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A Renaissance origin story: Huntington exhibit demonstrates Flemish influence on Florence

October 21, 2013|By Kirk Silsbee | By Kirk Silsbee
  • Hans Memling (ca. 1430-1494), St. Veronica, ca. 1471-74, oil on panel, framed: 15 3/8 ? 12 1/2 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Samuel H. Kress Collection.
Hans Memling (ca. 1430-1494), St. Veronica, ca. 1471-74,… (Courtesy of National…)

If you've ever snoozed through art history classes, you probably heard a lot about the Italian Renaissance. The lectures in those courses often give the impression that something in the national Italian character, coupled with the rise of a prosperous middle class, resulted in an unprecedented cultural combustion. That creative watershed is usually depicted as an insulated set of achievements.

Those surveys probably imparted next to nothing about Flemish painting. Maybe you remember the elaborate, paneled “Ghent Altarpiece” but never dreamed that the painters in Flanders were responsible for valuable innovations that had a direct effect on their contemporaries of the Quattrocento. That's why the Huntington Library's current show, “Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting,” is likely to be a source of surprise.

Painters like Jan van Eyck (1340-1414), Rogere van der Weyden (1400-1464) and Hans Memling (1430-1494) introduced oils to the Italians, who previously used the quick-setting and comparatively dull egg tempera paints. This also allowed for rendering diaphanous textiles and sheens on surfaces. Certainly van Eyck was one of the earliest oil painters, and has been long thought to be the inventor of the medium. The Flemish used the three-quarter view for portraiture, which opened new vistas for artists who had previously stuck to Janus-like profiles. They also set a new standard in realism for landscape pictorializing, rendering detailed backgrounds of the material world. The Flemish influence was nothing short of transformative to the artists of Florence and elsewhere.

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What was once the country of Flanders is now encompassed by parts of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and northwestern France. The Dukes of Burgundy ruled Flanders in the 1400s, and the capital, Bruges, had a thriving mercantile climate. Italian merchants, and bankers like the de' Medicis, were attracted to the city. Among Italian diplomats and business travelers, a prized souvenir was a small, portable Flemish devotional painting. The common Christian faith served as a kind of lingua franca that straddled both cultures, and each had a large market for devotional images.

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