The art of Northern Europe in the Renaissance is prized for it’s technique and clarity. The artists I prefer are those who captured everyday life vividly and yet seemed to put a hidden meaning behind the picture. Some paintings, like “The Marriage of Arnolfini” by Jan van Eyck, are heavily layered with symbolism.
For a basic introduction to Northern European painters from the 15th though 17th centuries, try these websites.
- A timeline of all artists with links to specific pages.
- Background information about the period artists.
- Historic overview and related art.
- The MET’s exhibit of art from this period.
I do have a few favorites from this period. The first, and favorite of the favorites, is Jan Vermeer. Vermeer lived in the Dutch city of Delft during his short life (1632 – 1675). He came from modest means and his father was involved with the art trade in Delft. He married and had fourteen children, which might explain his debt and small body of work, only 34 paintings. The mysterious model in his work, “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” prompted a novel which was later turned into a film by the same name.
Most of his work was purchased by a single wealthy patron and never circulated which probably hindered his ability to market himself, although he was a successful art dealer aside from an artist. It wasn’t until much later after his death that people began to discover his work. His paintings are most admired for the quality of pigment used and technique although exactly how he worked out his paintings remains a mystery.
For additional information about Vermeer, see
Pieter de Hooch
Pieter de Hooch (1629 – 1684) is a contemporary of Vermeer and a painter in the style of the Delft School. Like Vermeer, he painted domestic life, although his work includes many other subjects as well. While working for a linen-merchant and art collector in Haarlem, he got to travel to Delft where he later lived.
He married in Delft and had seven children. While in Delft he studied with other masters including Carel Fabritius and Nicolaes Maes. It was during this time that he painted his domestic subjects, influenced by his own family life.
From Delft he moved to Amsterdam where both his work and health slowly deteriorated until his death in 1684.
For additional information about Hooch, see
Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck (1385 – 1441) is a predecessor of both Hooch and Vermeer and considered one of the foremost European painters of the late middle ages. If one looks at his body of work, you can see how he transitioned from the medieval style of painting to the renaissance style. My favorite painting is “The Marriage of Arnolfini” (1434), which shows the clarity and simplicity of the Dutch style and yet is laden with imagery and symbolism. Much of his work is heavily influenced by religion.
Besides being a painter, he was also “valet de chambre” to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. Eyck was well paid for both his services and his art. His relationship and character cemented a high position in the society of that period. The Duke had such regard for Eyck that after his death he cared for his surviving family members.
There is proof in both his technique and subject matter, the use of latin in his paintings, that he was an educated man.
We chose “The Marriage of Arnolfini,” the painting shown here, for our wedding bulletin.
For additional information about Eyck, see
Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528) is considered to be the German Leonardo da Vinci, as he was a painter as well as a mathematician. His work not only includes works in oil but also woodcuts, water colors and drawings. He has an unusual amount of self portraits. His background was in printing, which was a family business and his apprenticeship. His access to the literary world probably explains his autobiographies.
He traveled to Italy several times where he studied with the masters of the time and learned techniques he would apply to his own style with native German artistic techniques. It was during his time in Italy when he painted some of the first purely landscape paintings known to exist.
Although he married, the match produced no children and it’s thought the marriage was simply so that he could form his own workshop in Nuremberg. In 1521 he caught an incurable illness which limited his production of work.
Although he remained a life-long Catholic, Durer was was sympathetic to Martin Luther. During his life, Durer considered Willibald Pirckheimer, Erasmus and other great intellectuals of the period to be close friends. He felt his own education had been lacking and relied on them for insight. Despite this, he produced two books, one on geometry and perspective called The Painter’s Manual, the first book about mathematics for adults published in German, and a work on fortification. Additional work on human proportion was published posthumously in 1528.
Although he died, like the other artists, at a relatively early age due to poor health, he left his widow a sizable estate.
We have a Durer print in our living room. It’s a portrait of a gentleman. We call him “Uncle Albert.” However, we’ve lately found out that it’s a portrait of King Maximillian II.
For additional information about Durer, see