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Northern Renaissance

Art movement

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.

Northern European artists drew upon the tradition of woodblock printing and manuscript illumination. The International Gothic style of manuscript illumination represented the pinnacle of a long tradition. It 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.

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 (c.1428). 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.

Jan van Eyck so mastered the virtuosity of oil painting that Giorgio Vasari was to erroneously credit him with the invention of the medium. His pioneering masterpiece The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) 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 Rogier van der Weyden. 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.

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 1520s. The new accessibility of the text corresponded with the rising Protestant belief that an individual could have a personal relationship with God, without the 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 printmaking for a more public audience. Artists began to make individual prints, and series of prints for the mass market, leading to aesthetic independence of subject matter and style.

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 Rosary (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. 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.

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 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.

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 George Grosz, as well as Pablo Picasso, and the Surrealist Max Ernst. Jan van Eyck was foundational to the works of the Pre-Raphaelits, as Hieronymous Bosch's work was to the Surrealists like Salvador Dalí 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.

See also Northern Renaissance (style)

Sources: www.theartstory.org

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Renaissance

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