Definition of the International Gothic style

A rare homogeneity characterised European art around the year 1400. Even today art historians have not been able to agree on what to call the style that had spread in the sixty or seventy years around the turn of the century. It is usually called International Gothic or the International Style, but the terms courtly style, soft style, beautiful style, lyrical style, cosmopolitan Gothic style, trecento rococo and court naturalism are also to be met with in works on art history. Some scholars would formulate the name precisely but dryly as "European art about 1400", "the international, refined flowing style of about 1400", or, erroneously, "French art diffused internationally".

This problem of terminology can be explained by the fact that - in contrast to other styles - the phenomenon itself was not noticed either by contemporary commentators or by their immediate successors, and it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that it attracted the attention of art historians. For a long time it was considered to be exclusively the last flowering of the Gothic style or a forerunner of the Renaissance. Even the Parisian Professor Louis Courajod, who was the first to point out in his lectures at the École du Louvre the international character of the style of the end of the Middle Ages, considered it a transitional style without any independent values. But Courajod's principal aim was to prove that the roots of the Renaissance were to be sought for in France and not in Italy. According to him naturalism was the most important element of the Renaissance, naturalism which, after a long break during the Middle Ages, emerged again in France in the works of the Flemish masters who were active there, and then spread its radiance throughout Europe.

Is it in any way justifiable to call this very style international? Why, all great historic styles were international because they appeared in numerous countries. However, while most of these styles starting from one country spread across Europe, about 1400 no territory played a dominant role. It was at this time that similar stylistic trends appeared in centres which were at great distances from one another; tendencies which, when they blended together, created a new and homogeneous artistic idiom.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Viennese art historian Julius von Schlosser was the first to notice that around 1400 in the field of visual arts - as well as of politics - the important centres were the courts of monarchs, dukes and princes and of the nobility. He also outlined and systematized the spheres of secular themes characteristic of the art of the period and tried to trace the cultural channels along which various artistic ideas travelled from one court to the other. The metaphor of "autumn" expressing the decline (or overripeness) characteristic of the period also originated from him. The famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga adopted the term when writing his great cultural history of the court civilisation of the late Middle Ages in France and Burgundy. Although art at the turn of the fourteenth-fifteenth centuries chiefly served the purposes of aristocratic display the name court style is not justified. This art was brought into being not only by the endeavours of princely courts, since it struck root and developed in German provinces, in the urban surroundings of Flanders and Tuscany. In almost every place it was soon taken up by the bourgeoisie and found its way to the heart of the people as well.

We can read about several courtly styles in the history of art. The feature differentiating that of the years about 1400 from the others is the soft pictorial quality, conveyed, first and foremost, by the decorative rhythm of the folded draperies. However, the gentle shaping of forms which suggest a lyrical mood, calligraphic lines and rhythmical movements are elements characteristic of all works of art created at that time. Materials which are essentially different appear to be similarly flexible and soft, in fact of the same quality, and thus the forms harmoniously blend into one another. It is partly due to this that art historians concerned with the German sculpture of the period conceived the term "the soft style", while Czech scholars called it "the beautiful style". But such categories of the history of forms are not adequate to define the essential qualities of a style. (And what is more, in Czech terminology the denomination "soft style" refers to an earlier period.)

Though no term is quite apt, let us accept, for simplicity's sake, the name most generally used in modern art history, that of the "International Gothic style". The word international in this case means that having expanded over all geographic and political boundaries it created a homogeneous style in most of Europe. Incidentally, at the same time, this very fact rendered research more difficult. The use of the other factor, the term "Gothic", can be challenged by the fact that this art emerged between two great stylistic periods, and, as far as its duration is concerned, it continued into the period of the Italian Renaissance. Further difficulties arise from the fact that most early research into this artistic phenomenon looked at it from the writer's national standpoint. Important work was done by Pietro Toesca on Lombard art, Chandler Rathfon Post on Spanish, Charles Sterling on French and Alfred Stange on German art, but the overall approach which does not seek to attribute the initiative to any one country was late in appearing. The exhibition held in Vienna in 1962 provided a mature summary of the period and the introductory studies in the catalogue made an important contribution to the clarification of concepts. Once the international quality was recognized as a basic characteristic, the investigation of local variations could be pursued. Jean Porcher, for example, studied French miniatures, Otto Pächt wrote about the impact of Lombardy, whereas Roberto Longhi and Liana Castelfranchi Vegas dealt with other Italian centres. From their different viewpoints these works enriched the overall picture.

In a chapter of his book Early Netherlandish Painting, Erwin Panofsky applied comprehensive and profound analysis to the stylistic marks which reflect the social and cultural roots of the International Gothic style. In recent years several exhibitions - in a variety of genres and media - further enriched the image of the International Gothic style (Hamburg, 1969; Salzburg, 1972; Cologne, 1974; 1979; Frankfurt am Main 1975-76; Turin, 1979).