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Rogier van der Weyden was an early Netherlandish painter from the 15th century who specialized in religious themes, decorating altarpieces and completing multi-panelled commissions for a variety of high ranking donors.
The artist achieved considerable success within his own lifetime and his reputation spread into other parts of Europe, spreading his oeuvre across the continent. His prominence within art history would fall away after the 17th century, but in recent times has returned, with his work regularly featured and discussed when evaluating this important period in European art.
He was at one stage treated as equal to the great master Jan van Eyck, and both artists left a significant influence on the direction of Flemish art in the centuries that followed.
Rogier van der Weyden was born in Tournai modern-day Belgium in 1399 or 1400 to Henri de le Pasture and Agnes de Watrélos. His father is known to have worked in the manufacturing of knives, and his parents had settled in this region for the purposes of work, prior to Rogier’s birth. Little else is known about his family, in part due to the loss of records on a wide scale in the centuries that followed.
The artist is believed to have entered the workshop of Robert Campin in his mid to late twenties, but may have already built a reputation as an artist in the years leading up to that. The tutoring therefore may have been intended to perfect the techniques of an already established artist, rather than providing an apprenticeship from the very beginning.
This region in Northern Europe was highly competitive for artists at that time, and to see van der Weyden achieve success from an early age suggests considerable natural talent. We also know that as early as 1432 he was already being regarded as a master, despite still having a further three decades left in his life and career.
In the 1430s, the artist was to receive the title of “Painter to the Town of Brussels” which enabled him to acquire a number of high profile commissions within the city, including a series of works for Brussels City Hall. He had initially been made the master of the Tournai Guild of St Luke whilst working under Robert Campin, before moving to Brussels in around 1435 in the search of more opportunities within this bustling, wealthy and high cultured city.
His various projects within the city suggest a strong connection to the ruling powers and other wealthy patrons which, in turn, allowed the artist to profit from his success. He also completed a number of private portrait commissions whilst living here, and was famed for the positive light in which he would paint his subjects.
His main focus, however, always remained religious themes, which allowed him to work on a larger scale and also to spread his reputation more widely. Some evidence uncovered since his passing would suggest that he had a philanthropic streak to her personality and may have used some of this new-found wealth to help some of the poorer members of his local community. This would have fitted closely with his concentration on religious themes within his oeuvre, which may have reflected his own strong, moral beliefs.
As the artist’s reputation continued to soar, knowledge of his work spread abroad and led to particular interest from Italy. He was persuaded to bring an Italian court painter into his own workshop in what would have been a political gesture to appease his donors in Brussels, but he would also benefit from a number of commissions coming in from Italy at around the same time.
There would continue to be mutual respect and understanding between these two regions over the next century, exchanging ideas and techniques to help the European Renaissance to evolve at a pace.
Style and Technique
Rogier van der Weyden is best remembered for his supreme technical ability which laid the foundation to all of his success as an artist. In terms of style, he incorporated a fairly expressive method into his work, and his handling of color was also considered to be fairly inventive for the time. He was therefore able to convince both traditionally-minded and those with more contemporary tastes as to the value of his work, whilst also re-imaging Christian themes that had existed within European art for many centuries already.
As with many early Netherlandish painters, he was also most comfortable in oils, way before Italian artists would start to use this medium as their preferred option. Indeed, his popularity within Italy may have encouraged their local schools to take up this alternative to egg tempera.
The artist passed away on the 18th of June, 1464 in Brussels. He would have been in his mid-sixties at the time of his death and was buried in St Catherine's Chapel of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which is located in the very center of Brussels.
Most notably, van der Weyden’s oeuvre would influence artists in a number of European nations, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain. He helped to create forms of iconography within religious depictions which could be re-used by others. There would then be particular formats for well known scenes from the Bible, for example, that would reappear all across the continent and allow viewers to immediately understand which parts of the Bible each work was referring to.
His influence was so strong that the artistic styles used by van der Weyden would spread through his followers in other countries, allowing his impact to widen even after his death. The new artistic language found in this religious work would also be taken on by engravers too, again widening the scope of his influence.
A significant sign of Rogier’s excellence as an artist is that he studied under the guidance of Robert Campin for around five years, he would then later start to influence his own tutor. Their styles, as with other members of the studio, would bear some similarities, and this has allowed historians to confidently place him within this studio as suggested by a number of documents uncovered from that period.