The Renaissance in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands, the reigning princes of the great House of Burgundy had prepared the soil for the Renaissance, and, by the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with the Archduke Maximilian, the countries which then were called Flanders and Holland passed under the Austrian rule. This influence was continued by the taste and liberality of Margaret of Austria, who, being appointed "Governor" of the Low Countries in 1507, seems to have introduced Italian artists and to have encouraged native craftsmen. We are told that Corneille Floris introduced Italian ornamentation and grotesque borders; that Pierre Coech, architect and painter, adopted and popularised the designs of Vitruvius and Serlio. Wood carvers multiplied and embellished churches and palaces, houses of Burgomasters, Town Halls, and residences of wealthy citizens.
Oak, at first almost the only wood used, became monotonous, and as a relief, ebony and other rare woods, introduced by the then commencing commerce with the Indies, were made available for the embellishments of furniture and woodwork of this time.
One of the most famous examples of rich wood carving is the well known hall and chimney piece at Bruges with its group of cupidons and armorial bearings, amongst an abundance of floral detail. This over ornate chef daeuvre was designed by Lancelot Blondel and Guyot de Beauregrant, and its carving was the combined work of three craftsmen celebrated in their day, Herman Glosencamp, Andre Rash and Roger de Smet. There is in the South Kensington Museum a full-sized plaster cast of this gigantic chimney piece, the lower part being colored black to indicate the marble of which it was composed, with panels of alabaster carved in relief, while the whole of the upper portion of the richly carved ceiling of the room is of oak. This chimney piece is noteworthy, not only artistically but historically, as being a monument in its way, in celebration of the victory gained by Charles V. over Francis I. of France, in 1529, at Pavia, the victorious sovereign being at this time not only Emperor of Germany, but also enjoying amongst other titles those of Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, King of Spain and the Indies, etc., etc. The large statues of the Emperor, of Ferdinand and Isabella, with some thirty-seven heraldic shields of the different royal families with which the conqueror claimed connection, are prominent features in the intricate and elaborate design.
There is in the same part of the Museum a cast of the oak door of the Council Chamber of the Hotel de Ville at Oudenarde, of a much less elaborate character. Plain mullions divide sixteen panels carved in the orthodox Renaissance style, with cupids bearing tablets, from which are depending floral scrolls, and at the sides the supports are columns, with the lower parts carved and standing on square pedestals. The date of this work is 1534, somewhat later than the Bruges carving, and is a representative specimen of the Flemish work of this period.
The clever Flemish artist so thoroughly copied the models of his different masters, that it has become exceedingly difficult to speak positively as to the identity of much of the woodwork, and to distinguish it from German, English, or Italian, although as regards the latter we have seen that walnut wood was employed very generally, whereas in Flanders, oak was nearly always used for figure work.
After the period of the purer forms of the first Renaissance, the best time for carved woodwork and decorative furniture in the Netherlands was probably the seventeenth century, when the Flemish designers and craftsmen had ceased to copy the Italian patterns, and had established the style which we recognise as "Flemish Renaissance,"
Lucas Faydherbe, architect and sculptor (1617-1694) - whose boxwood group of the death of John the Baptist is in the South Kensington Museum - both the Verbruggens, and Albert Bruhl, who carved the choir work of St. Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, are amongst the most celebrated Flemish wood carvers of this time. Vriedman de Vriesse and Crispin de Passe, although they worked in France, belong to Flanders and to the century. Some of the most famous painters - Francis Hals, Jordaens, Rembrandt, Metsu, Van Mieris - all belong to this time, and in some of the fine interiors represented by these Old Masters, in which embroidered curtains and rich coverings relieve the sombre colors of the dark carved oak furniture, there is a richness of effect which the artist could scarcely have imagined, but which he must have observed in the houses of the rich burghers of prosperous Flanders.
In the chapter on Early Jacobean furniture and Late Jacobean furniture, we shall see the influence and assistance which England gained from Flemish woodworkers; and the similarity of the treatment in both countries will be noticed in some of the South Kensington Museum specimens of English marqueterie, made at the end of the seventeenth century. The figure work in Holland has always been of a high order, and, although as the seventeenth century advanced, this perhaps became less refined, the proportions have always been well preserved, and the attitudes are free and unconstrained.
A very characteristic article of seventeenth century Dutch furniture is the large and massive wardrobe, with the doors handsomely carved, not infrequently having three columns, one in the centre and one at each side, generally forming part of the doors, which are also enriched with square panels, carved in the centre and finished with mouldings. There are specimens in the South Kensington Museum of these, and also of some of earlier Flemish work when the Renaissance was purer in style and, as has been observed, of less national character.
The marqueterie of this period is extremely rich, the designs are less severe, but the coloring of the woods is varied, and the effect is heightened by the addition of small pieces of mother of pearl and ivory. Later, this marqueterie became florid, badly finished, and the coloring of the veneers crude and gaudy. Old pieces of plain mahogany furniture were decorated with a thin layer of highly colored veneering, a meretricious ornamentation altogether lacking refinement.
There is, however, a peculiarity and character about some of the furniture of North Holland, in the towns of Alkmaar, Hoorn, and others in this district, which is worth noticing. The treatment has always been more primitive and quaint than in the Flemish cities to which allusion has been made - and it was here that the old farmhouses of the Nord-Hollander were furnished with the rush-bottomed chairs, painted green; with three-legged tables, and dower chests painted in flowers and figures of a rude description; the coloring of which is chiefly green and bright red, and is extremely effective.