W = van der Weyden

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Rogier van der Weyden, portrait by Cort, 1572

Rogier van der Weyden, portrait by Cort, 1572

Rogier van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 –1464) or Roger de la Pasture was an early northern or Flemish painter, considered in talent to be just below Jan van Eyk, but highly successful and internationally famous during his lifetime. His work, that which has survived, consists mainly of triptychs with religious themes, altarpieces, and commissioned portraits, both single and diptych (double). His paintings are recognized for their rich, warm colors, emotional expression, and naturalism.

Due to the loss of archives and the devastating effects of World War II bombings, discovering biographical information about van der Weyden has been a challenge. Add to that the fact that many of his most important works were destroyed during the late 17th century. So it is only recently that a fuller picture of this painter has been created.

Van der Weyden was born in what is now Belgium) in 1399 or 1400, and he married around

The Nativity by Campin, 1425

The Nativity by Campin, 1425

1426. He studied painting under Robert Campin, now usually identified as the first great master of Flemish and Early Netherlandish painting. It seems that van der Weyden soon outshone his master and moved to Brussels (1435), where he quickly established his reputation for his technical skill in the use of line and color. He was made the town painter of Brussels in 1436, changing his name from the French to the Dutch style.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child and Madonna and Child with St. Catherine and the Visitation are thought to be early works completed by van der Weyden after he left Campin’s workshop. Other have argued these works should be

The Visitation

The Visitation

attributed to younger members of van der Weyden’s new workshop since they lack the ‘geometric harmony’ of his later work.

Compare these with his Descent from the Cross done in 1435, in oil on oak panel. This is considered to be his masterpiece in terms of its line, color and emotional expression and made him one of the most sought after and influential artists in northern Europe. As a result, he received commissions from Phillip the Good, Netherlandish nobility and foreign princes, and for while exceeded van Eyk in popularity.

Descent from the Cross

Descent from the Cross

Van der Weyden worked from life models and although his observations were sharp, he had a tendency to idealize facial features and create statuesque figures. In his later years, he seemed to develop a disregard for accuracy in figure representation, producing works with figures pitched at different scales and sometimes bent in impossible ways. The Miraflores Altarpiece is a good example. This triptych represents, from right to left, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, with Mary as the focus in both wings. It is notable for its use of whites, reds and blues, and pronounced use of line: see the line of Christ’s body in the central panel.

Miraflores Altarpiece, 1442

Miraflores Altarpiece, 1442

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a Lady

Van der Weyden was preoccupied by commissioned portraiture towards the end of his life and is highly regarded for his evocations of character. In Portrait of the Lady, a small oil on oak panel painting around 1460, the composition is built from the geometric shapes forming the woman’s veil, neckline, face, and arms, and by the fall of the light that illuminates her face and headdress. The woman’s reserved demeanor conveys humility; note her fragile physique, lowered eyes and tightly grasped fingers. I am including van der Weyden’s portrait of Philip the Good, one of his patrons. He did not try to capture particular characteristics of his model, but instead tried to create an ideal image, flattering the sitter, an approach which made van der Weyden very popular as a portraitist. Note his treatment of the sitter’s

Phillip the Good

Phillip the Good

hands, which he almost always painted joined together, so as not to distract from their faces. He also often enlarged the eyes, defined the contours of the face, and gave a much stronger jaw than the subject may have had.

Van der Weyden died on 18 June 1464 at Brussels, and was buried in the Cathedral of St. Gudulphe.

My favorite portrait is that of St. Ivo or Man Reading, which I find livelier than his other paintings. St. Ivo was a lawyer and worked on behalf of the poor. The painting is very much in van der Weyden’s style, but the drawing of the hands and the foreshortening of the face indicate that at least some of the painting was done by members of his workshop.

Saint Ivo or Portrait of a Man Reading

Saint Ivo or Portrait of a Man Reading

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