Little is known of Flemish painter Robert Campin’s ancestry, other than that his father was known as Herr Campin.
Robert was probably born around 1378 in Tournai (known as Doornik in Dutch and originally Dornick in English), then under French rule and now considered to be one of the oldest cities of Belgium. Some sources place Robert’s birthplace as Valenciennes in France, but it is recorded that Campin bought citizenship of the town in 1410, and thus is unlikely to have been born there. He was a man of high standing; according to 1405-1406 Tournai archives, he established himself in the city as a Master Painter. It is recorded that by 1422 he was married to Ysabel de Stocquain (Elisabeth van Stokkem), some seven years his senior, but they had no children. He was a wealthy and influential man, buying and selling several properties. He also managed a large workshop, and records show that he probably employed Rogier van der Weyden, aka Rogelet de la Pasture, and Jacquelot Daret. Campin could have studied under Jan van Eyck (c. 1380 – 1441).
In 1423-24, he was appointed sub-dean and in 1425, Eswardeur (Inspector) of the Guild of Goldsmiths and Painters, being re-elected in 1427. From 1425-1427, he was Procurator of the Convent of the Haute-Vie. He was also a Clerk of Accounts in the city. In 1428, he was made Warden of the Church of St. Pierre.
He was employed by the city to paint a number of church sculptures (polychromy, defined as “the art of painting in several colours, especially as applied to ancient pottery, sculpture, and architecture”), and of those in municipal buildings, including the Halle des Doyens.
His success was cut short when in 1429, he was found guilty of refusing to testify against the leaders revolting against the aristocrats. He was sentenced to undertake a twelve-month pilgrimage to Saint-Gilles in Provence. In 1432, he was found guilty of adultery with a lady named Laurence Polette, with whom he was then living, resulting in him once again being sentenced to a year’s pilgrimage. However, Margaret, the Countess Dowager of Hainault and Holland – wife to William Of Bavaria and daughter of Philip the Bold of Burgundy, intervened and the sentence was commuted to a fine. Despite this, the authorities took a dim view of his transgressions and Campin’s commissions declined, although he maintained his workshop until his death twelve years later.
As Campin did not sign and seldom dated his work, there remains controversy as to who the artist was who created some works attributed to him. It is generally accepted, however, that the mysterious Master of Flémalle was Robert Campin.
An exhibition of the work of the Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden was held at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (21 November 2008 – 1st March 2009, extended to the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, 20 March 2009 – 21 June 2009). It was curated by Prof. Dr. Jochen Sander, who in an interview with Michael Kimmelman for the New York Times in December 2008, discussed the works of the two artists and their colleague, Jacque Daret.
In 1849, the Städel Museum purchased three works from a German collector who claimed that they had originated in the Abbey of Flémalle, near Liège, in Belgium, but no such abbey existed. Despite this, the artist became known as the Master of Flémalle.
The works comprise two side panels, Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c. 1430, oil on wood, 151.5 x 61cm) and Madonna with Child (1430, oil on panel, 149.1 x 58.3cm) and were most likely part of a triptych, the central panel of which no longer exists. The former painting depicts St Veronica holding the veil (sudarium) depicting an imprint of Christ’s face after she wiped it as he was carrying the cross to Calvary. The latter painting depicts Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus.
Another work is the Throne of Mercy, rendered in grisaille (c. 1428-1430, oil on oak, 148.7 x 61.0 cm). This depicts God the Father holding Christ who has died, with the dove representing the Holy Spirit on Christ’s shoulder.
All three pieces could have been part of an altarpiece, which no longer exists.
Johann David Passavant (1787-1861) was a German painter and curator who worked at the Städel Museum. He believed that the Master of Flémalle was Rogier van der Weyden the Younger, following a theory that there were two artists of the same name – a notion that again proved to be untrue.
It transpires that the three unsigned paintings were in all probability compiled by more than one person.
Copied notes of original documents destroyed in WWII describe a 15th-century monk’s financial records detailing four paintings by one Jacque Daret. The monk hailed from Arras, in northern France, and the paintings are similar to those held in the Städel Museum.
It is important to recall here that Daret was Robert Campin’s pupil, as was Rogier. It is a highly plausible theory that all three men contributed to the paintings, and that no individual was actually the Master of Flémalle.
The painting Deposition (c. 1435 oil on panel, 220 x 262cm, held in the Prado Museum, Madrid) is attributed to Rogier van der Weyden. However, there is no documentary evidence to confirm Rogier as the artist. 15th-century documents do support Rogier as being the artist of several paintings that no longer exist. Robert Campin may have been the creator of the Deposition.
Robert Campin was previously known as the Master of the Mérode Triptych, prior to the Flémalle paintings being discovered. The Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1427-1432, oil on oak panel, 64.45 x 117.79 cm (open); 64.14 x 63.18 cm (central panel); 64.45 x 27.31cm (each side panel)). It can now be found at the Cloisters Museum in Manhattan, New York which is administered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The original central panel of The Annunciation was painted prior (c. 1422-1428) to the version held in New York and is possibly the original. This is held in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. It was first thought to have been painted by Daret but has subsequently been attributed to Campin and an unnamed assistant.
