Bringing together more than sixty rare and poignant works, this exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen provided an impressive survey of late medieval painting in Holland. The panels that make up this unique exhibition came from museums all around the world. Little is known about the Dutch primitives active around 1500, but they were certainly the match for their Flemish contemporaries. The work of the most important exponent, Geertgen tot Sint Jans from Haarlem, displays an unprecedented expressiveness. His realistic depiction of emotions and his eye for detail were typical of painting in Holland.
The exhibition allowed us access to a distant time when the County of Holland was still part of the Burgundian Empire. The whitewashed churches, which are now such an essential element of Dutch culture, were then filled with colourful altarpieces. Everyone shared the same Catholic faith and art existed to serve religion. The meanings of many of the symbols in the paintings are now lost to us but the panels are just as moving as they were five hundred years ago.
The paintings were commissioned by pious and rich merchants who funded the decoration of the many churches, monasteries and convents built in Holland in the fifteenth century. Devotional pieces, which enabled the lay community to identify with biblical characters, were especially popular. Altars often included memorial tables with portraits of the donors – the dawn of portraiture in Holland. The paintings thus offer a rare glimpse of everyday life in the late Middle Ages.
During the iconoclastic attacks in 1566 and 1572 reformers destroyed thousands of art works. Of the works that have survived we rarely know the identity of the painter or the year in which they were made. Many of the painters have been given names based upon a characteristic work such as the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines from Delft. In his own lifetime he was internationally renowned as a painter with a remarkable expressive style but after his death he fell into obscurity. This exhibition is the result of extensive research that provided new insights into the origins of certain works.
The exhibition Dutch Primitives. Paintings from the late Middle Ages had been realised in partnership with the Rijksmuseum and with the support of main sponsor the Turing Foundation, the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation and Rabobank Rotterdam.