MASTER of Flémalle (Robert Campin)
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)
Master of Flémalle Netherlandish painter named after three paintings in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt that were wrongly supposed to have come from Flémalle, near Liège. There is a strong consensus of scholarly opinion that he is to be identified with Robert Campin (active 1406-44), who was the leading painter of his day in Tournai but none of whose documented pictures survive. The identification depends on the similarity between the Master of Flémalle's paintings and those of Jacques Daret and Rogier van der Weyden, for Daret was Campin's pupil and Rogier almost certainly was. The hypothesis that the Master of Flémalle's paintings are early works by Rogier now has few adherents.
While there is still doubt about the Master of Flémalle's identity, there is no argument about his achievement, for he made a radical break with the elegant International Gothic style and ranks with van Eyck as one of the founders of the Netherlandish school of painting. None of the paintings given to him is dated -- with the exception of the wings of the Werl altarpiece of 1438 in the Prado, a doubtful attribution - but it seems likely that his earliest works antedate any surviving picture by van Eyck. The earliest of all is generally thought to be The Entombment (Courtauld Institute, London) of about 1410/20. This still has the decorative gold background of medieval tradition, but the influence of Claus Sluter is clear in the sculptural solidity and dramatic force of the figures.
The most famous work associated with the Master of Flémalle is the Mérode Altarpiece (Metropolitan Museum, New York), and he is indeed sometimes referred to as the Master of Mérode. However, the attribution of this painting has also been questioned. Among the other works generally accepted as his are The Marriage of the Virgin (Prado, Madrid), The Nativity (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon), and The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen (National Gallery, London), which shows the homely detail and down-to-earth naturalism associated with the artist (the firescreen behind the Virgin's head forms a substitute for a halo). The National Gallery also has three portraits associated with the Master of Flémalle. In spite of the many problems that still surround him, he emerges as a very powerful and important artistic personality.