Southern Flanders declined for a time after Philip the Good. Political disturbances drove many weavers to England; the growth of the British clothing industry took trade and raw materials from the Flemish cities; by 1520 English cloth crowded the markets of Flanders itself. Brussels, Mechlin, and Valenciennes survived through superior lace, carpets, tapestries, and jewelry, Namur by its leather, Louvain through its university and its beer. About 1480 the canal that brought the sea to Bruges began to silt its bed; heroic efforts were made to clear it; wind and sand won; after 1494 seagoing vessels could no longer reach Bruges. Soon its merchants, then its workers, left Bruges for Antwerp, which deep-draught ships could enter by the estuaries of the Scheldt. Antwerp signed agreements with English exporters, and shared with Calais the British trade with the Continent.
Life in Holland existed by grace of the dykes, which had to be repeatedly rebuilt, and might at any time collapse; some gave way in 1470 and drowned 20,000 of the population. The only major industry was the capture and cure of herring. Holland produced many of the famous painters of this period, but was too poor to hold them; all but Geertgen tot Sint Jans migrated to Flanders.
There, even in cities that suffered decline, rich burghers dressed gorgeously, dwelt in sturdy brick houses luxuriously furnished—hung with the tapestries of Arras or Brussels, and gleaming with the brass vessels of Dinant. They built lovely churches like Nôtre Dame du Sablon at Brussels and St. Jacques at Antwerp, raised stone by stone the towering façade of Antwerp Cathedral, and began the proud town hall of Ghent. They financed the painters, sat for portraits, bribed heaven with votive art, and allowed their women to read books. Perhaps it was their earthy mood that led Flemish painting, in its second flowering, to stress realism and landscape even in religious pictures, and to seek new subjects in homes and fields.
Dirk Bouts inaugurated realism with the exaggerations natural to innovators. He came from his native Haarlem to Brussels, studied there under Rogier van der Weyden, settled in Louvain, and painted for its church of St. Pierre a polyptych, The Last Supper, with an interesting panel—Passover in a Jewish Family—which seemed to suggest that the Last Supper was the celebration of an orthodox Hebrew rite by Jews still faithful to Judaism. For a chapel in the same church Bouts painted The Martyrdom of St. Erasmuswith a shocking literalness: two executioners turn a windlass that slowly draws the intestines from the naked saint. In The Martyrdom of St. Hippolytus four horses, driven in four directions, pull out the arms and legs of the holy victim. In The Beheading of the Innocent Knight a cavalier, vengefully accused by an unsuccessfully amorous empress of trying to seduce her, has his head cut off; the bleeding corpse straddles the foreground, the severed head rests comfortably in the widow’s lap; Bouts almost redeems his violence with the calm content of the dying and the dead. There are vivid colors in these paintings, now and then a good landscape or perspective; but their mediocre drawing, rigid figures, and lifeless faces suggest that time does not always winnow wisely.
Probably Hugo van der Goes took his surname from Goes in Zeeland, and was another instance of Holland’s generating and losing genius. In 1467 he was admitted to the guild of painters at Ghent. It bespeaks the repute of Flemish painting that an Italian merchant in Flanders chose him to paint an immense triptych for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in a Florence already teeming with artists. Hugo chose for his theme the phrase Quem genuit adoravit—” Whom she bore she adored.” The life-size figure of the Virgin, rapt in reverence, is masterly; a shepherd at the left anticipates the magic of Raphael and Titian; the winter landscape is a novel achievement in delicate fidelity to nature. Vigorous realism, original composition, accurate drawing, incisive delineation of character, placed Van der Goes at the top of the Flemish school in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Whether to find more quiet for his work, or to calm the religious fears that obsessed him, he entered a monastery near Brussels (c. 1475), where he continued to paint and (says a brother monk) drink excessively. The notion that God had destined him for eternal damnation darkened his sober moments, and drove him into insanity.15
Vespasiano da Bisticci tells us that about 1468 Duke Federigo of Urbino sent to Flanders for a painter to decorate his study, since he “knew of no one in Italy who understood how to paint in oil colors.”16 Joost van Wassenhoeve, a, friend of Van der Goes’, accepted the call, settled in Urbino, and came to be known as Justus van Ghent. He composed for the learned Duke twenty-eight pictures of philosophers, and for an Urbino fraternity an altarpiece, The Institution of the Sacrament. Though these works are Flemish in style, they date a growing exchange of influence between Flanders and Italy: an increased use of oil, and a trend to realism, in Italian painters, and the infiltration of Italian idealism and techniques into Flemish art.
