If you've ever snoozed through art history classes, you probably heard a lot about the Italian Renaissance. The lectures in those courses often give the impression that something in the national Italian character, coupled with the rise of a prosperous middle class, resulted in an unprecedented cultural combustion. That creative watershed is usually depicted as an insulated set of achievements.
Those surveys probably imparted next to nothing about Flemish painting. Maybe you remember the elaborate, paneled “Ghent Altarpiece” but never dreamed that the painters in Flanders were responsible for valuable innovations that had a direct effect on their contemporaries of the Quattrocento. That's why the Huntington Library's current show, “Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting,” is likely to be a source of surprise.
Painters like Jan van Eyck (1340-1414), Rogere van der Weyden (1400-1464) and Hans Memling (1430-1494) introduced oils to the Italians, who previously used the quick-setting and comparatively dull egg tempera paints. This also allowed for rendering diaphanous textiles and sheens on surfaces. Certainly van Eyck was one of the earliest oil painters, and has been long thought to be the inventor of the medium. The Flemish used the three-quarter view for portraiture, which opened new vistas for artists who had previously stuck to Janus-like profiles. They also set a new standard in realism for landscape pictorializing, rendering detailed backgrounds of the material world. The Flemish influence was nothing short of transformative to the artists of Florence and elsewhere.
What was once the country of Flanders is now encompassed by parts of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and northwestern France. The Dukes of Burgundy ruled Flanders in the 1400s, and the capital, Bruges, had a thriving mercantile climate. Italian merchants, and bankers like the de' Medicis, were attracted to the city. Among Italian diplomats and business travelers, a prized souvenir was a small, portable Flemish devotional painting. The common Christian faith served as a kind of lingua franca that straddled both cultures, and each had a large market for devotional images.
At the Huntington's Boone Gallery, the Flemish practice of adding commonplace objects and materials to add a personal dimension to portraiture is apparent. Where Italians had previously left backgrounds to stylized atmosphere, they began to earnestly deal with landscape. Flemish religious diptychs (two-paneled paintings on board) often contained a merchant or a nobleman's image next to a depiction of Christ.
Lenny Bruce once likened the Catholic Church to a kind of franchise, to be applied to the tenor of each locality. So it is with these paintings: the typical Flemish Jesus has a long, Max von Sydow face with a narrow nose and a feathery beard. His Italian counterpart has a rounded head with features to match.
Flemish portraiture represented in this show has exquisite modulation of flesh tones and volumes, only attained through the long-range oil process. Florentine painters like Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) applied those subtleties to more corpulent faces and bodies. Both groups routinely scaled hands a little too small for the faces and bodies, but only a Flemish like van der Weyden would give long, preying mantis fingers to his “Portrait of Isabella of Portugal.” And the plump baby in “Virgin and Child,” from the workshop of Lorenzo di Credi (1459-1537), relates to the chubby cherubim and putti so pervasive in Renaissance art.
Co-curators Paula Nuttal and Catherine Hess have assembled an impressive grouping of Flemish and Italian paintings from collections as far-flung as the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Dublin's National Gallery of Ireland and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. For Nuttal, the show is a realization of long-term scholarly work; she published “Face to Face: The Impact of Netherlandish Painting, 1400-1500” on Yale University Press in 2004.
Of the Florentine painters, Ghirlandaio hit the Flemish trifecta. He painted diptychs, he rendered intricate landscapes and, as seen in his “Portrait of a Man” and “Portrait of a Woman” (1490) used personalized details to more fully depict his subjects. This exhibition illustrates a fascinating, though little-known artistic exchange.
What: “Face to Face: Flanders, Florence, and Renaissance Painting”
Where: Boone Gallery, Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: Through Jan. 13, 2014. Closed Tuesdays.
More info: (626) 405-2100, www.huntington.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.