The mystic lamb is venerated in a garden. i Hubert and Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, completed by 1432, detail, oil on panel, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Brussels and Ghent: Nature, Genius and the Figure of the Artist in the Netherlands, c.1420-c.1650

Dr Susan Jones

Thursday 1 – Saturday 3 June 2023

This tour is now full.

You may also be interested in our evening course From Life: Representing Nature in Northern European Art, 1500-1750.

Course description

Netherlandish painters were (and are) famed for their ability to capture nature through near-miraculous interactions of the eye, mind and hand, representing the tiniest details of things with such control of the pen or brush that it is genuinely astonishing. Their paintings, manuscript illuminations and drawings are often discussed in the light of rhetorical ideas about imitatio, classifying their activity as no more than imitation. On this tour, however, we shall think about more than observational skills. Through careful analysis of a series of famous works dating between c.1420 and c.1650, we shall reconsider contemporary ideas about creation, and what we would call ‘creativity’ – a kind of activity that implies the conversion of formlessness into matter, and of concept into material. We shall ponder the perception of God as the Supreme Creator, and the notion of ingenium – a kind of skill which cannot be learned but which is innate, and which is one of the bases for the modern idea of genius. What social or economic rewards were accrued by artists for their knowledge of the natural world? And what other figures – poets, writers, travelers or scientists – expressed new or important ideas about the world, or about man, which might shed some light on the art of the period?

The tour runs over 3 days, starting with a morning’s lectures and discussion at the prestigious Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels (the KIK-IRPA), founded in 1962 to identify, study and conserve Belgium’s vast cultural heritage. The institute famously laid the foundations for present-day methods and principles of technical and scientific analysis of artworks. In Brussels, we shall visit the Royal Museum of Art and History, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the Royal Library to study world-class paintings, manuscript illuminations and drawings. A whole morning will be spent in Ghent, looking at the Van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, regarded for many centuries as the definitive statement of the imitation of nature — but also a monument to the notion of the artist as creator.

Lecturer's biography

Dr Susan Jones is a specialist in Northern European late medieval and Renaissance art. She has been Assistant Curator at The National Gallery, London (1994-96) and Fellow at The Art Institute of Chicago (1998–2001); in addition, she has taught widely both in the US and the UK. Between 2014 and 2016, she was Project Manager on the ‘Verona’ project (Van Eyck Research in OpeN Access), based at the Centre for the Study of the Flemish Primitives at the KIK-IRPA (Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage) in Brussels. Aside from her publications on Van Eyck, she is a co-author of Northern European and Spanish Paintings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago: A Catalogue of the Collection (Yale University Press, 2008). Susan is currently Assistant Professor at Northeastern University London.