As working, and sometimes teaching, artists it is very gratifying to see a pupil excel. And, it is an ironic twist of art history that sometimes an artists is remembered not so much for his own work but for the influence he may have had upon the work of a student who turns out to be a far greater painter. The Florentine master, Ghirlandaio, is as much recalled for his having trained Michelangelo as for his own early Renaissance work. In the Netherlands, about this same time there was kind of a reverse twist on this. An artist referred to now as the Master of Flemalle is known primarily by tracing his distinct painting style back through the work of two of his known students, somewhat lesser Flemish painters, Rogier van der Weyden and Jacques Daret. It is through the work of Daret and van der Weyden (whose work is easily on a par with his assumed instructor's) that art historians have mostly attributed the work of the Master of Flemalle to Robert Campin.
Just as the attribution of his name to the work of the Master of Flemalle is a bit shaky, so is Robert Campin's date of birth, thought to be around 1378. Similarly, almost nothing is known of his early years until his work came to prominence around 1406 in the city of Tournai. Often another Flemish master, Jan van Eyck, is given credit for everything from inventing oil painting to "humanising" the painting of the human figure and the "discovery" of naturalism. Robert Campin was several years his senior and many of these characteristics can be seen in work attributed to him dated well before that of van Eyck. The Entombment, was painted between 1410 and 1420, which puts this earliest work some ten to twenty years before van Eyck's most famous masterpiece, the Arnolfini Wedding. It is clear therefore, that Campin must be credited, along with van Eyck, as being one of the founders of the Flemish School of painting, which was the shining star of the entire Northern Renaissance.
Campin's work marked a radical break with what had been, that is, the elegant, gold-leafed, International Gothic Style. His most famous work, The Merode Altarpiece, painted around 1425-28, seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap between ancient religious events and the life and times in which he lived. Divided into three panels depicting the painting's donors in prayer on the left, peering through an open door to the main panel, an annunciation, while Joseph tinkers in his carpentry shop on the right, is set in thoroughly Flemish surroundings. Mary is dressed in the current fashion of the day, in a middle-class Flemish interior, before a fireplace, leaning against what we would today call a church pew. The one-point perspective is exceedingly natural even though it was not typical of the time. And Campin makes good use of the then-new medium of oil painting in rendering in extreme detail everything from the lavish folds in his draped figures to a distant cityscape seen through a window in Joseph's carpentry shop. Given such a breakthrough in style, such mastery of the new medium of oil painting, and such a warm, homey, yet inspirational altarpiece, it's a shame the Master of Flemalle chose, in the Medieval tradition, not to sign his work. Fortunately for art historians, with the dawn of the fifteenth century, he was one of the last painters who failed to do so.
contributed by Lane, Jim
23 August 1999