Netherlandish School of Painting Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Netherlandish painters, instrumental in the development of Renaissance art, adopted new advancements in Humanistic thinking while conserving aspects of their strongly spiritual Gothic past.

Summary of Event

The year 1500 was a watershed in the cultural history of the Netherlands, as Gothic spiritualism gave way to the new Humanism Humanism;Netherlands of the Renaissance. Building more on their Gothic heritage than upon the Greco-Roman past of their Italian counterparts, artists in the Netherlands introduced into painting a new naturalism, an attention to detail, and a rich color palette that influenced even the great Italian Renaissance masters. Painting;Netherlands Goes, Hugo van der Bosch, Hieronymus Bruegel, the Elder, Pieter Philip II (1527-1598) Goes, Hugo van der Ghirlandaio, Domenico Botticelli, Sandro Leonardo da Vinci Bosch, Hieronymus Michelangelo Raphael Gossaert, Jan Massys, Quentin Aertsen, Pieter Patinir, Joachim de Bruegel, Pieter, the Elder Philip II (king of Spain) Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648)

Located between France and the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) and with ports along the North Sea, the Netherlands was ideally situated for trade. In addition to providing financial benefits, trade facilitated cultural exchanges across Europe. With the support of wealthy patrons and inspiration from an influx of new ideas, Netherlandish artists developed a unique style that combined the spiritualism of the earlier Gothic era with the new Renaissance emphasis on Humanism.

Contributing to the conservative aspect of Netherlandish art were the guilds, medieval trade organizations that oversaw the training of artists and the production and sale of artworks. In Italy, the influence of the guild system was diluted early in the Renaissance; however, in the north the guilds remained powerfully influential. Young apprentices followed in the tradition of successful older masters, whose Gothic altarpieces held prominent places in churches. The Church itself acted as a conservative force, as it struggled to carry on its traditions by dictating style and content in its commissions.

It was typically through private commissions that artists in the north could experiment with new stylistic concepts. Hugo van der Goes introduced a startling new naturalism into his Portinari altarpiece (c. 1474-1476) with the depiction of three shepherds shown as rustic peasants with weathered faces and calloused hands. Privately commissioned and placed in a family chapel in Florence, the Portinari altarpiece drew the attention of Italian artists, and the theme of the three peasant shepherds was borrowed by the Florentine master Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). Hugo’s masterpiece also was innovative in its new interest in perspective and in the increased volume in some of its figures; both were movements away from the Gothic emphasis on flatness and linearity.

In addition to introducing a new naturalism, the paintings of Hugo and his Netherlandish contemporaries reflected an attention to realistic detail—especially in the depiction of objects such as flowers—details that were to find their way into the works of Italian artists such as Sandro Botticelli (c. 1444-1510). Also of interest to the Italian artists was the Netherlanders’ use of oil paint (linseed or walnut oil mixed with pigments), which created an intensely rich color palette and permitted artists to rework areas, thereby enabling painters to create nuances of shading and modeling. Various forms of oil paint had been in use for centuries, but it was in the Netherlands that painters developed the medium fully and introduced to the rest of Europe its potential for brilliant color and workability. It was with oil paint that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and his contemporaries would create subtle shadings in masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa (1503).

Another Netherlandish artist who used private commissions to experiment was the enigmatic Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights Garden of Earthly Delights, The (Bosch) (c. 1505-1510), takes the form of a triptych (three-paneled altarpiece) on which are depicted the Creation of Eve, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and Hell. Bosch’s imaginative forms and fantastic creatures create an otherworldly environment and have stimulated much debate as to the painter’s intended meaning. Bosch’s dream worlds have been variously interpreted as sinister delvings into alchemy to stern morality lessons about the dire consequences of sin.

Two schools of Netherlandish art developed between 1500 and 1530: Mannerism Mannerism;Netherlands (mannered or artificial) and Romanism Romanism, Netherlands (Roman style). Mannerism was centered in the flourishing artistic community of Antwerp, a prosperous harbor city in what is now Belgium. Mostly anonymous, the Antwerp mannerists appealed to the tastes of the clergy by creating compositions with lavish iconography, religious themes, and decorative elaboration. Mannerist works were so popular that an entire industry developed to produce copies of the most popular compositions.

Romanism developed when northern artists returned home from visits to Italy, bringing with them the classical styles of Italian masters such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520). Romanist artists used pagan themes to create fanciful classical compositions focusing on decorative architectural elements and undraped figures. One excellent example of Romanist painting is Neptune and Amphitrite Neptune and Amphitrite (Gossaert) (1516) by Jan Gossaert (c. 1478-c. 1532).

