Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Self Portrait, 1623. © The Royal Collection 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The first ever exhibition of Flemish paintings from the Royal Collection is showing at The Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh.
Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting runs until April 6 2007 and brings together 51 works from the 15th to 17th centuries, including masterpieces by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jan Brueghel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hans Memling.
Although by the 1550s the Netherlands was enjoying a level of wealth unmatched in the west for centuries, the 80 Years War with Spain, from 1568 to 1648, wrecked the country’s infrastructure and creative industries.
The paintings in the exhibition were produced in the southern Spanish-ruled part of Netherlands during this turbulent period, once peace had finally been restored.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-7. © The Royal Collection 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Flemish art centred on Antwerp, which had the largest middle class, finest quality luxury goods and the best painters in Europe. Flemish portrait painting was admired for its meticulous technique, attention to detail and realism. Artists used a variety of techniques to heighten the relationship between viewer and sitter, like Jan Gossaert’s use of a fictive inner frame in The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark.
Flemish art also often took ancient or biblical stories and recast them within contemporary surroundings, as in Hans Vredeman de Vries’ Christ in the House of Mary and Martha - set in a prosperous Antwerp merchant’s home.
King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents was also recast by Pieter Bruegel as a deceptively calm winter scene of a Flemish village. The villagers are, however, the innocents, being attacked by Imperial Habsburg troops, a savage satire of the war with Spain.
Jan Gossaert, The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark, 1526. © The Royal Collection Copyright 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Flemish artists were considered the best landscape painters in the mid-16th century, and the exhibition shows three of Ruben’s greatest landscapes – The Farm at Laken, Summer and Winter, painted for the artist’s personal pleasure and originally hung at his home in Antwerp.
Unlike their Dutch counterparts, Flemish artists enjoyed the patronage of the Catholic church, and the exhibition displays a number of religious works, painted in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance and influenced by classical antiquity.
At the heart of the exhibition are paintings created during the reign of the Archduke Albert and his wife, the Infanta Isabella, regents of the Spanish crown from 1598-1633. From this period comes a powerful series of portraits by Van Dyck and Rubens, including the latter’s self portrait.