Hans Memling, though we have no record of his visiting Italy, brought into his painting an elegance and delicacy that he may have acquired from the painters of Cologne, or from Rogier van der Weyden, or that may have come up from Venice and along the Rhine to Mainz. Born near Mainz, and probably named from his native Mömlingen, Hans left Germany for Flanders and Bruges about 1465. There, three years later, Sir John Donne, a visiting Englishman, commissioned him to paint a Virgin Enthroned. It was conventional in conception and composition, but it already displayed Memling’s technical competence, his refinement of feeling, and his professional piety. St. John the Baptist was represented with Flemish realism, St. John the Evangelist with Fra Angelico idealism; and the rising individualism of art betrayed itself in the surreptitious portrait of Memling peering around a pillar.
Like Perugino a generation later, Memling made a hundred Madonnas, tenderly maternal, divinely calm. They hang on museum walls wherever the eye can reach: in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Florence, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, London, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago. Two of the best are in the hospital of St. John at Bruges; Mary dominates The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, where almost every figure is superb; she presides again in The Adoration of the Child, but there the Magi—one a veritable Privy Councilor Goethe—capture the scene. In a panoramic painting at Munich Memling pictured all the major episodes in the recorded life of Christ. In another at Turin he told the story of the Passion with such a medley of men and women as even Brueghel would find it hard to outnumber. For the organ case of a monastery at Najera, in Spain, he composed a triptych of Christ Surrounded by Angels, rivaling Melozzo da Forlì’s Angeli Musicanti of a few years before; and the Antwerp Museum did not think itself bilked when it paid 240,000 francs ($1,200,000?) for this picture in 1896.17 Another multiple altarpiece, The Last Judgment, was painted for Iacopo Tani, an agent for Lorenzo de’ Medici in Bruges; it was put on a ship bound for Italy, but the vessel was seized by a Hanseatic skipper, who kept the cash and let the picture go to the Marienkirche of Danzig.18
In these major works, and in individual panels, Memling painted some admirable portraits: Martin van Nieuwenhoev and A Woman—stately under her lofty hat and with her many rings—both in the hospital at Bruges; A Young Man in the London Gallery; An Old Man in New York; The Man with an Arrow in Washington. They do not reach the inspiration or penetration of Titian or Raphael or Holbein, but they catch simple surfaces with workmanlike skill. The occasional nudes —Adam and Eve, Bathsheba at the Bath—do not allure.
Toward the end of his career Memling decorated for the hospital in Bruges a Gothic shrine designed to receive the relics of St. Ursula. In eight panels he told how the pious maiden, betrothed to Prince Conon, deferred their marriage till she might make a pilgrimage to Rome; how she sailed, with 11,000 virgins, up the Rhine to Basel, led them trippingly over the Alps, basked in the blessings of the Pope, and how, on their return, all 11,001 were martyred by pagan Huns at Cologne. Nine years later (1488) Carpaccio told the same pretty absurdity, with more accurate drawing and finer coloring, for the School of St. Ursula in Venice.
It is unfair to Memling, or any painter, to look at his pictures wholesale; each was meant for a separate time and place, and there conveyed his lyric quality. To view them in the gross is at once to perceive his limitations—his narrowness of range and style, the monotony of his portraits, even of his modest Madonnas with their streaming golden hair. The surface is lovely or true, and shines with smooth, bright hues; but the brush rarely reaches to the soul beneath, to the secret loneliness, wonderment, aspirations, griefs. There is no life in Memling’s women; and when he unclothes them we are chagrined to find them all stomach and tiny breasts. Perhaps the fashion in such items was different then than now; even our desires may be indoctrination. Yet we must acknowledge that when Memling died (1495) he was, by the common consent of his patrons and his rivals, the leading painter north of the Alps. If other artists felt his faults more keenly than their own, they could not match the delicacy of his style, the purity of his sentiment, the splendor of his coloring. For a generation his influence was supreme in the Flemish school.
