In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Netherlands, like Italy an advanced European country, experienced the Renaissance.
The small collection in the Hermitage allows the viewer to trace in the work of its leading masters the special features of the Netherlandish art of this period.
Room 261. One of the marvels of the collection is the small painting of the Virgin and Child by Robert Campin (1378/9-1444), who worked in the town of Tournai. In books on the history of art he was conventionally referred to as the Master with the Mousetrap, then as the Master of Merode, and finally as the Master of Fle-malle. In this work is revealed a new attitude on the part of the artist towards the world, whose beauty he strives to put down on canvas. With great care and thoroughness he reproduces the furniture of a room, the texture of objects; he lovingly depicts the landscape discernible beyond the window and the soft light which fills the interior, and in so doing attains such artistic perfection that his creation is placed among the finest examples of Renaissance art. The Gothic elongation of the figures of the Virgin and the Child is evidence that the picture was painted by an artist from northern Europe, where medieval traditions were firmly entrenched. The Netherlandish artists concentrated on mastering realist methods, but slowly and, as it were, “by touch”; questions concerning the theory of painting were not treated by them so thoroughly as by the Italians, and they were not able to utilize the experience accumulated by the ancients in the way their Italian colleagues did.
Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464) was one of the leading masters of the Netherlandish Renaissance. In his exquisite St Lake Drawing the Virgin the figures are placed in the foreground in an open loggia, beyond which stretches a landscape painted in great detail and flooded with light. The artist has devoted a lot of attention to the reproduction of the Virgin’s rich attire studded with precious stones.
Hugo van der Goes (died 1482) was one of the foremost painters of the second half of the fifteenth century. In his Lamentation over the Dead Christ and the monumental triptych entitled The Adoration of the Magi the artist presents a dramatic interpretation of the events and draws his characters with genuine realist strength.
Room 260 contains the large altar-piece by Jan Provost, The Virgin In Majesty, which is in keeping with the traditions of religious painting. Also displayed in this room is a stone portal with a wooden door (from Liege), a carved wooden altar from Antwerp dated around 1500, and on the walls two tapestries – The Flood and Noah’s Sacrifice (Brussels, 16th century).
Rooms 262 and 258. At the beginning of the sixteenth century landscape painting and the representation of scenes from everyday life already stood out in Netherlandish art as independent genres. Portrait painting was also widespread. Genre painting is illustrated by the works of the Antwerp masters Marinus van Reymerswaele (The Moneychangers) and Joachim Bueckelaer (Village Feast) and by the Amsterdam artist Pieter Aertsen (The Game Seller). Sixteenth century Netherlandish landscape painting is represented by the works of Joachim Patinier, Herri met de Bles, Jan de Cock, Adriaen Isen-brandt and the unknown, late sixteenth century Netherlandish artist, traditionally called the Master of the Winter Landscapes.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century a number of artists in the Netherlands came under the influence of Italian art. This may be observed if we examine the work of Jan Gossaert, Barent van Orley, Frans Floris and Michel van Coscie. Turning to Italian exemplars enabled the Netherlanders to free themselves from the restrictive Gothic traditions, but at the same time checked the development of national art. The distinguished painter and engraver Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), while assimilating Italian influences, was able to preserve a distinctive originality. The triptych in the Hermitage entitled The Healing of the Blind Man of Jericho is among the most famous of his works. Introducing us to the work of the great artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder is the painting The Fair (a copy made by the artist’s son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger). Filling his canvas with numerous figures and groups of people, the artist unfurls before the spectator scenes from everyday life, portrayed with a lively sense of humour and keen power of observation. The excellent collection of portraits includes the Portrait of a Man with a Carnation by an unknown sixteenth century artist, Lambert Lombard’s Self-portrait, two companion knee-length portraits by Frans Pourbus, Anthonis Mor’s Portrait of a Man and two group portraits by Dirck Jacobsz.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Netherlands came under the power of the Spanish Hapsburgs. Monarchic oppression and religious persecution were countered by the heroic resistance of the towns in the Netherlands, and the bourgeois revolution (1566- 1609) ended with the formation of the independent republic of Holland. The southern Netherlands (Flanders and a number of other provinces) remained under Spanish rule; in the nineteenth century they became part of Belgium. The Netherlandish art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was the basis upon which developed, in the seventeenth, two important national schools of painting – the Flemish and the Dutch.