The Dutch-Burgundian sculptor Claus Sluter (ca. 1350-1405/1406) was the most important northern European sculptor of his age. He restored figural sculpture to its former monumental scale. He is considered a pioneer of "northern realism."
Claus Sluter was born in Haarlem. Records indicate that by 1380 he was active in the stonecutters' guild in Brussels. The present state of our knowledge does not afford a satisfactory answer to the question of his training and the formative influences on his style. It is conjectured that in this early period he worked on a set of seated prophets for the Brussels Town Hall.
Sluter's first certain activity occurred in 1385, when Philip the Bold called him to the court at Dijon to assist Jean de Marville in the design and preparation of statues for the facade of the chapel at the Chartreuse de Champmol, a nearby Carthusian monastery founded as a place of interment for the ducal succession. Whatever the nature of Sluter's apprenticeship, he apparently arrived at Dijon a complete master of his craft. At Marville's death in 1389, Sluter succeeded him and is generally credited with the execution of most of the surviving portal sculpture. Life-size portraits of Philip and his duchess, Margaret of Flanders, flank a freestanding group of the Madonna and Child. Not only is this work characterized by an unprecedented degree of sculptural realism, but the artist's feeling for organic form and the expression of human emotions are greatly advanced for the period.
In 1392 Sluter visited Paris to purchase alabaster, and in 1395 he made a trip to the Low Countries to buy marble. His next major commission was a Calvary group intended for the cloister of the Chartreuse de Champmol. Executed between 1395 and 1405, the Well of Moses, as it is usually called, is the only extant work entirely by Sluter. Of the original group, six large statues of prophets and an equal number of mourning angels are all that remain. These figures are especially noteworthy for the strong sense of tragedy which they evoke and the highly individualized treatment of character. Sluter's great feeling for sculptural form, combined with rich surface texture, is most fully revealed by the figures of Moses and Isaiah, which rank among the greatest masterpieces of medieval sculpture. His nephew and successor, Claus de Werve, assisted him, and Jean Malouel was responsible for gilding and polychroming the statues. Several of the figures still retain vestiges of the original paint.
When Philip the Bold died in 1404, Sluter was given the task of designing a tomb (now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon) for his great patron and benefactor. Though Sluter did not live to see the finished work—it was completed by Claus de Werve in 1410—it is thought that a major part of the carving is by his own hand. Much damaged during the French Revolution, the tomb was heavily restored in 1824. Sluter's chief contribution to the work is the figures of the mourners (pleurants), which are located in individual architectural niches below the recumbent form (gisant) of the duke. Intensely realistic, yet profoundly emotive, these mourners represent the highest achievement of his art. Too advanced for his age, Sluter had little impact on the subsequent development of late Gothic sculpture.
The most important work on Sluter is in German. A brief but excellent account in English of Sluter's style is in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (2 vols., 1953).