Flanders formerly embraced a larger part of Belgium than is contained in the present Belgian provinces of East and West Flanders. It also covered a portion of Holland and some territory in the northwest of France. The principal Flemish towns connected with the story of Flemish art were Bruges, Tournai, Louvain, Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels, Mechlin, Liege, and Utrecht.

There are some records of Flemish painting much earlier than the fifteenth century, but they are so vague and uncertain that I shall pass them over, and begin with the family of Van Eyck, in which there were four painters—three brothers and a sister. The eldest, Hubert van Eyck (1366-1426), effected a great change in the art of his time and country. Very little is known of him as a young man, or indeed of his personal history at all, except that he passed his middle life at Bruges and his later years at Ghent. The subjects of his pictures were mostly scriptural. I do not suppose that the pictures of this master would seem very beautiful to you if you saw them, but they are of great value. His greatest work was an altar-piece for Judocus Vyts and his wife Lisabetta; it was for the decoration of their funeral chapel in the Church of St. Bavon in Ghent. It was an immense work, with a centre-piece and wings that could be closed; the inside was divided into twelve different pictures, and the outside also was painted. We do not know how much of this was completed when Hubert died and left it to be finished by his brother John. Philip I. of Spain wished to buy this altar-piece, and when he could not do so, he employed Michael Coxie to copy it; this artist spent two years on the work, and was paid four thousand florins. Of the original work, a large portion remains in the Church of St. Bavon; the wings, consisting of six beautiful, tall panels, are in the Berlin Museum, and two outer compartments are in the Brussels Museum. The picture of holy men who have served God is on one of the wings of this altar-piece (Fig. 53).

But the principal interest attached to Hubert van Eyck comes from the fact that he made such discoveries in the use of colors as led to what we call the “Invention of Oil-Painting,” and this invention is always attributed to the Van Eycks, for it is probable that the discoveries of Hubert were perfected by Jan van Eyck (1390-1440), who became a celebrated painter. Oil-painting had been known, it is true, a long time, but the manner of preparing the colors and the varnish used before the time of the Van Eycks was very unsatisfactory, and the improvement of these substances was the work of these masters.

The pictures of Hubert van Eyck are stronger than those of Jan, who was really the founder of a school remarkable for delicacy and fine finish rather than for power. It was after the death of Hubert that the fame of the new colors spread abroad, and thus it happened that it was to Jan that other artists went to learn his secrets.

Fig 53 Fig. 53.—The Anchorites.
In S. Bavon at Ghent.

Jan van Eyck was something of a diplomat as well as a painter, for when he was in the service of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, he was sent on several secret missions, and in 1428 he accompanied the ambassadors of the duke to Portugal in order to paint the portrait of Isabella of Portugal, who was betrothed to the duke. There is a goodly number of works by Jan van Eyck in various galleries. The portrait of himself and wife in the National Gallery, London, is very interesting; they stand hand in hand, with a terrier dog at their feet; their dress and all the details of their surroundings are painted with great care. It is said that the Princess Mary, sister of Charles V., gave a barber who owned it a position with a handsome salary in exchange for the picture. Jan van Eyck, being twenty years younger than his brother Hubert, naturally learned all that the elder knew, and the story of his life gives him the appearance of being the more important artist, though in point of highest merit he was not the superior.

Of Lambert van Eyck very little is known. It is believed that he made the copy of Hubert’s great work which is in the Antwerp Museum; another work called by his name is in Louvain. Margaretha van Eyck is said to have been a skilful artist, but no one picture can be ascribed to her; she was buried beside her brother Hubert in the Cathedral of Ghent.