The Flemish Primitives

The Flemish Primitives

Artistic Movements, Periods and Styles in 5 Points

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The Flemish Primitives


  • The Flemish Primitives were a group of painters of the 15th and early 16th centuries, who developed panel painting in the region of Flanders and the Netherlands (more precisely the region that today would include Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Burgundy). It was the beginning of the Flemish school of painting and its first masters were Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck. There is no a definitive agreement regarding when this period ended, which were the last “Primitives”: some people consider that the period extended till 1523 —the death of Gerard David— and some people include Bruegel the Elder.
  • As art is the product of its time and circumstance, it is important to bear in mind that the region was in a time of economic prosperity. Commercial growth gave power to businessmen, and they became art consumers —partially replacing the Church. Many small works, for homes and not for religious temples were produced.
  • Religiousness remained the theme. Nevertheless, as we can imagine, the rich middle-class people who paid for the works became more important. They appeared first in the religious scenes, by Virgin Mary and the Saints and finally in individual portraits. We can see domestic scenes, reflecting life in the houses of the new rich.
  • A characteristic of the Flemish painting is the obsessive realism. Even the tiniest detail was to be represented. It is interesting to observe how —in the truthful representation of the faces— ideal beauty is left aside and wrinkles, double chins and beards of some days can be seen. In addition to matter, emotions are reflected, and in many cases we can talk about a “psychological portrait.” But in order to exaggerate expression sometimes realism reaches the point of a caricature.
  • The Flemish Primitives developed the modern technique of the oil which allowed more vivid and brilliant colors, more luminosity, and it was crucial for that precision, that attention to detail. We can observe this by comparing other works of the Flemish with those of their contemporary artists of the Italian quattrocento who did not use oil.


Representative artists: Jan van Eyck, Hubert van Eyck, Robert Campin (the Master of Flémalle), Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Memling, Hugo van der Goes, Bouts, Daret, Gerard David, El Bosco, Bruegel the Elder.


Image: The Descent from the Cross (before 1443). Rogier van der Weyden.


Recommended links:

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck.

The Money Changer and His Wife, Quentin Massys.

Artistic Movements, Periods and Styles in 5 Points: Humanism.

Artistic Movements, Periods and Styles in 5 Points: Vienna Secession.

Artistic Movements, Periods and Styles in 5 Points: Abstract Expressionism.

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