The Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) was the most influential northern artist of the 15th century. His style is characterized by fluency of line, rhythmic composition, and expressive intensity.
Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck, and Robert Campin were the founding fathers of the main traditions of early Netherlandish painting. The formal beauty and spiritual intensity of Weyden's art, however, made Netherlandish painting more readily accessible to succeeding generations of artists than the work of his two major contemporaries.
Rogier van der Weyden, probably born at Tournai, was the son of a master cutler. Weyden was apprenticed to Campin on March 5, 1427. In 1432 he was received into the Tournai guild as a master and presumably remained in that city for the next 3 years. In 1436 he is recorded in Brussels, where he was appointed city painter. With the exception of a pilgrimage to Rome in 1450, Weyden resided in Brussels the rest of his life.
Weyden neither signed nor dated his paintings and thus created major stylistic and chronological problems for recent historians of his art. The central issue is the relationship of Weyden to his master, Campin. This is especially critical in light of the fact that Campin is now most generally identified as the painter of a group of works formerly attributed to the anonymous Master of Flémalle.
Weyden's close connection to the style of these paintings can be seen most clearly in the Annunciation in Paris, which is one of the earliest works attributable to him. Numerous details of the setting as well as the spatial construction plainly rely on works by Campin (compare Campin's Mérode Altarpiece), yet major stylistic differences are also apparent. In place of Campin's earthy, robust figures, Weyden has substituted longer, more elegant types who enact the religious scene before, rather than within, the deep space of the room. A tendency to emphasize line over plastic shape and a greater sensibility to color are also marked features of Weyden's style that clearly demarcate his work from that of the Master of Flémalle. In short, few scholars today would subscribe to the once fashionable thesis that Weyden and the Master of Flémalle are one and the same painter.
The work of the period from about 1435 to 1445 is characterized by a developing awareness of the style of Jan van Eyck and a lessening of the Campin influence. Weyden's St. Luke Painting the Virgin in Boston (ca. 1435-1437) is largely based upon an Eyckian scheme but contains several typical Weydenian transformations. In place of Van Eyck's detailed treatment of the complexity and multiplicity of the external world, Weyden has substituted a reduced and simplified setting in order to heighten the spiritual content. This evidence of the painter's instinctive austerity confirms Erwin Panofsky's view (1953) that "Weyden's world was at once physically barer and spiritually richer than Jan van Eyck's."
The Crucifixion Triptych in Vienna (1440-1445) marks the boundary between the early style and the mature phase of Weyden's work. The painting still retains several Eyckian features, such as the continuous landscape background across all three panels, but it also introduces a new emotive quality in the sense of dramatic immediacy. In this connection another important innovation is the inclusion of two donors directly within the drama.
Close in spirit to the Vienna Crucifixion is the great Deposition panel in Madrid. The date of this work and the source of many of the influences that inspired it are still widely disputed, but the painting is universally recognized for its unique expression force. Based upon a sculptural device of compressing a maximum of form into a minimum of space, the work evokes sentiments of profound religiosity and emotional intensity. As one of the most influential paintings of its time, Weyden's Deposition firmly established the iconography for this subject for over half a century.
This period is initiated by the magnificent Last Judgment Altarpiece in Beaune (late 1440s), executed for Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of Burgundy. This gigantic altarpiece measures about 18 feet across when the wings are opened. Of all Weyden's paintings, none more fully reveals the artist's fundamental "Gothicism" in combination with a creative approach to the art of the past. In its austere and hieratic frontality, the painting displays the influence of Gothic sculpture, yet the absence of demons and other traditional symbols of the tortures of hell suggests a highly subjective, almost modern conception of Christian eschatology. Stylistically the work is distinguished by a greater attenuation of form and a more sophisticated treatment of line and color.
Weyden's journey to Rome in 1450 is evidenced by two paintings, the Entombment in Florence and the Virgin and Child with Peter, John the Baptist, Cosmas, and Damian in Frankfurt, which are based on unique Italian iconographies, yet remain thoroughly northern in style. The Braque Triptych in Paris, however, reveals a new, monumentalized conception of form that could only derive from a close study and appreciation of Italian painting.
The synthesis of the newly acquired "monumental style" with Weyden's inherently abstemious outlook is achieved in the Bladelin Triptych in Berlin-Dahlem (ca. 1452), an altarpiece painted for Pierre Bladelin, Receiver General of Burgundy. The theme of the Nativity is here treated in a manner that effectively fuses the painter's concern for both planar and spatial values. This is partially achieved by the use of a classic, triangular composition to stabilize the fluid, interlocking movement of forms upon the surface of the painting.
Weyden's so-called ultima maniera, which dates from about 1456 until his death in 1464, is based upon a sense of heightened spiritual refinement in combination with an increasing pictorial asceticism. This late style is first revealed in the austerely beautiful Crucifixion Diptych in Philadelphia, in which the artist has reduced the setting to a bare stone wall to heighten and dramatize the emotional content. Forms are elongated and dematerialized, thus conveying the spiritual message of the work in essentially abstract and stylized terms.
The St. Columba Altarpiece in Munich (ca. 1462) is the latest of Weyden's surviving works and forms a noble conclusion to his career. In this painting, his only treatment of the theme of the Adoration of the Magi, Weyden attains a total harmony of fluid surface design with formal balance and clarified spatial organization. Graphic beauty is achieved without sacrifice of mass or volume, while grace and elegance are revealed within a context of significant spirituality. One of the most passionate of all religious painters, Weyden has created a magisterial synthesis as his final legacy to northern painting.
Weyden's portraits reflect a stylistic development similar to that found in the religious works. The Portrait of a Young Lady in Berlin is an early work composed in the cold and detached manner of Jan van Eyck. The elegant Portrait of a Lady in Washington (ca. 1455) conforms to the more refined style of Weyden's middle period. Stylization and linear abstraction are here employed in order to impose the painter's own sense of aristocratic reserve upon the sitter. As a consequence, the work becomes a study of Weyden's own character rather than an objective statement of fact concerning another individual.
The impact of Weyden's art on European painting was so great as to virtually defy calculation. His influence can be seen in the next generation of Flemish painters and was also present to some degree in the work of almost every important French, German, and Spanish artist of the second half of the 15th century.
A brilliant appreciation of Rogier van der Weyden's work is in Erwin Panofsky Early Netherlandish Painting (2 vols., 1953), which contains a sensitive analysis of the painter's stylistic development and definitive survey of all the major paintings. For an older and now partially discredited view of Weyden's work, see volume 2 of Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, translated by H. Norden (2 vols., 1967). Rogier is discussed in R. H. Wilenski, Flemish Painters, 1430-1830 (2 vols., 1960); Margaret Dickens Whinney, Early Flemish Painting (1968); and Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel (1968).
Campbell, Lorne, Van der Weyden, New York: Harper & Row, 1980.