Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-7. Photo: The Royal Collection (c) 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
LONDON.- This first exhibition ever mounted of Flemish paintings in the Royal Collection brings together 51 works from the 15th to 17th centuries, including masterpieces by Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan Brueghel, Van Dyck and Rubens. By the 1550s the Netherlands enjoyed a level of wealth that remained unmatched in the West for centuries. The Eighty Years War with Spain, from 1568 to 1648, all but destroyed the region’s infrastructure and creative industries. The paintings in the exhibition were produced in the Southern (Spanishruled) Netherlands during this period of extraordinary turbulence and its immediate aftermath, when peace was finally restored to the region.
Artistic production was dominated by the city of Antwerp, which had the largest middle class, the finest quality luxury goods and the best painters in Europe. Antwerp was also a centre of humanist learning, which advocated rational enquiry as a counter-balance to the teachings of medieval Christianity. Quinten Massys’s powerful portrait of humanism’s greatest exponent, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, was painted as a gift for Sir Thomas More in London. In the intellectual climate of Antwerp there emerged a fashion for ‘encyclopaedic’ paintings, such as Frans Francken’s Cabinet of a Collector, which celebrates human artistic achievement alongside the curiosities of nature.
Flemish portrait painting of the 16th century was admired for its meticulous technique and extraordinary realism. Artists used a variety of visual devices to intensify the relationship between viewer and sitter. In Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man, the subject appears to project into our space, while Jan Gossaert’s The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark blurs the boundaries of the real and painted world by the use of a fictive inner frame. The Boy at a Window, by an unidentified artist, is the most striking example of such illusionistic tricks. He rests his left hand on the window ledge directly below the catch, while with his right hand he taps the glass.
A recurring theme in Flemish art is that of an ancient story recast in a modern guise or set in contemporary surroundings. Hans Vredeman de Vries places the biblical story of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha in a magnificent interior, probably a prosperous Antwerp merchant’s home. Pieter Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents, a deceptively beautiful scene of a Flemish village under snow, is in fact one of the most savage satires in the history of art. Bruegel casts the Flemish townspeople in the role of the innocents and their families, while the perpetrators of the crime are Imperial troops serving their Habsburg overlords. The painting later belonged to the Emperor Rudolf II, when the subject was changed to a scene of plunder.
In the mid-16th century, Flemish artists were considered to be the greatest of all landscape painters. A type of ideal panoramic landscape, first seen in the work of Pieter Bruegel, served as the setting for a range of subject matter, from genre scenes to Biblical stories. In Jan Brueghel’s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Southern Netherlands is transformed into a Christian Arcadia, while Roelandt Savery depicts the fear and fascination of a more hostile Nature in Lions in a Landscape. The exhibition includes three of Rubens’s greatest landscapes, which were painted for the artist’s personal pleasure and hung in his house in Antwerp. ‘The Farm at Laken’, Summer and Winter are a celebration of the blessings of peace, the fertility of the region and of the sacred ritual of work on the land.
Many artists from the Low Countries spent significant periods of time in Rome. The landscape painter Paulus Bril, represented in the exhibition by the jewel-like Landscape with Goatherds, worked in the city for over 50 years. Unlike their Dutch counterparts, Flemish artists enjoyed the patronage of the Catholic Church. The exhibition includes an important group of religious paintings in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance and strongly influenced by the study of classical antiquity. Among these are treatments of The Assumption of the Virgin by Dionys Calvaert and Rubens, Crispin van den Broeck’s Christ Healing the Sick, Marten van Heemskerck’s apocalyptic The Four Last Things and Van Dyck’s Christ Healing the Paralytic, one of three religious paintings by the artist in the exhibition.
At the heart of the exhibition are paintings created during the reign of Archduke Albert and his wife, the Infanta Isabella, regents of the Spanish crown from 1598 until 1633. From this period comes a group of powerful portraits by Van Dyck and Rubens, including the latter’s self portrait (a gift to Charles I when Prince of Wales). These works possess a painterly sensuality, a richness of colour and confidence of touch which could possibly be seen as a reflection of a new-found stability, prosperity and Flemish national identity. From the late 1630s and 1640s are the everyday peasant scenes of David Teniers. ‘The Stolen Kiss’, Interior of a Kitchen with an Old Woman Peeling Turnips and A Kermis on St George’s Day show the artist’s extraordinary command of light effects, delight in the textures of simple interiors and masterful depiction of the comic character.
Jacob de Formentrou, A Cabinet of Pictures, 1659. Photo: The Royal Collection (c) 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II