Is the work of 15th century Flemish artists ‘primitive’?

A great essay on why the so-called Northern Renaissance is sometimes put below that of the Italian, even called primitive by comparison. The opposite has always been true for me, Italian Ren mostly boring me, & everybody north of the Alps, with their atmospherics & intimate portraits & use of oils, being immensely more in all respects.

Melanie V Taylor

The 15th century Flemish artists have long been referred to as ‘primitive’.  You might ask why this idea that artists who hail from north of the Alps comes from and just who they are.  My concept of primitive is not quite the level of sophisticted observation depicted on a flat surface as seen in the works of Jan van Eyck (before 1390 – 1441), Robert Campin  (1372–1444) and Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464). Nor for that matter, Hugo van der Goes (1435/40 – 1482). In my article on the da Vinci painting of Christ as the Salvator Mundi, I described how this concept was not new having first been used by the Bruges illuminator, William Vrelant (d1481/2), in a Book of Hours dated 1465.

I suppose it all depends on your personal definition of ‘primitive’, which begs the question of how this description of these northern european artists came…

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2 replies »

  1. It’s all a matter of taste and getting beyond the view of historian as expert. Im not an academic, so my views are unashamedly primitive but looking at the 1500 Durer self-portrait in its lushness and passion against the Da Vinci portrait, where there is no hint of fleshy life in the depiction (stylised and presumably then, elevated in some way) I say maybe the fact that I can smell the scent of Durers humanity by looking into his painting is an argument for and not against it being primitive in all its glory. I have to add, I’m not against thoughts and manifestations of elevated thinking. There’s room for it all, after all

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  2. Durer is my dude for sure, all his figures have great weight & realness to them. Rembrandt too, or Vermeer, Brueghel. Da Vinci does too, that sad sickly lady talks to me just in a different way with her cold face. I’ve no idea why any of it should ever be called “primitive,” unless it’s an academic with a bone to pick making up some categories.

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