Gerard David continued the mood. Coming from Holland to Bruges about 1483, he felt the spell of Memling’s aria dolce; his Madonnas are almost identical with Memling’s; perhaps they shared a model between them. Sometimes, as in The Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Washington), he equaled Memling in the demure beauty of the Virgin, and surpassed him in delineating the Child. In his older years David followed trade and moved to Antwerp. The school of Bruges ended with him, while that of Antwerp was beginning with Quentin Massys.
Son of a Louvain blacksmith, Massys was received into the painters’ guild of St. Luke at Antwerp in 1491, aged twenty-five. St. Luke, however, would hardly have approved The Feast of Herod, where Herodias prods with a carving knife the severed head of the Baptist, nor The Entombment of Christ, where Joseph of Arimathea plucks blood clots from the hair of the bloodless corpse. Having married twice and buried seven children, Massys had some steel in his fiber, some acid in his oils. So he catches a courtesan in the act of cozening an old moneylender out of his coin; and in a gentler mood he shows a banker counting his gold while his wife looks on in mingled appreciation and jealousy. Yet Massys’ Madonnas are more human than Memling’s; one (in Berlin) kisses and fondles her Child as any mother would; and the bright blue, purple, and red of her garments accentuate her beauty When it came to portraiture Massys could penetrate behind the face to the character more successfully than Memling, as in the remarkable Study for a Portraitin the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris. It was to Massys that Peter Gillis turned when (1517) he wished to send to Thomas More faithful similitudes of Erasmus and himself. Quentin did well with Gillis, but his Erasmus had the ill luck to be followed by Holbein’s. When Dürer (1520) and Holbein (1526) came to Antwerp it was to Massys that they paid their highest respects as the dean of Flemish art.
Meanwhile, however, there had appeared in Brabant the most original and absurd artist in Flemish history. Here and there in Massys—as in the leering mob in Christ Shown to the People (Madrid), or the ugly faces in an Adoration of the Magi (New York)—were such gnarled and brutal heads as Leonardo drew in the satirical byplay of his pen. Hieronymus Bosch made a successful business of such grotesqueries. Born, and spending most of his life, in Bois-le-Duc (in northern Brabant, now southern Holland), he came to be known by its Flemish name, ‘s Hertogenbosch, finally Bosch. For a time he painted the usual religious themes, and in some, like the Adoration of the Magi in Madrid, he verged on normality. But his sense of the ridiculous came to dominate his imagination and his art. Perhaps in chilhood he had been frightened by medieval tales of imps and ghosts, of demons starting from behind any rock or sprouting from a tree; now he would caricature those hobgoblins in curative satire, and laugh them out of mind. He resented with an artist’s sensitivity the botches of humanity—the bizarre or ugly or deformed—and depicted them with a macabre mixture of wrath and glee. Even in idyllic scenes like The Nativity (Cologne) he gave the foreground to the nose of a cow; inThe Adoration of the Magi(New York) peasants peek through windows and archways at the Virgin and her Child. Yet in this last picture he painted with consummate draftsmanship a majestic St. Peter and a Negro king whose stately dignity puts the other figures in the shade. But as Bosch proceeded with the story of Christ he darkened the pictures with bestial faces, ferocious eyes, enormous noses, grimly protruding and voracious lips. Passing to the legends of the saints, he portrayed a surprisingly tender St. John the Evangelist in an unusual landscape of islands and sea; but in a corner he placed a contemplative devil—with a monkish cowl, rat’s tail, and entomological legs—patiently waiting to inherit the earth. In The Temptation of St. Anthony he surrounded the desperate anchorite with gay courtesans and weird imaginings—a dwarf with legs rooted in his shoulders, a bird with the legs of a goat, a jug with the legs of a cow, a rat bestridden by a witch, a minstrel capped with a horse’s skull. Bosch took the grotesques from the Gothic cathedrals, and made a world of them.
