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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Northern Mannerism in the Early Sixteenth Century

The style of painting and drawing practiced by artists in northern Europe during the early part of the sixteenth century (ca. 1500–1530) has come to be known as Mannerism. Distinct from the Mannerist period in Italy, which began slightly later and lasted until the seventeenth century, Northern Mannerism in the early sixteenth century is characterized by unique stylistic and thematic traits, a number of which derive from late Gothic art. Though many of the early sixteenth-century Mannerists were based in Antwerp, where the movement was most clearly defined, other centers in France, Germany, and the southern and northern Netherlands (i.e., present-day Belgium and Holland, respectively) were important for the transmission and divergence of the style.

Antwerp’s central place in this movement, which has led to the creation of the subterm “Antwerp Mannerism,” can be linked to its emergence as the economic capital of northern Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Bolstered by its rich trade and cultural contacts, the port city of Antwerp attracted hundreds of artists—many of them from northern France, the Rhineland, and especially Holland—who joined the local painters’ Guild of Saint Luke, established large painting and sculpture workshops, and fed an expanding market for the production and export of art. Though stylistic traits differed from artist to artist, some defining features of Antwerp Mannerist painting are dramatic gestures and figural arrangements; lavish costumes; vivid, sometimes abrasive coloristic effects; imaginative architecture that freely combines Gothic and Renaissance elements; and demonstrative technical virtuosity (17.190.18a-c). Inspired by the demand for a recognizable product, or “manner,” Antwerp painters developed a repertoire of stock figural motifs, compositions, and themes. Herri met de Bles, Jan Gossart (2001.190), Jan Wellens de Cock (1972.118.276), and a range of anonymous masters, were strikingly inventive and technically ambitious.

The devotional character of Northern Mannerism in the early sixteenth century is perhaps the movement’s most consistent and enduring feature. Though Mannerist paintings appeared well before the outbreak of the Reformation in 1517, their mood went hand-in-hand with the personal form of religious expression that Protestants encouraged. In the hands of Mannerist artists, traditional subjects like The Last Judgment (40.174.1) and The Adoration of the Magi (11.143) were retooled to dramatically emphasize the direct intercession of holy figures, while a range of subjects, such as The Calling of Matthew (71.155), were developed to give flamboyant expression to the new devotional iconography of the period. The noticeably unnatural construction and color of Mannerist compositions echoed certain features of late medieval art in northern Europe, even as they pointed toward a new form of religious practice.

Though unified as a general phenomenon, Northern Mannerism achieved distinct characteristics in different locations. Art in Leiden and other Dutch centers shows striking similarities with Antwerp Mannerism, in evidence in the work of Cornelis Engebrechtsz (88.3.88) and Lucas van Leyden in particular. Links between these centers may be explained by the influence of artists who traveled between them. Art produced in early sixteenth-century courts in France and Germany demonstrates divergent characteristics that, while no less dramatic or “mannered,” vary from those of Antwerp Mannerism in their often theatrical excess and self-referential allegories (50.70; 11.15).

As a movement, Antwerp Mannerism was relatively short-lived, dying out by the fourth decade of the 1500s, but it was echoed in some of the trends explored by Netherlandish artists around the turn of the following century.