Despite its small geographic size, Belgium has exerted a significant influence on western art. The works of Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens, van Dyck, the brothers van Eyck, and Magritte represent only a fraction of the treasures you see gracing the walls of the notable art museums in Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp.
The golden age of Flemish painting occurred in the 1400s, a century dominated by the so-called Flemish Primitives -- so-dubbed because they were "first," not because they were unsophisticated -- whose work was almost always religious in theme, usually commissioned for churches and chapels, and largely lacking in perspective. As the medieval cities of Flanders flourished, more and more princes, wealthy merchants, and prosperous guilds became patrons of the arts.
Art's function was still to praise God and illustrate religious allegory, but Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441), one of the earliest Flemish Masters, brought a sharp new perspective to bear on traditional subject matter. His Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, created with his brother Hubert for St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, incorporates a realistic landscape into its biblical theme. The Primitives sought to mirror reality, to portray both people and nature exactly as they appeared to the human eye, down to the tiniest detail, without classical distortions or embellishments. These artists would work meticulously for months -- even years -- on a single commission, often painting with a single-haired paintbrush to achieve a painstakingly lifelike quality.
The greatest Flemish artist of the 16th century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525-69), lived and worked for many years in Antwerp. From 1520 to 1580 the city was one of the world's busiest ports and banking centers, and it eclipsed Bruges as a center for the arts. Many of the artists working here looked to the Italian Renaissance Masters for their models of perfection. Bruegel, who had studied in Italy, integrated Renaissance influences with the traditional style of his native land. He frequently painted rural and peasant life, as in his Wedding Procession, on view at the Musée de la Ville in Brussels.
In 1563, Bruegel moved to Brussels, where he lived at rue Haute 132. Here his two sons, also artists, were born. Pieter Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1564-1637) became known for copying his father's paintings; Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) specialized in decorative paintings of flowers and fruits.
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was the most influential baroque painter of the early 17th century. The drama in his works, such as The Raising of the Cross, housed in the Antwerp cathedral, comes from the dynamic, writhing figures in his canvases. His renditions of the female form gave rise to the term "Rubenesque," which describes the voluptuous women who appear in his paintings.
Portraitist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), one of the most important talents to emerge from Rubens's studio, served as court painter to Charles I of England, though some of his best religious work remains in Belgium. Look for the Lamentation in the Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, and the Crucifixion in Mechelen Cathedral.
Belgium's influence on the art world is by no means limited to the Old Masters. James Ensor (1860-1949) was a late-19th-century pioneer of modern art. One of his most famous works is the Entry of Christ into Brussels. Ensor developed a broadly expressionistic technique, liberating his use of color from the demands of realism. He took as his subject disturbing, fantastic visions and images.
Surrealism flourished in Belgium, perhaps because of the earlier Flemish artists with a penchant for the bizarre and grotesque. Paul Delvaux (1897-1989) became famous, but the best known of the Belgian surrealists was unquestionably René Magritte (1898-1967). His neatly dressed man in the bowler hat, whose face is always hidden from view, became one of the most famous images of the surrealist movement. Many of these modern works can be seen in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Koninklijke Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp. The fine-arts museums in Ghent, Tournai, and Liège, and the modern art museums in Antwerp and Ostend, are also major sources.
Examples of great Gothic civic architecture abound in Flanders. The great ecclesiastical examples are St. Michael's Cathedral, in which the choir is the earliest Gothic work in Belgium, and the churches of Our Lady in Mechelen, St. Peter's in Leuven, and St. Bavo's in Ghent. Antwerp Cathedral is perhaps the most imposing example of late Gothic; it was begun in 1352 at the east end and the nave was completed in 1474.
Among the finest examples of commercial Gothic architecture are the Cloth Hall at Ypres (built 1200-1304), the Cloth Hall in Mechelen, the Butchers Guildhall in Ghent, and the Butchers Guildhall in Antwerp. Gothic style continued dominant until the early 16th century, when Renaissance decorative elements began to appear.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Belgium produced one of the greatest exponents of the new Art Nouveau style of architecture and interior design, the prime materials of which were glass and iron, worked with decorative curved lines and floral and geometric motifs. The work of Victor Horta (1861-1947) can be seen in Brussels at the Tassel House (1893), the Hôtel Solvay (1895), and the ambitious Maison du Peuple (1896-99), with its concave, curved facades and location within an irregularly shaped square.
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