He was anything but a realist. Now and then he drew a scene from life, as in The Prodigal’s Son, but there too he exaggerated the ugliness, the poverty, and the fear. His Hay Ride is no merrymaking in the month of May, but a bitter illustration of “all flesh is grass.”19 Atop the load all is ideal: a youth plays music for a girl who sings; behind them two lovers kiss, and an angel kneels; above them Christ hovers in the clouds. But on the ground a murderer stabs his fallen enemy, a procuress invites a lass to prostitution, a quack sells panaceas, a fat priest receives offerings from nuns, the cart wheels crush some careless celebrants. At the right a company of devils, aided by apes, drag the damned into hell. Philip II, King of Spain and gloom, hung this piece in his Escorial. Near it he placed a companion piece, The Pleasures of the World. Around a pool, in which naked men and women bathe, rides a procession of nudes on animals partly zoological, partly phantasmagorical; spikes and thorns enter the picture from every side; in the foreground two nudes clasp each other in a waltz, while a huge bird gazes on them in philosophical amusement. One shutter shows the creation of Eve as the source of all evil; another displays the tortures and contortions of the damned. It is a marvel of composition, of clever drawing, of diseased imagination—veritable Bosch.
Can it be that even in the dawn of modernity there were millions of simple and impressionable Christians who had nightmares like these? Was Bosch one such? Hardly, for in a portrait of him in the library at Arras he is shown in old age, in full vigor of mind and sharpness of eye; he is a man of the world who has survived his satirical rage, and can look upon life with the humor of one who will soon be out of the mess. He could not have painted these ghoulish fancies so skillfully if they had still possessed him. He stood above them, not so much amused as angry that humanity had ever harbored them. That his contemporaries enjoyed his productions as pictorial pranks rather than as theological terrors appears from the wide market found by prints made from engravings of his works. A generation later Pieter Brueghel would exorcise these devils, and transform these hobgoblins into a healthy and jolly multitude; and four centuries later neurotic artists would reflect the neuroses of their time by painting sarcastic fantasies redolent of Hieronymus Bosch.
A more conventional figure closed this chapter in Flemish painting. Born in Maubeuge, and thence also named Mabuse, Jan Gossaert came to Antwerp in 1503, probably after learning his art from David in Bruges. In 1507 he was invited to the court of Duke Philip of Burgundy—one of Philip the Good’s erotic by-products. Jan accompanied the Duke to Italy, and returned with some finesse added to his brush, and a flair for nudes and pagan mythologies; his Adam and Eve made the unclothed body attractive for the first time in Flemish art. Mary with the Child and Angels and St. Luke Drawing the Madonna echoed Italy in their fat cherubs and Renaissance architectural backgrounds, and The Agony in the Garden may have owed to Italy its brilliant representation of moonlight. But Gossaert’s forte was portraiture. No Fleming since Jan van Eyck had turned out such a searching character study as the Jan Carondelet in the Louvre; here the artist concentrated on face and hands, and revealed the moneyed ancestry, the stoic administrator, the mind made somber by the burdens of authority. Massys had brought to an end that first line of Flemish painting which had reached nobility in the Van Eycks; Gossaert imported from Italy those novelties of technique, elegances of ornament, graces of line, subtleties of chiaroscuro and portraiture, that would in the sixteenth century (barring Brueghel) turn Flemish painting from its native skill and genius, and leave it in suspended excellence until its culmination under Rubens and Van Dyck.
Charles the Bold left no son, but he had betrothed his daughter Mary to Maximilian of Austria in the hope that the Hapsburgs would protect Burgundy from France. When Louis XI nevertheless appropriated the duchy, Mary fled to Ghent. There, as the price of being accepted as their constitutional sovereign by Flanders, Brabant, Hainaut, and Holland, she signed the Groote Privilegie (February 1477), which pledged her to enter into no marriage, levy no taxes, declare no war, without the consent of the “Estates” or assemblies of the signatory provinces. By this and later charters, including the Joyeuse Entrie, as Brabant termed its own grant of local liberty, the Netherlands began a century-long struggle for independence. But Mary’s marriage to Maximilian (August 1477) brought the powerful Hapsburgs into the Lowlands. When Mary died (1482) Maximilian became regent. When Maximilian was elected emperor (1494) he transmitted the regency to his son Philip. When Philip died (1506) his sister, Margaret of Austria, was appointed governor-general by the Emperor. When Philip’s son, the future Charles V, then fifteen, was declared of age (1515), the Netherlands became part of a vast Hapsburg empire under one of the crattiest and most ambitious rulers in history. Thereby would hang a tale.