The characteristics of the style and its emergence

1. Effect of Italian trecento 2. Revival of earlier style
3. Local tradition 4. Ideas from sculpture
5. Characteristic examples 6. Miniature painting

How and why did this style, which is based chiefly on the decorative rhythm of lines, come into being at the end of the fourteenth century?

1. Effect of Italian trecento

In the first half of the century Florentine and Sienese painters discovered how spatiality could be conveyed on a flat surface and how figures could be made to express genuine human feelings. In the light of these innovations the old idiom of the Gothic style soon appeared to be obsolete, for in it an undulating line circumscribed all elements of the two-dimensional compositions, while movements and means of expressing emotions were schematic. The painting of the Italian trecento exerted an effect first on the Mediterranean region, but by the second half of the century in various ways its impact has reached the whole territory beyond the Alps. It stimulated development mainly in France and Bohemia, the two leading art centres of the period, and from there it spread to other parts of Europe. Artists (Master Bondol in Paris, Theoderic in Prague and Bertram in Hamburg) endeavoured to convey a feeling of mass and space. They gave a more accurate and less biased image of reality, their figures becoming heavier, stockier and more individual, the forms being characterized by a soft modelling without contours, so that their pictures were accented with dramatic emphasis.

2. Revival of an earlier Gothic style

It was in contrast to this "modernistic rebellion" (Panofsky) that the International Gothic style entered the lists at the end of the century. We have already established that the people who commissioned the works of art - being in an insecure position - tried to revive nostalgically their past greatness in all aspects of life. This endeavour led to a conscious revival of an earlier phase of the Gothic style. (Thus, the International Gothic style, which preceded the cult of antiquity of the Renaissance, was the first period at the end of the Middle Ages that was founded upon a revived historical ideal.) "From the very start the International Style contained seeds of rebellion against the literal realism that had formed a basic constituent of art in the preceding generation. It looked back with nostalgia to a time before the fall of man into realism . . . The new generation, having eaten of the fruit of realism, could not return to medieval concepts in complete earnestness. Like the art of the seventies and eighties, the International Style is no longer Gothic, but it is post-Gothic. It is not so much a last flowering or waning, as a romantic revival of the High Middle Ages." (Krautheimer)

The International Gothic style was a decorative and linear one, striving to idealize and to stylize; a style that had originated from a realistic art and could not, nor did it want to, disown that heritage. Its greatest artists, particularly in France and Bohemia, utilized and developed even further the innovations of the preceding generation and from the blend of the two, seemingly contrasting, manners of representation an admirable synthesis emerged. "The historic significance of the soft style lies in the fact that before the start of a new period it reconciled for the last time all the antagonisms whose conflict had been the motive force behind the development of late medieval art . . . The Gothic stylization of figures content with mere outlines and trecento modelling, really descriptive and lifelike, had become absolutely intertwined." (Pächt)

3. Local tradition

Of course, the predominance of a particular tradition depended strongly on local tradition and on the circumstances in which the commission was given. In certain regions, for example in Cologne or in England, the International Gothic style did not appear as a reaction to previous periods but became an organic part of local Gothic tradition. Even in Italy, which was in the vanguard in the first half of the trecento, painting was swept along by the new stylistic trend, since there, after the middle of the century, development came to a standstill in consequence of the economic crisis and the plague, and, in contrast to territories north of the Alps, features of Gothic stylization grew stronger.

4. Ideas from sculpture

The contrasting elements of earlier artistic tendencies achieved a harmony in the International Gothic style. Outlines, again of crucial importance, came to be connected in an unbroken, rhythmic flow covering the whole picture, but, in contrast to the early Gothic style, the flowing movement included not only mass but also space itself. This phenomenon can be seen to include influences drawn not only from the painting of preceding periods, but also to include ideas derived from sculpture of the years around 1400. In those years sculpture came to be considered separately from the great architectural groups of buildings, and the three-dimensional figure achieved an independent status, complete with its own space around it. Forms were merged without discord, and this was made possible by a rhythmic arrangement of the pictorial surface, and by the imaginative juxtaposition of widely differing materials and textures.

5. Characteristic examples

1. Master of Maréchal Boucicaut 2. Konrad von Soest
3. Master of the Rohan Prayer-book 4. Master of the Lower Rhineland
5. Miscellaneous examples 6. Limbourg brothers
7. Pisanello 8. Landscapes

5.1 Master of Maréchal Boucicaut

The Master of Maréchal Boucicaut made full use of the possibilities inherent in the art of the Italian trecento in his depiction of the interior of a room drawn with fairly accurate perspective, but at the same time making liberal use of draperies; so that the whole effect of the picture is soft and flowing. The artist, presumably of Flemish origin, attempted to depict Charles VI in an easy, natural pose and characterized the figures by portrait-like features. At the same time all the five figures are Gothic in their lack of skeletal construction, and it is not the mass of their bodies that ensured them room in the composition, but the gorgeous attire that has been harmoniously blended with the texture of the painting.

