at home. In Italy during the 1430s and 40s bronze medals featuring profile heads of aristocratic leaders appeared, and in Florence the first sculpted portrait busts were made. But these works are ‘classicising’, deliberately recalling the artistic models of antique Rome.
In van Eyck’s paintings, the turn toward portraiture reflects a more direct concern with the world of immediate visual reality, essentially free from the influence of antique examples. And this direct interest in nature must be one reason why Flemish artists were quicker to exploit the illusionistic potential of oil paint. This leads us to another important characteristic of northern European art more generally: its very equal treatment of the things it shows. Following the example of the ancients, Italian Renaissance artists learnt quickly how to focus their attention on the human figure at the expense of the ‘lesser’ forms of nature, such as settings, landscapes, or inanimate objects. But in van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait our concentration on the figures is challenged by the equal attention lavished on architectural frames, ornate mouldings, or piles of lush draperies. This ‘allover’ effect was destined to have a long history in the art of northern Europe.
Looking at the Arnolfini portrait we notice that the two figures are not depicted with quite so much directness as the room they occupy. The presentation of the woman, in particular, with her white skin, high waist, and small oval head, still owes something to the Gothic style (see box on this page). And this kind of split between figure and setting was not unusual in Flemish art of the fifteenth century. If, in Italian art of the period, human figures were increasingly remodelled to look like ancient sculptures, in the north they retained a more traditional look, even as their settings were brought up to date. Thi...

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APA 6 Citation
Nichols, T. (2012). Renaissance Art ([edition unavailable]). Oneworld Publications. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/950294/renaissance-art-a-beginners-guide-pdf (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Nichols, Tom. (2012) 2012. Renaissance Art. [Edition unavailable]. Oneworld Publications. https://www.perlego.com/book/950294/renaissance-art-a-beginners-guide-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Nichols, T. (2012) Renaissance Art. [edition unavailable]. Oneworld Publications. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/950294/renaissance-art-a-beginners-guide-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Nichols, Tom. Renaissance Art. [edition unavailable]. Oneworld Publications, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.