1430 Art Tour, Robert Campin

Robert Campin, Christ and the Virgin, c. 1430‑1435

A Guided Tour of Philadelphia in the Year 1430

The first stop on our tour of artwork from 1430 is Robert CampinChrist and the Virgin, c. 1430‑1435 at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Old Masters Now selections from the Johnson Collection. Link to A Guided Tour of Philadelphia in the Year 1430.

The horizontal composition of two figures, male and female, in a state of beatification, before a screen of bejeweled gold is a complicated and fascinating oil painting. Robert Campin had discovered oil based paints and was already a highly accomplished illustrator and miniaturist. His school in Tournai, Belgium, attracted artists from all over the region because of his illustrative skill in creating miniatures. Peter Campin, the Master of Flémalle, was an artistic genius, tech titan, commercial powerhouse and social influencer whose power would be tested, hacked, and reputation destroyed.

Tournai was a center of commerce in the wool and textile trade, merchants from across the region were eager to create and sell the finest woolen weaves, exquisite laces, and luxurious fabrics. The guild system was well established producing art and textiles, tradesmen were overseers of their craft and there was tension with the aristocracy with who controlled the flow of goods. The beginning of the end of the Late Middle Ages and the beginning of the early Renaissance is represented in this painting: glazing with oils, optical effects, and opulent lifestyle of the aristocracy that belies the solemn religiosity of the subject facts. When this painting was completed a new age in representational art begins and the trend towards the wide acceptance of oil paints as the preeminent media of fine art begins.

Christ and the Virgin glows with gold and gems, the flesh tones reveal a new liveness not seen in tempera, and the elaborate sheen of the fabric wrapped about the Virgin’s head is exquisitely rendered in structural color. The palette of greenish umber, ruddy reds, and shimmering blue resonates against the gold, the brushwork is smooth and descriptive, and the drawing is sophisticated revealing the hallmarks of Flemish painting. But there are signals pointing to a more international style. At first glance, there is an awkwardness to the painting, the figures seem crammed into the frame, the hands smallish, with an abundance of elaborate detail and decoration. The depth of the picture is very shallow, claustrophobic, the light strikes the screen device at a raked angle, the multi-colorful gems casting realistic shadows, yet the modeling and contrasts of the light on the portraits is diffuse. The male figure, a portrait of Christ, is stiff, the Sienese droop of the shoulders, too narrow to balance the head, but look into the eyes, revealed in the paint is a new humanism, the wetness of the eyeballs, the anatomic detail of the ocular socket, the color chords of the epicanthic folds, a wistful sidelong glance, and wearied shadows beneath the eyes describe a new reality in portraiture.

The scruffy beard and hair of Christ is rendered in scumbled strokes transfusing into the gold backdrop blending into a cruciform halo studded with gems, like an ethereal unreal screen behind the figures, projecting them forward in the picture plane, separating the Holy figures from the earthly delights. The fabulous colors of the gems, seemingly embedded in the gold, look as if they actually reflect and refract light in a spectacle of virtuosity. The flesh is modeled with planes of color, layered with translucent glazes, light reflects through the layers with the effect of a naturalistic, circumambient space, and a weighty, solid form. The hands are rendered with the expert skill of an artist who had drawn hundreds of figure studies while producing miniature paintings. There is another intriguing facet to the pose that is essential to our tour connecting directly to the Jan van Eyck painting on this tour, but first let’s analyze the way Robert Campin paints the Virgin.

The tilted head and the pale greenish tinge to the skin would have been familiar to viewers, the Sienese had established the meme, a cultural info-graphic, long ago but Robert Campin, through oil glazes, warms the flesh tones with red, bringing a rosy glow to the cheeks and warmth to the pouted lips.  The slight slant to the eyes hints to Southern Italian traditions of the past, however the artist updates the look from flat, anemic skin to fleshy realism, the beatific eyes are deep set, glistening with wetness, the shadows beneath them brings a poignant humanity to the portrait. Look at her golden hair, streaks of pale yellow swirled across an umber underpainting, chords of color applied with short brush strokes mimics the lustrousness of the golden screen in the background. Deft strokes of layered paints, in shades of bluish gray, develop demure pearls in a broken curvilinear arc like a string of sparkly stars embedded in gold. The wow factor is the rendering of the blue cloth covering the golden haired, blued eyed, porcelain skinned Virgin. The folds are not static or stiff, the shadows are not harsh or contrived, the sheen and softness are realized with gradient shades of color, brownish blues for shadow, and delicate touches of bluish white to define the crisp edges of the cloth.

If the painting feels congested it’s because it is demonstrating the state of the art of painting in 1430 and is over-packed with information. Robert Campin produced a painting that touches almost every aspect of life that would be important to a broad swath of Late Middle Ages elites and then sells their own products and services back to them like a glossy magazine fashion ad. The blue head scarf takes up nearly a third of the painting, sure to appeal to textile merchants, the opulent golden fantasy of the background an aspirational goal for Burgundian décor and mining companoes, and the liveliness of the divine figures sends a message to the church that this is what the Master of Flemalle could produce – a realistic, humanist, painting.

Now, back to the hidden clue leading to the next stop on the Tour of Philadelphia in 1430. Check out the fingers of Christ resting on the bottom edge of the canvas. The artist has broken the invisible wall between the viewer and the surface of the painting, creating a spatial illusion, and an optic trend that would be copied and used to powerful effect by one of the students visiting his studio, the painter, Jan van Eyck.

Link to The Philadelphia Museum of ArtOld Masters Now, press release on DoNArTNeWs.

Link to A Guided Tour of Philadelphia in the Year 1430

Link to Jan van Eyck art tour blog post – click here.

Link to Blasco de Grañén art tour blog post – click here.

Link to Party Like  it’s 1430 blog post – click here

Written by DoN Brewer.

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