Van Eyck to Dürer: An Exclusive Excerpt

The following is an exclusive expert from the book Van Eyck to Dürer: The Influence of Early Netherlandish Painting on European Art, 1430-1530, edited by Till-Holger Borchert (Thames and Hudson).

The reputation of the Eyckian school spread throughout the West with unprecedented speed, kindling a universal desire to own and to imitate its works…. Neighbouring Germany was no exception to this general aspiration and we may presume that the mere rumour, the oral account of the greater animation and truthfulness to nature achieved in Flanders was enough to influence our masters and to spur them on in that pursuit of naturalism that almost immediately followed the earliest works of the Van Eyck
brothers…. Whereas works by Jan van Eyck’s own hand could be admired in Italy in his own lifetime, the earliest Flemish paintings for which we can account in Germany originated in the workshops of Rogier and his pupils. Sure enough, it was not long before a few enterprising journeymen took to the road to learn the new techniques on the spot. We find traces of that knowledge by around 1450 – and even a few years earlier in some cases – in several areas, including ones quite remote.

Jan And Hubert Van Eyck The Ghent altarpiece panel painting multi figure

The Ghent altarpiece, finished 1432; interior and exterior. By Jan and Hubert Van Eyck. Ghent, Sint-Baafskatherdraal

As early as 1879 the German scholar Carl Schnaase, in his history of fifteenth-century
painting, recognized the influence exerted by early Netherlandish painting on Central European art. The fundamentals of his strikingly perceptive reading of the impact and dissemination of early Netherlandish art in Central Europe have lost little of their validity and have since been studied many times on a case-by-case basis. Exploration of the potential causes of the phenomenon and the overarching structures and patterns by which the Netherlandish influence was transmitted has, by contrast, been surprisingly rare. This book does not claim to offer such an exploration, nor could it: the territory it covers stretches from the North Sea to Romania and the Baltic states, with a timespan extending roughly from the completion of the Ghent altarpiece (1432) to Dürer’s visit to the Low Countries (1520–21). The essays presented here deal with various aspects of artistic exchange, and are followed by a catalogue section arranged by regions or countries. This breakdown does not follow today’s political frontiers but seeks instead to focus on historical contexts, so far as that is possible and meaningful given the rapidly shifting political relations at the time, particularly in Central and Central Eastern Europe.

A point of particular interest in this context is the mobility of artists, works of art and patrons in the transitional time between the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. Schnaase already alluded to the potential significance of years spent abroad by artists who had recently completed their apprenticeship. The notion of these Wanderjahre (journeyman years) became a common and convenient hypothesis in twentieth-century art history to explain the adoption of Netherlandish motifs and compositions by German painters or their imitation of the naturalistic surface textures typical of early Netherlandish panel painting.

Only sporadically, however – as with the Hungarian-born Albrecht Dürer the Elder or with Michel Sittow, a native of Reval (now Tallinn) – is there actual evidence of artists spending time in the Low Countries as apprentices or journeymen. For the most part, a visit to the region remains a matter of conjecture at best, even if it is rendered highly plausible by the existence of drawings after well-known Netherlandish examples (as in the case of Martin Schongauer) or by a noteworthy affinity with panel paintings from the Low Countries (as we find in the work of Hans Holbein the Elder).

If, alternatively, we focus on the drawings after Netherlandish compositions and motifs that were produced in Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe during the fifteenth century, we have to conclude that a significant number of artists must have travelled to the Low Countries. This may be taken for granted even if many of those copies were produced at second hand (that is, made from workshop drawings or other drawn copies rather than from the original paintings). Laying down a stock of relevant motifs was, after all, a key objective of these painters’ travels: the repertoire of compositions and individual motifs assembled in this way was crucial to a workshop’s future success and was jealously guarded. There can be no question that the possession of drawings from the Low Countries or after Netherlandish models represented a decisive competitive advantage – all the more so since patrons, too, were displaying a growing interest in Netherlandish art. A proven ability to paint in the manner of the Flemish masters evidently served, moreover, as an important yardstick by which to judge artists. This is illustrated at a very early date in chapter 27 of the book Ein kurzweilig Lesen von Dyl Ulenspiegel (An Amusing Book about Till Eulenspiegel; Antwerp 1515). As evidence of his artfulness, Eulenspiegel presents to the Landgrave of Hesse ‘various Tüchlein [tempera paintings on canvas] and objets d’art, which he had bought in Flanders’, thereby winning himself the post of court painter. It is plain from this picaresque story not only that the ability to paint in the Flemish style was in demand, but also that such a qualification – in this case faked – was seen as something extraordinary.

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