The Flemish painter Robert Campin (ca. 1375-1444), probably to be identified with the anonymous Master of Flémalle, was the first great innovator in early Netherlandish painting and one of the founders of the "new realism" in the north.
Robert Campin was probably born at Valenciennes in the north of France. He is first recorded in 1406, when he became a free master in Tournai. In 1410 he acquired citizenship in that city. In 1423 he was elected dean of the painters' guild and also chosen one of Tournai's three city councilors, a post he retained until 1428.
In 1432 Campin was charged with adultery; the sentence was banishment from Tournai for a year and a pilgrimage to the south of France. The personal intervention of the daughter of the Count of Holland, however, caused the sentence to be commuted to the payment of a small fine. This unusual action is generally interpreted as an indication of Campin's great artistic importance.
The Tournai records further state that Campin took two apprentices in 1427: Jacquelot Daret and Rogelet de le Pasture. The latter pupil is usually identified with the great Rogier van der Weyden. Perceiving a close stylistic proximity between the works of Rogier and the Master of Flémalle, some historians have grouped all the paintings under Rogier's name. Most authorities, however, are able to identify two distinct artistic personalities and to discern a clear master-pupil relationship between Campin and Rogier.
Among the earliest works attributable to Campin is a small Nativity (ca. 1420). In this panel, which shows one of the first uses of oil as a binding medium for pigments, he combines a mastery of weighty, material forms with the strong illusion of three-dimensional space. His robust and earthy sense of realism is revealed in both the figures and the landscape setting, through which he achieves an unprecedented degree of physical actuality and dramatic immediacy. Further advances in illusion and expression are also seen in the fragmentary Betrothal of the Virgin (ca. 1420).
Of Campin's surviving works, the so-called Mérode Altarpiece (ca. 1426) is generally considered his masterpiece. Investing each natural object in the painting with symbolic meaning, he has succeeded in presenting sacred and metaphysical events in terms of a thoroughly plausible earthly reality. A one-point perspective is employed for the first time in northern painting to organize the setting and provide compositional unity. Inconsistent lighting and active patterning of the surface at the expense of pictorial unity, however, produce minor disharmonies.
The Virgin and Child before a Fire Screen (usually dated ca. 1428) reveals more fully than any other work Campin's uncompromising spirit of materialism. In an attempt to eliminate all unreal conventions he has even employed a domestic fire screen to suggest a halo for the Virgin.
In the final phase of his career Campin appears to have fallen under Rogier's influence. The Von Werl Altarpiece (1438) shows the slender and idealized figure types of Rogier as well as the influence of his richer and warmer color scheme.
Among the few surviving portraits attributable to Campin, the panels of A Gentleman and a Lady are his finest. Strongly plastic and palpably real, these pictures represent major advances in characterization and individualization for the art of portraiture.
The most important book on the Master of Flémalle is Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. 2 (1924; trans. 1967). It contains a sensitive stylistic analysis of most of the artist's known works. Friedländer later revised his opinion and joined the ranks of those scholars who identify Rogier van der Weyden as the Master of Flémalle. Mojmir S. Frinta in The Genius of Robert Campin (1966) has attributed certain works traditionally associated with Rogier to Campin, but his arguments have not gained wide acceptance. Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting: From Pucelle to Bruegel (1968), contains a chapter on the Master of Flémalle, who is identified with Campin.
Schabacker, Peter H., Notes on the biography of Robert Campin, Brussel: AWLSK, 1980.