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Flemish Painting and Northern Schools

Masterpieces / Highlights

The Collection

Alejandro Vergara
Alejandro Vergara
Museo del Prado Senior Curator Flemish Painting and Northern Schools (to 1700) [+]

The term Flemish painting refers to works produced from the 15th to the 17th centuries in the region that approximately coincides with modern-day Belgium. In the 15th century paintings began to be produced there wich captivated art lovers across Europe due to the realism of the details and the lustre of the surfaces, achieved through the new use of oil paint. Given that, from the late 15th century onwards, Spain and the old Low Countries were under the joint rule of the Habsburg dynasty, the Spanish monarchs were in an advantageous position to collect painting from this region. As a result, the Museo del Prado has one of the best and largest collections of Flemish painting in existence, numbering almost 1,000 works.

Notable within the collection of 15th-century painting is The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1399-1464), one of the great canonical works of the history of European art. Also well represented in the Prado are Robert Campin (ca.1375-1444), Hans Memling (active from 1465 to 1494) and, in the early 16th century, Gerard David (ca.1460-1523) and Jan Gossaert (ca.1478-1532).

Hieronmyous Bosch, known in Spain as El Bosco, is one of the painters who most fascinates modern museum visitors due to the remarkable fantastical world to be seen in his paintings and the satirical tone that he employed to criticise human behaviour. Some decades after the artist’s death, Philip II became the principal collector of his works, explaining why the Museo del Prado has the best and largest collection anywhere in the world.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Antwerp became one of Europe’s principal artistic centres. Emerging from its competitive art market were the first known landscapes, painted by Joachim Patinir (ca.1480-1524), and the Prado has four of his most important works. Also active in the 16th century was the great Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1552/30-1569), the creator of the exquisite and macabre Triumph of Death and also of The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day, one of the most important acquisitions made by the Museum in the past few decades.

The great figure of 17th-century Flemish painting was Rubens (1577-1640), who became the most celebrated artist in Europe and was also the favourite painter of his great Spanish patron, Philip IV. Rubens produced a sensual and majestic body of work inspired by the art of antiquity. The Museo del Prado has the largest collection of his works in existence, numbering around ninety paintings (depending on the acceptance or rejection of one or two attributions). Also extremely important are the Museum’s works by other 17th-century Flemish artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), Jordaens (1593-1678) and Van Dyck (1599-1641).

The Prado’s collection of German Renaissance painting is small but of high quality. It includes four important paintings by Dürer (1471-1528), including a self-portrait, and two important hunting scenes by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).

The Museum’s holdings of 17th-century Dutch painting are also small, due to the war between the Spanish monarchy and the northern provinces of the Low Countries at the time that the royal collections were principally assembled. Nonetheless, the Prado has an important painting by Rembrandt, Judith at Holofernes’ Banquet, and a notable group of landscapes by Jan Both (1618/22-1652) and Herman van Swanevelt (1603/4-1655), two Dutch artists who worked in Rome.

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