The Dutch painter Dirk Bouts (c. 1415-1475) was active in Flanders. His work is characterized by dignity, sobriety, and a heightened sensitivity in the depiction of realistic landscape settings.
Dirk Bouts whose real name was Theodorik Romboutszoon, was probably born in Haarlem, where he may have studied under the painter Albert van Ouwater. Sometime before 1450 Bouts took up residence in the Flemish city of Louvain. His name appeared in the records of Louvain in 1457 and again in 1468, when he was appointed "city painter."
It is likely that Bouts spent some time in Bruges, as his earliest work, the Infancy Altarpiece shows the distinct and strong influence of Petrus Christus, the leading master of that city after the death of Jan van Eyck. The slightly later Deposition Altarpiece (ca. 1450) displays strong connections with the style of Rogier van der Weyden in both the figure types and the composition. About 1460, the period of the Entombment in London, the early, formative influence of Petrus Christus had been almost totally displaced by that of Rogier, though Bouts's personal vision began to emerge in the fluid and continuous landscape background.
The great Last Supper Altarpiece (1464-1467) marks the high point of Bouts's career. In this solemn and dignified masterpiece the painter achieved spiritual grandeur in the context of convincing physical reality. The central panel of the altarpiece is the most emphatically significant treatment of the theme of the Last Supper in Northern European art. The wings, which contain Old Testament prefigurations of the central theme, are freer and more loosely organized. Eschewing the symmetry and rigid axial construction of the main panel, Bouts produced rhythmic foreground compositions in combination with fluid and dramatic spatial recessions.
In 1468 Bouts was commissioned to paint four panels on the subject of justice for the Town Hall of Louvain. At the painter's death in 1475 only two of the paintings had been completed; they are among the most remarkable productions of his career. The unusual subjects, taken from the chronicles of a 12th-century historian, concern the wrongful execution by Emperor Otto III of one of his counts and the subsequent vindication of the nobleman by his wife. The finer of the panels represents the dramatic trial by fire which the wife was obliged to undergo to prove her husband's innocence. Rich draperies and sumptuous colors are applied to tall angular forms to create a work of rare formal elegance and high decorative appeal. In order to dignify the event, however, the artist has employed restrained gestures and expressions as well as a completely rationalized spatial setting. As in the Last Supper Altarpiece, a sense of solemn and hieratic importance is expressed by means of an austere and rigid geometry in the construction of both persons and places.
The late productions of Bouts's workshop, such as the well-known Pearl of Brabant Altarpiece, are characterized by the close collaboration of the painter's two sons, Dirk the Younger (1448-1491) and Aelbrecht (1455/1460-1549). In the paintings of his less gifted sons, the master's distinctive figure style was appreciably altered, though Dirk the Younger appears to have retained much of his father's sensitivity to the landscape.
In addition to his innovations in the depiction of landscape, Bouts made a substantial contribution to the development of the portrait. His Portrait of a Man (1462) localizes the sitter in an enlarged architectural setting while permitting the interior space to merge with the exterior through an open window. For the first time in Northern painting a common bond was forged between a particularized individual and the universal world of nature.
A full account of Bouts's career is in Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. 3 (trans. 1968). It contains a sensitive analysis of the style of Bouts and his major followers. For shorter notices see the excellent essays in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character (2 vols., 1953), and Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel (1968).