In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Netherlandish Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Museum Collection Catalogues
  • Primary Sources
  • Historiography and Reception History
  • Technical Analysis
  • Markets for Art
  • Image and Fact
  • Portraiture
  • Visual Piety
  • Social Position in the City and At Court
  • Gender
  • Cultural Exchange

Renaissance and Reformation Early Netherlandish Art
Elliott D. Wise, Bret Rothstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0225


The term “early Netherlandish art” here refers to objects produced, and to a considerable extent consumed, between roughly 1380 and 1520 in the Low Countries, an area that encompasses modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands. This region underwent a number of seismic cultural shifts during the “long 15th century,” including the birth of modern banking, the rise of regional and linguistic identity, the growth of a middle class, and fundamental changes in vernacular religious practice. Part and parcel of these changes was a remarkable efflorescence of visual expression motivated by shifts in economic and political identity and fueled by the readily available capital, both owned and loaned. The historical result is a visual culture that demonstrates remarkable complexity. Visual piety, for instance, betrays significant evidence of vernacular literacy (propelled by the printing press), its objects requiring responses that are both emotionally charged and thoughtful, at times even erudite. Far from simply a mechanism to extract tears from a credulous populace, religious imagery became an ever more refined and idiosyncratic tool for self-reform. Political expression seems to have become similarly complex, with civic identity becoming ever more important as conflicts between cities and their noble rulers became increasingly common. Thus, while in some ways visual expression represented a continuation of earlier practices, this efflorescence in the visual arts presented opportunities for the enterprising artist to transform how people conceived of art in the first place. It should come as no surprise, then, that artists who commanded high prices and enjoyed a large body of quite competitive patrons—including Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, the Limbourg brothers, Gerard Loyet, Claus Sluter, and Rogier van der Weyden—were both able and willing to pursue quite striking and, at times, boldly self-conscious sorts of innovation. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that such innovation should occur, given both the expansion of the market for art and the kinds of discernment that governed it.

General Overviews

The majority of scholarship on this subject has tended to favor panel painting (e.g., Snyder 2005), usually to the exclusion of other media. In truth, tapestries, manuscripts, and metalwork outstripped their more familiar counterparts with respect to monetary value and social status. Nonetheless, readers will be hard-pressed to find a proper representation of this outside a few sources, especially Smith 2004 and, to a lesser extent, Harbison 1995 and Nash 2008. Huizinga 1996, Prevenier and Blockmans 1986, and van Uytven 1998 all provide excellent insight into visual and material culture, though none is an art historical study in the strictest sense of the term.

  • Friedländer, Max J. Early Netherlandish Painting. 14 vols. Translated by Heinz Norden. New York: Praeger, 1967–1976.

    This multivolume classic is critical to the historiography of Netherlandish art. Organized by artist, the series begins with the brothers van Eyck and ends with Pieter Bruegel. Friedländer’s methodology may seem outdated by today’s trends, but much of his scholarship has withstood the test of time. Originally published with Francis Wormald as Die Altniederländische Malerei (Leiden, The Netherlands: A. W. Sijthoff, 1924–1937).

  • Harbison, Craig. The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context. New York: Prentice Hall, 1995.

    An accessible, if brief, social history of how images circulated in 15th- and 16th-century northern Europe, with an accent on the Low Countries and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Organized thematically rather than chronologically or by medium. Published in the United Kingdom as The Art of the Northern Renaissance (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995).

  • Huizinga, Johan. The Autumn of the Middle Ages. Translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

    Though old (the original dates from 1919), this text still offers astute observations about the Netherlandish life of the senses. This translation has problems, but it provides Huizinga’s text in full. An earlier version, The Waning of the Middle Ages (London: E. Arnold, 1924), is less stilted, but it offers only an abridged text.

  • Nash, Susie. Northern Renaissance Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    A well-illustrated account of art from the later 14th through mid-16th centuries in northern Europe. Particularly strong on the production and circulation of painting, sculpture, and prints.

  • Pächt, Otto. Van Eyck: And the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting. Edited by Maria Schmidt-Dengler and translated by David Britt. London: Harvey Miller, 1994.

    This is the first of two volumes dedicated to the development of a new naturalism in 15th-century Netherlandish painting, epitomized by the work of Jan van Eyck. Originally published as Van Eyck: Die Begründer der alniederländischen Malerei (Munich: Prestel, 1989).

  • Pächt, Otto. Early Netherlandish Painting: From Rogier van der Weyden to Gerard David. Translated by David Britt. London: Harvey Miller, 1997.

    This second volume considers the development of van Eyck’s innovations in the work of his “successors” during the second half of the 15th century and beginning of the 16th. These later artists are characterized by their derivation from or opposition to Pächt’s Eyckian archetype. Originally published as Altniederländische Malerei von Rogier van der Weyden bis Gerard David (Munich: Prestel, 1994).

  • Prevenier, Walter, and Wim Blockmans. The Burgundian Netherlands. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    Primarily a social history, this book provides invaluable historical background for anyone interested in visual culture of the day. Beautifully illustrated, including a number of images rarely seen elsewhere, and with some attention to the intellectual, political, and religious place of images.

  • Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. The Northern Renaissance. London: Phaidon Press, 2004.

    A rich and subtle account of visual culture in northern Europe more generally. Avoids undue emphasis on painting as well as excessive attention to the Low Countries while still attending nicely to both. Organized in a largely thematic manner; offers an especially sophisticated narrative of the topic.

  • Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. Edited by Larry Silver and Henry Luttikhuizen. Rev. ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005.

    A broad survey of arts in northern Europe, as befits a textbook. Though the revision marks a significant improvement on the original, this book still emphasizes panel painting, dedicating whole chapters to specific artists, treating manuscript illumination as easel painting in the making, and confining other media to secondary roles.

  • van Uytven, Raymond. De zinnelijke middeleeuwen. 2d ed. Leuven, Belgium: Davidsfonds, 1998.

    A social history of sense perception in the medieval and early modern Low Countries. Subdivided by objects of attention, including wine, women, clothing, food, odor, and music.

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