Following the start of the Protestant Reformation Reformation;painting and (1517), waves of iconoclasm (the destruction of religious icons or images) spread across Europe and religious commissions grew increasingly scarce, particularly in the northern Protestant provinces of the Netherlands, where artists turned to genre scenes (scenes from everyday life), still-life painting, and landscape painting in an attempt to appeal to a new class of patrons—the wealthy merchants. Even in secular works, Netherlandish artists included allusions to their spiritual beliefs. Quentin Massys (c. 1466-1530) captured the activities of the burgeoning merchant class in his genre scene The Money Changer and His Wife Money Changer and His Wife, The (Massys) (1514), which depicts an industrious couple at work, surrounded by references to both their secular trade and their religious duties. The dual allusions are also included in Pieter Aertsen’s (1507/1508-1575) still life Butcher’s Stall Butcher’s Stall (Aertsen)[Butchers Stall (Aertsen)] (1551), in which religious scenes are juxtaposed with secular scenes, all incorporated into an ostensibly ordinary still life of meat. In his painting Landscape with St. Jerome Landscape with St. Jerome (Patinir)[Landscape with Saint Jerome (Patinir)] (c. 1515-1524), Joachim de Patinir (c. 1485-1524) painted a subtle religious scene in which he adopted elements of the fanciful landscapes of his predecessor Bosch and introduced the new interest in naturalism of his own era.

Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, combined the best elements of landscape, still-life, and genre scenes into his depictions of Netherlandish peasant life. Bruegel completed a series of landscape renderings while traveling in Italy. When he returned home, Bruegel translated his interest in general landscapes into a series of paintings depicting monumental landscapes, which serve as settings for a celebration of the daily lives of the ordinary peasant class. Bruegel’s interest in seasonal activities probably derived from paintings of seasons found in medieval aristocratic calendars, but in Bruegel’s works, the medieval aristocrats were replaced with contemporary country peasants, shown with startling naturalism in unselfconscious poses as they go about their daily lives. Scholars debate whether Bruegel’s paintings are literal views of simple peasant activities or are metaphors for a deeper religious significance.

During this period, the Netherlands was under the control of Spain. Recognizing the unique talents of the northern artists, the Spanish became avid collectors of Netherlandish art. The most ardent of these collectors was Philip II, whose acquisitions of Netherlandish paintings included works by Roger van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464), Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), and Joachim de Patinir. Philip took a particular interest in collecting the works of Hieronymus Bosch, whose Garden of Earthly Delights still hangs in Philip’s palace in Madrid, now known as the Prado Museum, home to one of the world’s great collections of Netherlandish paintings.

Rule by a single nation did not create cultural unity across the Netherlands. The northern provinces spoke Dutch and, following the Reformation, adopted Protestantism. The southernmost provinces spoke both Flemish and French and remained Catholic after the Reformation. The northern provinces gained their independence and formed the Dutch Republic after the Dutch Wars of Independence (1568-1648). The southern provinces formed what was to be known as Flanders. From this point, the arts of the Netherlands are referred to as Dutch art and Flemish art respectively.


It is commonly believed that Italy was the sole birthplace of Renaissance art, but many critical developments in Renaissance painting came out of the Netherlands. Netherlandish painters contributed to Renaissance art through their understanding of perspective and through their unique depiction of pictorial space and volume, detailed observations of nature, and significant discoveries in the potentials of oil paint.

Netherlandish painters were adept at altering their styles to meet the challenges of frequently changing art markets caused by turbulent political and religious events. True to their Gothic emphasis on spiritualism, Netherlandish painters held firm to their religious convictions even in the harsh light of Renaissance Humanism.

In the end, although split by the Reformation, their Netherlandish religious roots brought forth two new nations—the Dutch Republic and Flanders, inheritors of the great artistic traditions of the Netherlands. The seventeenth century was to become known as the golden age of Dutch and Flemish art.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borchert, T.-H., ed. The Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting, 1430-1530. Bruges, Belgium: Ludion, 2002. An exhibition catalog that reverses the long-held belief that Renaissance styles originated in Italy and flowed northward, arguing that many northern artistic traits served as models for the Italian Renaissance masters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Campbell, L. The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools. London: National Gallery Publications, 1998. Good overview of Netherlandish painting (1400-1500) using examples from the collection of the National Gallery in London.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rabb, T. “How Italian Was the Renaissance?” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33, no. 4 (2003): 569-575. Brief but comprehensive overview of the artistic innovations of Netherlandish artists during the Renaissance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stechow, W. Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966. Classic compilation of primary sources.

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1531-1585: Antwerp Becomes the Commercial Capital of Europe

Categories: History