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While some of the best-known Renaissance achievements came out of Italy, several revolutionary non-Italian artists across Europe were also making significant contributions. We explore ten of the most important non-Italian Renaissance artists, from Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck to Germany’s Albrecht Dürer.
Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck is thought to have been born in Maaseik, Belgium sometime round 1390. He gained notoriety for his innovative use of oil paint to create luminous, detailed canvasses. While many of van Eyck’s best known works (such as The Mystic Lamb in Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, begun by his brother Hubert and completed by Jan following his death in 1426) are religious in theme, the artist was also a commissioned portrait painter. The Arnolfini Portrait of Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife is amongst van Eyck’s most famous portraits.
Undoubtedly one of the most important and versatile artists of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (b. 1471, Nuremburg) was an accomplished painter, writer and draftsman, though best known for his contributions to the art of printmaking. After completing his wanderjahre – a German custom whereby craftsman travel to broaden knowledge of their trade with other artists, which saw Dürer travel to Colmar, Strasbourg and Basel – he traveled to Italy in the late 1490s, taking in the works of great Venetian painters. This resulted in a style which art critic Jonathan Jones called “a fertile synthesis of German gothic medievalism…and the classical values and perspective theory of Italian Renaissance art.” This was evident in famous engravings like Knight, Death and the Devil.
Another leading artist of the German Renaissance, Augsburg-born painter and designer Hans Holbein the Younger – son of Late Gothic artist Hans Holbein the Elder – became one of the most revered portraitists of the 16th century, celebrated for his ability to achieve a realistic likeness and psychological depth in paintings of his subjects. The artist spent a significant amount of his career working in England, where he was appointed King’s Painter to Henry VIII around 1536, resulting in some of his best known works including Portrait of Henry VIII of England, today hanging in Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch was wildly imaginative. His fantastical, surreal creations have him hailed as one of the most significant European artists of the late medieval era. He was an influential character whose lasting legacy can be seen in both the work of his successor Pieter Bruegel the Elder and more recent styles, notably early 20th century Surrealism. The Garden of Earthly Delights – a vividly-colored triptych today hanging in Madrid’s Museo del Prado alongside several other works by the artist – is considered Bosch’s best known and most ambitious work.
Born just a few miles west of Hieronymus Bosch’s birthplace of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the influence of the early Netherlandish master is clear in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s work. Indeed, while working for Antwerp publisher Hieronymus Cock in the late 1550s he designed many engravings in the style of Bosch. One of which, Big Fish Eat Little Fish was even attributed to the late artist. Often nicknamed “peasant Bruegel,” he became known for his paintings depicting peasant life infused with a moralizing, often satirical edge as seen in his 1559 work Netherlandish Proverbs – a painting illustrating over 100 then contemporary Flemish adages.
A native of Crete, El Greco moved to Italy in 1567 at the age of 26. Living in both Venice and Rome, he set about immersing himself in the work of Italian Renaissance masters. Despite his best efforts, the artist failed to find a market for his art – perhaps in part due to his criticism of Michelangelo, which may have put him out of favor with Rome’s intellectual elite. It wasn’t until El Greco moved to Toledo, Spain in 1577 that he found a willing and profitable market for his work. It was here that the artist would execute one of his most famous paintings, View of Toledo.
Though he only enjoyed a short career before his death in his early forties in 1524, Netherlandish painter Joachim Patinir – a pioneer of landscape painting as a genre in itself – nevertheless accomplished a great deal. Broadly speaking, Patinir’s works can be divided into two categories: vast, panoramic landscapes that dwarf their human subjects, and those in which the scene is partly obscured by rock formations that recall the artist’s birthplace of Dinant. While many of Patinir’s works incorporate biblical parables one of his best known works, Charon Crossing the Styx, depicts elements of both Christianity and Greek mythology.
A talented painter of portraits and religious triptychs, Rogier van der Weyden is celebrated for his naturalism and pathos. Alongside artists like Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, he’s considered one of the great early Flemish Primitives. Though many of van der Weyden’s best known works were destroyed during the conflicts that ravaged what is now Belgium, one of his greatest works, The Descent from the Cross – a stunning panel paintings typical of the artist’s capacity for emotion – thankfully survived. Today, the work is displayed in Madrid’s Museo del Prado.
Though German painter Matthias Grünewald’s masterpiece the Isenheim Altarpiece is considered one of the most beautiful altarpieces of Western art, very little is known about its creator. A complex polyptych made in collaboration with woodcarver Niclaus of Haguenau today housed at Colmar, France’s Musée Unterlinden, many of Grünewald’s works were once wrongly attributed to his contemporary Albrecht Dürer. Sadly, only around ten attributable paintings and 35 drawings of Grünewald’s survive today; one of which, The Mocking of Christ is located in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek.
While Robert Campin is today considered one of the most important painters of Early Netherlandish art, the artist’s true identity has been a matter of debate for many years. Though Campin’s life was well documented, his works were not, and it is only relatively recently that he has been identified as the same artist known as “the Master of Flémalle.” Amongst the works attributed to Campin are two paintings at London’s National Gallery – The Virgin and Child in an Interior and The Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen – and the Annunciation Triptych (better known as the Merode Altarpiece) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.