Jan van Eyck and Renaissance Art
Artists of the Low Countries participated in the growth of Renaissance art and influenced its development throughout the 15th century. The development of Renaissance art in the Low Countries in the court of the Dukes of Burgundy represents the earliest strands of the early modern period in the region.
This work of art by painter Jan van Eyck demonstrates the artistic innovations which occurred in the Low Countries during the Renaissance. By examining this work, which is one of many paintings on an altarpiece by van Eyck, one can see a greater emphasis on details compared to previous works of medieval art. Human faces are portrayed in a more detailed way, with emotions and distinct facial characteristics becoming discernible. This work is much more ambitious in the number of people who are depicted and demonstrates a developing understanding of perspective. The textures and folds of clothing are rendered in great detail. As the work is part of an altarpiece, religious motifs and figures are central to the painting.
The patronage of wealthy and powerful individuals was necessary for an artist during the Renaissance. Jan van Eyck painted many of his works in the city of Bruges, in Flanders, under the patronage of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. Prior to this occupation, van Eyck painted for other dukes (Tovell 90). The Ghent altarpiece was partially paid for through the patronage of an independent citizen of Ghent who van Eyck included in another panel of the altarpiece (Tovell 91, 104). Even during the early 15th century, citizens such as the patron for the Ghent altarpiece were involved in art in the Low Countries, a participation which expanded as the middle class grew in the Netherlands (see the page on Baroque Art).
While art historian Giorgio Vasari focuses primarily on Italian artists in the first volume of his Lives of the Artists, van Eyck’s style can be connected to his commentary on those artists. Vasari declares that in examining van Eyck’s contemporaries, which he places into the second period of Renaissance art, “We shall see compositions being designed with a greater number of figures and richer ornamentation, and design becoming more firmly grounded and more realistic and lifelike” (Vasari 90). Certainly van Eyck’s works indicate similar innovations developing outside of Italy.