Peasant Dance Painting

HOW the FLEMINGS brought depth to painting.

MAGICIANS OF THE BRUSH, 15th century Flemish artists like Jan van Eyck, painter of “The Arnolfini Marriage”, melded art and technology to craft a bridge between the flat appearance of medieval art and the rounder, more solid forms of the Renaissance. This dramatic leap evolved from the development of oil-painting techniques. Previously, painting had been done in tempera—pigment mixed into an egg-yolk binder. The paint, applied on a ground—a mixture of chalk and size (glue and water)—built up a layer (top left) that reflected light from opaque pigment, producing a dimensionless result. The Flemings were the first to mix pigment with vegeiable oils such as walnut or linseed to form a rich, translucent glaze that could be applied in thin coats or in a thick impasto layer for artistic effect. The twin results (above right): allowing light to penetrate translucent layers of glaze to create the illusion of depth and unleashing a range of tonality never before attainable— yellows brilliant enough to mock gold, vibrant reds, mesmerizing blues.

Color Depth

The drying process in oils permitted a more expressive topography. Texture could be emulated: The lush richness of the green velvet robe in the van Eyck became possible. One of the first Flemish painters to use this technique, van Eyck painted “The Arnolfini Marriage” as portrait and marriage certificate. The inscription “Jan van Eyck was here” appears above the mirror reflecting the artist and another witness.

The painting also reflects Renaissance man’s increasing interest in himself and his world. Painting had moved from what art historian Erwin Panofsky called a “precious or tortured sentiment. . . to simple, strong and uninhibited veracity”— scenes of folk life, for example, in the detail from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Peasant Dance” (above). The Flemish masters had jarred into motion an influence that spread to Italy and Germany: “a reconstruction rather than a mere representation of the visible world.”

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