Sunday, 11 October 2015

ART SUNDAY - ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN

“No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition.” - Claude Monet

Rogier van der Weyden (b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles) was a Flemish painter (French Rogier de le Pasture) who, with the possible exception of Jan van Eyck, was the most influential northern European artist of his time. Though most of his work was religious, he produced secular paintings (now lost) and some sensitive portraits.

Rogier was the son of a master cutler, and his childhood must have been spent in the comfortable surroundings of the rising class of merchants and craftsmen. He may even have acquired a university education, for in 1426 he was honoured by the city as “Maistre (Master) Rogier de le Pasture” and began his painting career only the next year at the rather advanced age of 27. It was then, on March 5, 1427, that Rogier enrolled as an apprentice in the workshop of Robert Campin, the foremost painter in Tournai and dean of the painters’ guild.

Rogier remained in Campin’s atelier for five years, becoming an independent master of the guild on Aug. 1, 1432. From Campin, Rogier learned the ponderous, detailed realism that characterises his earliest paintings, and so alike, in fact, are the styles of these two masters that connoisseurs still do not agree on the attribution of certain works. But the theory that the entire sequence of paintings credited to Campin (who, like Rogier, did not sign his panels) are actually from the brush of the young Rogier cannot be maintained.

Campin was not the only source of inspiration in Rogier's art. Jan van Eyck, the great painter from Bruges, also profoundly affected the developing artist, introducing elegance and subtle visual refinements into the bolder, Campinesque components of such early paintings by Rogier as “St. Luke Painting the Virgin”. Although as an apprentice Rogier must certainly have met Jan van Eyck when the latter visited Tournai in 1427, it was more likely in Bruges, where Rogier may have resided between 1432 and 1435, that he became thoroughly acquainted with van Eyck’s style.

By 1435, Rogier, now a mature master, settled in Brussels, the native city of his wife, Elizabeth Goffaert, whom he had married in 1426. The next year he was appointed city painter; and it was from this time that he began to use the Flemish translation of his name (van der Weyden). Rogier remained in Brussels the rest of his life, although he never completely severed his ties with Tournai. He was commissioned to paint a mural (now destroyed) for the town hall of Brussels showing famous historical examples of the administration of justice. During this same period, around 1435-40, he completed the celebrated panel of the “Descent from the Cross” for the chapel of the Archers’ Guild of Louvain.

Devotional qualities are even more striking in Rogier’s works of the 1440s such as the twin Granada-Miraflores altarpieces and the Last Judgment Polyptych in Beaune, France (Hôtel-Dieu). In these the settings are stark, the figures are delicate Gothic types, and the action, though stilled, is exquisitely expressive. The removal of Rogier’s art from concern with outward appearances and his return to medieval conventions is surprising; for it was during this decade that Rogier’s international reputation was secured and commissions increased from noblemen such as Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and his powerful chancellor, Nicolas Rolin. Rogier may well have also been influenced by the writings of Thomas à Kempis, the most popular theologian of the era, whose practical mysticism, like Rogier's painting, stressed empathetic response to episodes from the lives of Mary, Christ, and the saints.

Perhaps as an extension of a journey to install the Last Judgment Altarpiece in Rolin’s chapel at Beaune or possibly to obtain a plenary indulgence for his daughter Margaret, one of Rogier’s four children, who had died that year, the renowned painter visited Rome during the Jubilee of 1450. He was warmly received in Italy. Praise from the Humanist Bartolomeo Fazio and the eminent theologian Nicholas of Cusa is recorded; Rogier also received commissions from the powerful Este family of Ferrara and the Medici of Florence. He painted a portrait of Francesco d’Este (originally thought to be Leonello d’Este), and his painting of the Madonna and Child that still remains in Florence (Uffizi) bears the arms and patron saints of the Medici.

While on his pilgrimage, Rogier apparently tutored Italian masters in painting with oils, a technique in which Flemish painters of the time were particularly adept. He also seems to have learned a great deal from what he viewed. Although he was primarily attracted to the conservative painters Gentile da Fabriano and Fra Angelico, whose medievalising styles paralleled his own, Rogier was also acquainted with more progressive trends. In the “St John Altarpiece” and the “Seven Sacraments Triptych”, executed between 1451 and 1455, shortly after Rogier’s return north, his characteristic austerity is tempered by his recollection of the more robust Italian styles; and, in both, the panels are unified from a single point of view.

The last 15 years of his life brought Rogier the rewards due an internationally famous painter and exemplary citizen. He received numerous commissions, which he carried out with the assistance of a large workshop that included his own son Peter and his successor as city painter, Vranck van der Stockt, a mediocre imitator. Even before his death, however, Rogier’s impact extended far beyond his immediate associates. The influence of his expressive but technically less intricate style eclipsed that of both Campin and van Eyck. Every Flemish painter of the succeeding generation - Petrus Christus, Dieric Bouts, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling (who may have studied in Rogier’s atelier) - depended on his formulations; and, during the 16th century, Rogierian ideas were transformed and revitalized by Quentin Massys and Bernard van Orley.

Rogier’s art was also a vehicle for transporting the Flemish style throughout Europe, and during the second half of the 15th century his influence dominated painting in France, Germany, and Spain. Nevertheless, the fame of Rogier van der Weyden quickly waned, and no painting by him had been signed or dated. By the end of the 16th century the biographer Carel van Mander had referred mistakenly to two Rogiers in Het Schilderboek (1603; “Book of Painters”), and by the middle of the 19th century his fame and art had all but been forgotten. Only through a meticulous evaluation of the documents have scholars over the past century been able to reconstruct Rogier’s work and to restore the reputation of one of 15th-century Flanders’ leading masters.

The “Descent from the Cross” (or Deposition of Christ, or Descent of Christ from the Cross) a panel painting created c. 1435, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, is shown above. The crucified Christ is lowered from the cross, his lifeless body held by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The c. 1435 date is estimated based on the work’s style, and because the artist acquired wealth and renown around this time, most likely from the prestige this work allowed him.

It was painted early in his career, shortly after he completed his apprenticeship with Robert Campin and shows the older painter’s influence, most notable in the hard sculpted surfaces, realistic facial features and vivid primary colours, mostly reds, whites and blues. The work was a self-conscious attempt by van der Weyden to create a masterpiece that would establish an international reputation. Van der Weyden positioned Christ’s body in the T-shape of a crossbow to reflect the commission from the Leuven guild of archers (Schutterij) for their chapel Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten (Notre-Dame-hors-les-Murs).

Art historians have commented that this work was arguably the most influential Netherlandish painting of Christ’s crucifixion, and that it was copied and adapted on a large scale in the two centuries after its completion. The emotional impact of the weeping mourners grieving over Christ’s body, and the subtle depiction of space in van der Weyden’s work have generated extensive critical comments, one of the most famous being, that of Erwin Panofsky: “It may be said that the painted tear, a shining pearl born of the strongest emotion, epitomises that which Italian most admired in Early Flemish painting: Pictorial brilliance and sentiment”.

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