5.2 Konrad von Soest

Konrad von Soest has presented us with an unusually deep stage in the Wildungen Altarpiece. The cross of Christ is not in the foreground but in the middle distance, behind a hillock, while those of the thieves are not placed frontally but obliquely, thus conveying perspective foreshortening, too. However, this arrangement was not due to an attempt to create depth but to produce a decorative effect which would not allow the crosses to clash sharply with the arched top of the picture. Indeed, they adapt themselves harmoniously to the semicircle, and just touching one another they seem to provide another frame. The small trees rising on either side of the rather distant horizon and leaning slightly inwards also lead the horizon to the arch of the frame. The surface of the picture is directed by the rhythm of softly fluctuating lines: the figures, the ornate apparel, the animals, plants, angels and inscribed scrolls all amalgamate into one decorative design. A greyhound appears to fit itself into the bottom right corner; the small triangle of its body completes the composition just as a full stop finishes a sentence.

The two examples cited above are important in any consideration of subsequent development, because in them we see that the total milieu of a picture has become just as important as the role of the component figures. It is important to point out that while the greatest masters of the International Gothic style made use of the past, they were not reactionary, but made their own positive contribution to the development of painting.

5.3 Master of the Rohan Prayer-book

In Konrad's painting the harmony of forms in the pictorial elements is accompanied by a homogeneity of mood, which was better able to meet the demands of a new spirit of piety, so characteristic of the International Gothic style. In contrast to the dramatic tone of Crucifixions of the preceding period, here the basic atmosphere is sorrowful and lyrical, the scene being submerged in a "dreamlike silence and refinement" (Worringer). It was not by recording events and by dramatic effects that the artists of the new period touched the emotions of the spectator. They expected him to open himself to a meditative and lyrical mood. This, however, was not necessarily coupled with a lessening of the expressive force of the representation. The Master of the Rohan Prayer-book utilized the contrast of archaic and progressive solutions to maximize expressive effects. This is achieved by confronting naturalistically depicted figures with a decorative, abstract background. In the context of this scene that seems quite realistic, the figure of God the Father is larger than those of the other characters, and becomes exceedingly expressive. (Even within one figure the painter consciously changed real proportions. The right hand of St John, for example, is tiny lest it should divert attention from the Virgin's face.) The choice of different angles also intensifies the expressive effect of the scene. By depicting Christ's body as if seen from above, it becomes more pitiful, revealing the traces of tortures more accurately; in contrast to him the other three figures are represented as though seen from below - to make them appear more statuesque. The archaic solution in which a part of the text of the prayer is included in the picture also attains expressive value by the fact that its harmonious decorations are contrasted to the excited style on the one hand and, on the other, by the fact that in several places the representation itself extends over the frame: so does the plaque with INRI too as well as the haloes of Jesus and God the Father.

The artificial revival of former events inevitably created a fabulous imaginary world. Tales and dreams became more fascinating if they contained elements of well-known facts as well. At the same time their interpretation offered the painter an excellent opportunity to allow the realism of the preceding decades to penetrate the idealizing artistic idiom which prevailed about 1400 or so. The heavy brocades and damasks Konrad von Soest's distinguished figures are wearing conjure up the magic of sumptuous oriental pomp, the long-toed shoes, the strange hats were not creations of fantasy but likenesses of carefully observed and meticulously painted Italian merchandise.

Similar elements increase the enchantment of Gentile da Fabriano's tale about the Adoration of the Magi, the miracle of St George's heroic exploit in Bernat Martorell's painting.

5.4 Master of the Lower Rhineland

The fairy-tale idyll of the Nativity by the Master of the Lower Rhineland is rendered familiar by objects borrowed from workaday reality: the bowl in the Virgin's hand, Joseph's work-bench with his tools, and a kettle and jars. The "angelic qualities" of the busy angels are not weakened but intensified by their natural, lifelike and vigorous gestures. It was particularly in Italy that details painted with foreshortening - often amazing show-pieces of painting - increased the credibility of the representations, for example, the figure of the page fixing spurs, or the horses, seen from the front or from the rear in Gentile's picture, which was mentioned above.

