Melchior Broederlam
(active 1381-1409)

Melchior Broederlam was probably born in Ypres although we possess no clues as to the dates of his birth and death, or what training he may have had. The little we do know of him relates entirely to his activity as a court painter between 1381 and 1409.

Broederlam was appointed an official painter some time before 1381. He worked initially for Louis de Mäle, Count of Flanders, and subsequently for his son-in-law, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The accounts of the Duchy's payroll show that Broederlam received fees on various occasions for painting banners, chairs, coats of arms and escutcheons. He was also responsible for decorating the flagship of the Duke's fleet. In the course of his service to Philip, he travelled to Lille - where he painted extensive murals for the château de Hesdin - and to Paris and Dijon. Yet, although his commissions involved him in journeys throughout the territories of Burgundy and France, Broederlam nevertheless continued to reside in the town where he was born. In 1407, he painted portraits of the Duke of Burgundy and his wife for the chapel of the Counts of Courtrai.

At the request of Philip the Bold, Broederlam also painted both the outer panels and the inner polychrome decoration of at least two altarpieces, sculpted by Jacques de Baerze, intended for the chartreuse de Champmol. The chartreuse had been built by Philip to serve as a funerary monument to his dynasty.

Of these two altarpieces, only that in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon still features its painted outer panels. Although we know from information in the Ducal archives that Broederlam worked in Dijon from 1393 to 1399, the two panels which make up this work are the only fragment of his oeuvre to have survived down to the present day.

Broederlam's brilliant, oil-based colours are unusually mixed and subtly modelled for the period; in the underdrawing, long curved strokes are gathered along the contours with loose cross-hatching in the shadows. This technique was taken up by the next generation. Broederlam is known to have trained younger artists such as Hue de Boulogne (c. 1379-1451); the Master of Flémalle and Jan van Eyck carried on his depiction of solidly modelled figures in spatially coherent rooms and his occasional use of genre objects as religious symbols. Broederlam's works also furnished designs for later artists.

Broederlam was rediscovered in the early 19th century by the curator of the Dijon Museum, C. Févret de Saint-Mémin, during his researches in the archives of the chartreuse de Champmol. It was Févret de Saint-Mémin who bought the altarpiece for the Dijon Museum. If today we have a sound grasp of the painting's history and its significance, it is largely thanks to the work of two researchers affiliated to France's National Research Centre for Early Flemish Art. Without their efforts, Broederlam and his masterpiece would doubtless still be buried in the obscurity from which they have only recently emerged.