2019 sees the 450th anniversary of the death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c 1525/30 – 1569). To mark the occasion the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna is dedicating the world’s first ever major monograph exhibition to the artist widely regarded as the 16th century’s greatest Netherlandish painter.
After an initial period of brilliance, during which time it rose to achieve perfection, Flemish art gradually fell into decline. Although thorough studies of its origins have revealed works, in particular those of the miniaturists, that are deserving of notice and which predate the artistic careers of the two Van Eycks, Hubert and Jan, the genius of the brothers remains stunningly spectacular, surpassing that of their predecessors to such a degree that it would be impossible to find an equally sudden, decisive and glorious evolution in the history of art.
Even so, the lesser artists who followed the Van Eycks, whether they were either directly trained by them or simply influenced by their work, also possessed talent of admirable quality, but their sense and understanding of nature was less penetrating and profound and their execution less scrupulous. In not applying the same closeness of attention, which till then had been a rule of Flemish painting, these artists lost their opportunity for originality, relaxing their focus on nature and placing the primary importance of their work in its details.
It became increasingly common for these painters to travel to Italy, and consequently their native impressions became mixed with those evoked by the lands through which they passed. Upon leaving the Flemish plains, the monotony of which is scarcely interrupted, the emigrant artists could not help but be struck by the imposing nature of the mountainous regions along their route. The Alps, the Tirols, and the Apennines offered the artists the rugged landscapes once sought by the Flemish Primitives, to whom simplicity had been of no interest. In their depiction of panoramas that stretched as far as the eye could see, these nomads remained faithful to their excessive preoccupation with the picturesque.
They were of the belief that no amount of detail could be too much, and they tirelessly added bizarre rock formations and countless rivers to the harsh peaks and mountainous landscapes they painted. In addition, they laid out forests, towns, villages and castles that stretched into infinity. When, during their travels, they spent time in towns, at every step the Flemish painters encountered ancient ruins, monuments of various styles, statues, masterpieces by artists of the Classical age, and works of art no less admired by their less worthy successors; and everywhere they went they came across traditions and new ways of thinking vastly different from those they had known until then.
How could they resist the seductions that solicited them from every direction? Their Italian colleagues, who were already organized in associations and guilds, welcomed the Flemish artists, affiliated them with their groups and initiated them into the wonders of the ars nova. On their return home, the travellers themselves often became apostles, extolling the principles of Italian painting and art in general, and attempting, though usually with little success, to imitate the Italian style…
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