The triptych was commissioned by a wealthy Mechelen merchant, Peter Engelbrecht. He and his wife Margarete Scrynmaker are featured in the left-side panel, looking through a door that leads to the Annunciation of the central panel. In the right-hand panel, Joseph is featured in his capacity as a carpenter, where he is fashioning a mousetrap.
The two side panels were added to the original central panel later; the wood of the central panel pre-dates the panels, and the hinging indicates it was not designed as a triptych. The donor probably commissioned the additions to form a private altarpiece.
The triptych was named after Comtesse Augustine Marie-Nicolette de Mérode, princess of Arenberg, whose family owned the work between 1820-1849. It was then held in a private collection before being purchased with funding by John D. Rockefeller Jnr. in 1956.
Campin’s earlier great work was the Seilern Triptych, also known as Entombment, c. 1410-1415 or 1420-1425 (oil and gold leaf on panel, 65.2 x 53.6 cm (central panel), 64.9 x 26.8 cm (each wing), including the frame). However, the two outer panels have been lost.
From left to right, the panels depict the Passion of Jesus, His crucifixion and burial and resurrection. It is thought to have been made for the unknown donor (portrayed on the left panel) as a private devotional piece, as it is too small to have been installed in a church. It was owned by the Count of Seilern, after whom it is named, and who bequeathed it on his death in 1978 to the Courtauld Institute, London, where it remains.
Along with Jan van Eyck, Campin was one of the first artists to experiment with oil-based paints, rather than the egg tempera used by their predecessors and contemporaries. This allowed him to use colour, light and shade to create depth and proportion.
Other major works by Campin include:
- Nativity (c. 1420-1426, oil on panel, 84.1 x 69.9 cm), housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon. Mary is depicted as a girl in her teens, and Joseph an older man. Two of the four angels depicted hold a banner addressed to the two midwives, Salome and Zelomy, which reads Tangue puerum et sanabaris (Touch the child and you shall be healed). Medieval writings relate that when Mary went into labour, Joseph left her to find assistance, but after returning with the midwives, they found Mary had already given birth. On being told that Mary was still a virgin, Salome accepted this, but Zelomy had to touch Mary to make sure. For her lack of faith Zelomy’s hand shrivelled up.
- Marriage of the Virgin (c. 1420-1430, oil on panel, 77 x 88 cm), housed in the Prado Museum, Madrid
- Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen (c. 1440, oil and tempera on panel, 63.5 x 49.5 cm). It is housed in the National Gallery, London, acquired in 1910. In 2015, the Gallery undertook an exercise to clean the painting. Various scientific methods revealed surprising anomalies; apart from two sections having been added in the 19th century, the painting itself had been modified. It may have been damaged in a fire, as a possible burn mark was discovered. The modifications – additions to the top edge and the right-hand side – were of poor quality. The new strips of wood covered original details, including individual milk drops on Mary’s breast, flames visible through the firescreen, the ring and chain holding the cooking pots and a strip of the lintel. The most notable change was that the baby Jesus’ genitals had been overpainted. Campin had originally covered these with cloth but had himself removed this again. Particles of paint that were analysed revealed that colours not available in Campin’s time, like Prussian Blue and Naples Yellow, had been used in the restoration.
- Portrait of a Man (c. 1435, oil and egg tempera on panel, 40. 7 x 28.1 cm), housed in the National Gallery, London
Portrait of a Woman (c. 1435, oil and egg tempera on panel, 40.6 x 28.1 cm), housed in the National Gallery, London
Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman may have been a diptych, now dismantled, or simply two related pieces. Marbling on the reverse of both signifies that they were not meant to be hung on a wall. The couple has never been positively identified; in the 19th century, it was proposed that the subjects were Flemish painter Quentin Massys (1466–1530) and his wife, but later thought to be Rogier van der Weyden and his wife. No historical evidence exists to support either suggestion. The National Gallery purchased the paintings in 1860, and they are hung side by side.
- Portrait of a Fat Man (1425, oil on oak wood, 28.5 x 17.7 cm), housed in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. A second painting, almost identical, but not a copy, hangs in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. This version was in a private collection in Madrid until about 1957. Both were displayed in the National Gallery in London in 1961. The subject may be Robert de Masmines (c. 1387 – c. 1430) who was a Knight of Burgundy and Governor of the County of Hainaut. This unproven theory is based on a drawing of the man by Jacques Le Boucq, known as the Master of Arras, who created the 16th-century manuscript, the Recueil d’Arras (Collection of Arras), which mostly comprises sketches of historical figures
The Werl Triptych (1438, oil on oak panel, 101 x 47cm (each wing)). The central panel of this work has been lost and the content never recorded. The two outer panels comprise on the left, a depiction of the man who commissioned the work, Heinrich von Werl, a professor and preacher of theology, and a member of the Franciscan Order. He is seen kneeling in devotion before St John the Baptist. In the background, a mirror reflects the scene, a strong reference to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait painted four years earlier
- The right wing depicts St Barbara, a Christian martyr from the 3rd century. Her father Dionysus imprisoned her in a tower to safeguard her against any suitors, but Barbara allowed a priest to baptise her. For this, her father had her beheaded. Both works are housed in the Prado Museum, Madrid
Noted as the master of Flemish and Early Netherlandish art, Robert Campin died in his adopted city of Tournai on 26th April 1444.