Flemish Baroque Art
History, Characteristics of 17th Century Painting in Flanders.

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The Judgement of Paris (1597-99)
(detail) National Gallery, London.
By Peter Paul Rubens.

Flemish Baroque Art (1600-80)


Flemish Baroque Painting
Peter Paul Rubens
Anthony Van Dyck
Flemish Genre Painting and Still Lifes

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of the movement, see:
Baroque Sculpture (1600-1700)
Baroque Sculptors (1600-1700)
Baroque Architecture (1600-1750)
Baroque Architects.

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Flemish Baroque Painting

The story of Baroque art in Flanders during the 17th century reflects the gradual decline of the country itself. Occupying the southern part of the Low Countries or Netherlands, it was ruled - along with the northern part of the Low Countries, known as Holland - by the unpopular Spanish Hapsburgs, who had taken over from the French Dukes of Burgundy. Its once powerful commercial and cultural centres, such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, were weakened by religious and political disputes between the Catholic Hapsburg authorities and Protestant Dutch merchants. Thus while Dutch Baroque art flourished as never before, art in Flanders depended on a small handful of Flemish painters, mostly active in Antwerp.

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During the 15th century - the early days of the Italian Renaissance - Flemish painters had exported the technique of oil painting to artists in Florence, Rome and Venice. Now, at the beginning of the 17th century, with the spread of Italian Caravaggism, Flemish painters combined their own tradition with the tenebrist tradition arriving from Italy. This development was exemplified by the Antwerp artist Rubens (1577-1640). Since the High Renaissance, Flemish painting had been in transition between Northern and Italian influences; it was Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) who made the first real attempt to digest, absorb and fuse the two schools, creating a new style, well-suited to the more devout religious paintings called for by the Council of Trent's guidelines on Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (c.1560-1700), and which had a powerful impact on all painting north of the Alps.

Peter Paul Rubens

His style of Baroque painting was vigorous, confident, sensual, decorative, theatrical, energetically magnificent, and he became the leading exponent of Catholic Christian art in Northern Europe. It is not without significance that when the young Rubens - the promising painter from Antwerp - arrived to study in Italy (where he remained for eight years) he devoted most attention to the Venetians, the most colourful and decorative Italian school. When he returned to his native city he opened a workshop where he was soon employing two hundred assistants, many of whom were outstanding painters, each with his own speciality: the painting of animals, of fabrics, of still life, and so on. He himself specialized in the human body - notably female nudes - which he depicted with an abundance of rosy flesh, with broad, strong gestures a continuous play of curves each one drawing the eye to another, the sum of which determined the general scheme of the painting - as a lozenge, a circle, an S, and so on. These robust figures, who move as expansively as though they were on a stage, are the immediately recognizable feature of his art, an art which is joyous, robust, and almost unbelievably prolific.

After 1611, Rubens set foot on the first steps of the 'High Baroque', to become its chief representative in northern Europe. His religious art and other forms of history painting had already placed him at the head of the Catholic Baroque; he now achieved a consistency and depth of feeling which have made his best Baroque paintings known to all the world. A period of incomparable fertility followed: with his delight in portraiture, he immortalized his relatives, his brother, his children, and four years after the death of his first wife, in 1626, he was painting the young and lovely Helene Fourmont, whom he married when he was 53. Her grace and youth endowed him with a new springtide, and he was never weary of recording her beauty. The time came when he could not, unaided, carry out all the commissions he received. They were a challenge to his powers of organization, for with all his overflowing vitality, he knew how to husband his energies and to exploit them to the full, and he had soon established a large workshop in which selected pupils and assistants carried out his ideas. At least two thousand pictures were produced in this way. All Flemish painting was influenced by this prodigious artistic patriarch. None of its practitioners, however, came near rivalling the master: some devoted themselves to one aspect of his work, others to another. His list of masterpieces includes: Samson and Delilah (1610, National Gallery, London); Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1614, Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp); Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618, Alte Pinakothek, Munich); and Judgement of Paris (1636, National Gallery, London).

Anthony Van Dyck

Of all Rubens' pupils, none became so famous or so independent as Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). In Antwerp, after Rubens had begun his diplomatic career, Van Dyck was the undisputed master, but the many religious paintings of this early period are not among his best; they are obviously influenced by Rubens, and also by Titian and the Bolognese school, boldly painted compositions in which the unbridled energy of Rubens is tempered by a fastidious elegance, which never deserted Van Dyck, and is best of all displayed in his portrait art, even though these works were produced with mechanical regularity.

Many of them are fluently painted, with a skilful and easy technique, in which white, black and grey are predominant, as though the master were fastidiously avoiding the garishness of colour. His sense of harmony led him toward a solution in which grey united all colours in itself. With Flemish thoroughness he painted lace collars, ruffs, chains and jewels, without the pedantic uniformity shown by so many of his contemporaries. The majority of his subjects were aristocrats, who, in their sumptuous garments and their dignified, and indeed often arrogant bearing, could only gain by the grace and refinement of Van Dyck's treatment. With fastidious refinement he shrinks from all that is not ornamental, or elegant, or beautiful, and in his Biblical scenes his shepherds and malefactors are dressed like gentlefolk and bear themselves accordingly.

In 1630 Van Dyck was appointed court painter to the Princess of Orange, and also to the King of England, by whom in 1632 he was knighted; he had now reached the zenith of fame and prosperity. Everyone wanted to be painted by Van Dyck, who was one of the first fashionable portrait-painters, able to give an appearance of refined elegance to subjects who lacked those qualities: for example, the courtly and handsome figure of Charles I, as he exists today in our imaginations, owes a great deal to Van Dyck. When portrayed by other painters, with more honesty and less skill, Charles becomes a very different, and less appealing, figure.

Flemish Genre Painting and Still Lifes

Antwerp was the main centre of Baroque art in Catholic Flanders. Here, in addition to Rubens, practised Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38), known for his genre-painting - especially his tavern scenes. Other Flemish Old Masters included the genre painter Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), David Teniers the Younger (1610-90), best known for his guardroom scenes; and Frans Snyders (1579-1657), the animalier and still life painter.

Flemish 17th century art can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world. For details of European collections containing works by painters of the Flemish Baroque, see: Art Museums in Europe.

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