5.5 Miscellaneous examples

The characteristic feature of the International Gothic style is the way its artists strive towards accuracy of detail, while at the same time refraining from a naturalistic interpretation of events; this is clearly evident in the devotional pictures of the period. In the Pähl Altarpiece, in the Madonna of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, in the Vir Dolorum by Master Francke, etc. there is a sharp contrast between the lifelike figures and objects and the abstract surroundings lacking spatial qualities. Owing to this contrast the figures appear more compelling, and the spectator can immerse himself better in the details and identify himself with the representation.

5.6 Limbourg brothers

As already mentioned, the curiosity and interest in the lower classes, or the antipathy felt against them, was mirrored in art by the fact that these people - working peasants, Christ's enemies and Joseph - were depicted in greater depth, and given a share of individual traits, so that they stood out from the romantic portrayals of the aristocratic noblemen, who were represented in a linear and idealized manner. In this instance the International Gothic style drew on the preceding period's manner in its striving for naturalistic representation. Needless to say, the greatest masters were not content with mere borrowings, particularly as the figures of simple people were especially suitable for experiments with naturalistic interpretation.

It is by no means fortuitous that in the Book of Hours of the Limbourg brothers for the Month of March the stooping figure of an old man in torn clothes appeared in the painting, and, for the first time since antiquity, a principal figure cast a shadow. It was also the first occasion on which the artist emphasized the metallic shine of the sun on a smooth surface: on the plough and on the eye and horn of the ox. As already mentioned, representations of animals and vegetables based on the observation of nature developed during the period of the International Gothic style. Though representatives of the lower classes were not depicted direct from living models, the greatest artists endeavoured to convey reality with the same admiration when interpreting their characters as they did when portraying natural phenomena.

5.7 Pisanello

But, at the same time, the demand for independent portraits showing individual features and really true to life appeared in the circles of the aristocracy too. By painting animals and plants on the basis of observation the artists were greatly helped in their first attempts at recording the characteristic features of their sitters instead of the traditional, schematic types of faces. Nor is it due to chance that one of the finest of those early likenesses, in which the sitter was no longer represented in profile but full face, was made in the courtly environment of Northern Italy or Southern Germany, the real homeland of studies of nature. The portrait of Sigismund of Luxembourg, ascribed by many scholars to Pisanello, is also an example of the fact that those who gave commissions for portraits of rulers and monarchs attached as great an importance to the recording of individual features as to the requirement that the figure should be represented in a manner which revealed at first glance that the sitter was a monarch. This demand for a peculiar blend of individual and idealized features is well in line with the style of the International Gothic which came into being by merging similarly opposed elements.

5.8 Landscapes

The landscapes of the period also illuminate the duality of the style. In the frescoes of the Eagle's Tower at Trento in South Tyrol the forms were depicted naturalistically, in great detail and with meticulous care, and these natural forms eventually grew into a decorative web reminiscent of tapestry. Nor is this an isolated example. In pictures of the Garden of Eden the grassy surface is, at the same time, the decorative background to the figures. Thus a complex ambiguity arises between the open-air spaciousness and the smooth surface of the picture. That is how the characteristic problem of the International Gothic style, which was how to convey a decorative, stylized milieu and real depth of space at the same time, found an ingenious solution. Nor was it a coincidence that tapestries of outstanding quality were produced during this same period, in which the sensation of the scenery and the surface became permanently amalgamated in an apparently spontaneous manner.

The moment when a faithful representation of reality spread from the individual motifs to the whole work of art marked the end of the International Gothic style, indeed of medieval art as a whole. The realistic details of the style prevalent around 1400 were significant particularly because they prepared the ground for Dutch and Flemish realism and for the art of the Italian quattrocento.

6. Miniature painting

Miniature painting might have been gravely jeopardized as a genre by this new attempt to introduce naturalism into painting, but it was rescued by the attempt to reconcile opposites which is an inherent part of the style. A thin folio, with text occupying part of its surface, was not a suitable place for an associated illustration which would lead the eye into an effect of depth. But in the International Gothic style it was possible that the text, the picture and the marginal decorations alike should consist of a mixture of motifs which were both stylized and real, heraldic and naturalistic, two-dimensional and giving an effect of depth. Luchino Belbello's initial C is, for example, not only a letter but also a stylized rock, populated by animals, which, though depicted naturalistically, are arranged in such a way that their tails, legs and antlers follow the line of the letter. It is not due to chance that miniatures became the most important branch of painting and the site of the boldest experiments of art in the period about 1400. In fact the International Gothic style made full use of all the possibilities the miniature offered. In the next period, when naturalism became general and one of the chief endeavours of painters was to represent space as convincingly as possible, miniatures lost a part of their importance. Easel paintings acquired the dominant role, for in them the depth of space lends a unity to the composition.

Continue the tour with The history of the style