Why did Flemish Painters Decide to Use Oil?

Flemish Painters use oil

Every century brings a movement wave where the active artists add their tad bits to the wave and make it their own. Paintings from Imperialism to Surrealism had characteristics that very well fit the art movements’ characteristics.                                                                                                                                                                                                         In the Northern Renaissance, most of the prominent artists belong to the Flemish region or the region of Flanders. The economic and social prosperity, thanks to trade, helped the art thrive and got people interested in commissions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                It was during these times that we notice the pronounced effect of the oil painting in paintings of painters like Jan van Eyck. But, why did they start using oil paintings in the first place? Well, we’ve also dwelled on the same question and that’s why we decided to look at why Flemish painters decide to use oil.

Overview of the Flemish Era

Modern-day Belgium and few areas of the Netherlands and France were the regions that were considered as the region of Flanders. The Flemish paintings gained significance twice – the first at the end of the Middle Ages and the second in the heyday of Baroque. 

Artists who belonged to that era were commissioned to create art focused on Christian stories and Biblical sermons by the church. However, the majority of the work from this era is either in the form of panels, diptychs, or polyptychs, or just single altarpieces.

The sudden emergence of Flemish art is attributed to the economic prosperity that took place due to the trade and rapid increase of wealth among the upper-middle class. As the upper-middle class added to their wealth status, they got inclined to purchase and even to commission paintings. And this period witnessed the rise of some great artists at Antwerp, who added their own personal, political and spiritual message to the paintings along with the religious narrative.  

The characteristics of Flemish paintings stand out from other eras due to the use of a medium that was championed by none other than the Flemish master Jan van Eyck. The paintings had some astounding detailing coupled with extraordinary subtlety and vivid colors. Let’s look at how it all began.

Why did the Flemish painters start using oil?

As we already know, Flemish master Jan van Eyck is credited with developing this medium. But, that’s not entirely true. Artists from India and China have been using oil mediums since the eighth century. But, van Eyck made it popular and inspired more artists to take it up. 

The use of oil as a medium instead of tempera gave better illusionist effects and added luminosity to the paintings. Oil dries more evenly and slowly than tempera. Plus, the new oil medium also allowed a smooth blending of colors along with the use of transparent glazes. This allowed the artist to either extend or change the same section to produce a coherent painting. With so much back and forth, it often took each painting more than 6 to 12 months, to complete.

Flemish Artists who started using Oil as a medium

Robert Campin

Robert Campin is considered as the first master of the Flemish School with an outstanding oeuvre that can be identified with the signature “Master of Flemalle.” He is highly regarded for his realistic works that make use of shading and perspective. The Merode Altarpiece is Campin’s most famous artwork. 

Merode Altarpiece – It’s a triptych that depicts the Annunciation Scene where Archangel Gabriel visits Mary to deliver the news that she’s pregnant with God’s child. Here, Mary is busy reading and resting on a footrest of the bench when Gabriel appears in her room. The room looks like a typical middle-class Flanders home. Then, if you look closer, there’s a majolica pitcher with lilies in it that represents Mary’s virginity. In the foreground, the hanging water pot signifies Mary’s purity as the whole act of her pregnancy ripped her off her bodily autonomy. 

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck, another Flemish master, and contemporary of Campin, is a widely known artist of the Flemish era, especially among the Northern European painters. In that era, signatures were not so customary, but he would sign and date his work as “ALS IK KAN” (“AS I CAN”). 

This helped him to secure a lasting reputation across the World art community. He was also the painter for Philip the good and was also paid a salary by the king, which was one of the first as most of the artists lived on personal commissions. One of his most famous works is the Marriage of Arnolfini.

The Arnolfini Wedding

A closer look at the painting helps you understand the nitty-gritty and luminosity that arrived with the use of oil paintings. The chandelier in the background looks like it is glowing in the afternoon light. The use of portraiture here displays wealth and devoutness towards Christianity. Moreover, the luscious fabrics adorned by the figures and the rare breed dog in the foreground state their financial well-being. The most important detail is the golden mirror located at the background wall that has scenes from the life of Christ.


The use of oil painting by the Flemish painters introduced a new medium to the art world that paved the way for artists in the next few eras. Besides, if you also wish to get hold of one of these Flemish era paintings reproduced, you can visit https://www.1st-art-gallery.com


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