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Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
Medieval Europe
Works on paper
Renaissance in Europe
The High Renaissance
16th century in Europe
     Cranach and Holbein
     Bosch and Brueghel
     El Greco

17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
To be completed

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Cranach and Holbein: 1505-1553

An almost exact contemporary of Dürer is Lucas Cranach, but his career follows a very different path. Whereas Dürer keeps his own independent studio, Cranach serves for almost half a century, from 1505, as court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg. As a result he produces endless portraits of the worthies of Saxony, resulting in a marked deterioration from the early style of his youth.

His good fortune, historically, is that from 1517 Wittenberg is at the heart of Germany's religious upheavals. Cranach finds himself, ex officio, the portrait painter of the Reformation. It is from his brush that we know the features of Luther, Melanchthon and other reformers.


Cranach and his studio also provide numerous other pictures which greatly appeal to the nobles of Saxony. These are paintings of impossibly elongated nudes, in provocative postures and often wearing just a large hat or necklace. They derive from the Venuses painted in Italy at this time, but transform them into something much closer to high-class pornography.

A generation younger than Cranach, and altogether more solemn as a painter, is Hans Holbein. If Cranach is the portrait painter of the German Reformation, Holbein fulfils the same role for the leaders of the northern Renaissance.


In 1520 Holbein establishes a studio in Basel. In the following year Erasmus comes to live in the city. Holbein paints the great scholar twice in 1523 and is given letters of introduction to humanist colleagues in the Netherlands and in England.

As a result, in the winter of 1526, Holbein finds himself lodging in the house of Thomas More in Chelsea. He paints here the earliest domestic family portrait in the history of art, showing More and nine of his relations grouped in a room at home (the image survives only in copies and in Holbein's original drawing).


On this first occasion Holbein stays only two years in England, but he paints a great many portraits during his visit - including the large series of coloured drawings now in Windsor castle. In 1528 he returns to Basel, but he is back in England by 1532. On this second visit, lasting till his death in 1543, he is frequently employed by Henry VIII.

The most familiar image of the self-indulgent tyrant is Holbein's sturdy portrait of him. The future Edward VI is familiar too, as a child, from Holbein's brush. So are three of Henry's queens (Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard) as well as high officials such as Thomas More. Holbein in early Tudor England opens a window on a tense society.


Bosch and Brueghel: 1480-1569

Hieronymus Bosch acquires his name from the town of 's Hertogenbosch, where he is born in about 1450 and spends his entire working life. Relatively little is known about him, but the teeming fantasy of his imagination, vividly realized in paint, makes him one of the most distinctive of artists.

In both subject matter (the torments and delights associated with hell and heaven) and style (the slender figures and clear colours characteristic of International Gothic), Bosch's art looks back towards late medieval models.


Bosch's most elaborate works abound in vivid and fantastic vignettes, little self-contained scenes of delight or horror which can keep a viewer browsing happily for hours as if wandering in some surreal adventure playground (much in his work directly prefigures surrealism).

The two largest and most characteristic paintings are the triptychs of The Haywain and The Garden of Earthly Delights. Now in the Prado, these are among twelve paintings by Bosch acquired by Philip II for the Escorial. All come from the collections of Spaniards posted to the Netherlands. One group of six, including The Haywain, is bought by a diplomat during Bosch's life, presumably from the artist himself.


The natural successor to Bosch in Netherlands art is Pieter Brueghel, born in about 1525. His works too are mainly gathered in a Habsburg collection, this time in Vienna. There are as many as fourteen of his paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum - mainly collected by the Austrian archduke Ernst, regent in the Spanish Netherlands in the 1590s.

Brueghel often depicts details as fantastic as those of Bosch (as for example in The Triumph of Death in the Prado), but he usually prefers to find a more realistic context. Thus the weird scenes in the battle between Carnival and Lent (now in Vienna) are presented as part of a village festival.


Brueghel's landscapes, filled with people going about their everyday business, are perhaps his most characteristic achievement. He adds a stimulating extra ingredient when he presents New Testament or mythological events in just such an everyday down-to-earth Netherlandish context.

The Massacre of the Innocents take place with chilling conviction in a snowy northern village. Jesus makes his way, almost unnoticed, through a crowded summer scene to Calvary. In the Fall of Icarus only the leg of the fallen aviator shows above the waves, unnoticed by the ploughman in the foreground. The Tower of Babel is as busy, and as fascinating, as any other large building site. Brueghel is the first great poet of everyday life.


Mannerism: 16th century

While the Venetians in the 16th century are developing the sturdy themes of the High Renaissance, the painters of Florence and Rome are reacting against the achievement of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. The idealized perfection achieved by these artists can hardly be improved upon. The next generation devotes itself to a different kind of brilliance, aiming for a self-conscious stylishness which has become known as mannerism.

The word, used in many different ways by art historians, derives from maniera, meaning stylishness. It is used by Vasari, the near-contemporary biographer of the great Renaissance artists, to describe the quality displayed by painters such as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.


But mannerism is commonly used now to mean a style of great affectation (but corresponding brilliance) which bridges the gap between the Renaissance and the baroque in central Italy.

The first glimpses of this style come in the work of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, both born in Tuscany in 1494. An early masterpiece in the new style is Pontormo's Deposition (late 1520s) in the Capponi chapel in Florence. The composition is an awkward jumble of figures which miraculously achieves harmony. The colours are a mix of improbable pale blues and purples, both startling and pleasing. The tone of Michelangelo, in the Sistine chapel ceiling, is made in every way more mannered.


By this time a younger artist from Parma, known from his birthplace as Parmigianino, is developing a version of the style which makes much use of slender and elegant elongation. One of his best known works, the Madonna of the Long Neck in the Uffizi, admits as much in the title.

Another mannerist master is Bronzino, the adopted son of Pontormo. His special form of mannered elegance is an icy coolness, even in the depiction of naked flesh - as in the famous Allegory with Venus and Cupid in London's National Gallery, where the provocative poses of the figures combine with bewildering ambiguity of meaning to achieve a quintessential icon of mannerism.


Later in the 16th century the style spreads through Europe - to France in the school of Fontainebleau, to the Netherlands, to the court of the emperor Rudolf II in Prague. And the most individual of all 16th-century artists, El Greco working in isolation in Spain, is essentially mannerist in the eccentricities of his style.

But the exquisite and the unusual eventually pall. Religious painting is brought back to reality with a gloriously controversial jolt, in Rome in the early 17th century, by Caravaggio.


El Greco: 1570-1614

When Domenikos Theotokopoulos is born in Crete, in 1541, the island is a Venetian possession. It is therefore natural that the boy should be sent to Venice when he shows talent as a painter. There is evidence that he studies for a while under Titian before going to Rome, with letters of recommendation, in 1570. In Rome he becomes known as Il Greco (the Greek). When he moves in 1577 to Spain, his name becomes El Greco.

Arriving in Spain with a Venetian instinct for colour, and with mannerist tendencies picked up during his stay in Rome, El Greco begins to develop his own extraordinarily personal style without further influence from other artists. For nearly forty years Toledo is his home.


Spain is the fervent centre of the Catholic Reformation, and El Greco responds to the prevailing mood with a mystical intensity. The violently unmodulated colours, sinuous curves and swooning compositions of his religious scenes almost demand that the viewer join in a mood of spiritual ecstasy. Toledo, it seems, accepts the challenge - for El Greco has plenty of customers for paintings which, in purely artistic terms, can be seen as difficult.

Spain in the 17th century will have a powerful tradition of religious art, with painters such as Ribera, Zurbaran and Murillo. But none will match the vibrant eccentricity of El Greco.


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