Emergence of Naturalism

by Jutta Buck

with Cynthia Rice

At the end of the fifteenth century Naturalism emerged in Flanders, France, Germany and Italy. Illuminated manuscript copies of the Book of Hours, particularly those created by the Ghent-Bruges  School, illustrated remarkably lifelike drawings of flowers, insects and birds in their margins.

One of the masterpieces of this genre is the Grimani Breviary  (c.1510) in the Biblioteca Nationale Marciana in Venice. Named after Cardinal Domenico Grimani, who acquired it in 1520, it was created by Alexander Bening and his son Simon. Scattered sprigs, blossoms, daisy chains, flowers, butterflies and other insects embellish the margins in this extraordinary example of Flemish art.  

One of the finest French Books of Hours made c.1500-1508 for Anne of Brittany by Jean Bourdichon, is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. More than 340 images of local garden flowers and plants from Touraine, painted in gouache and identified in French and Latin, enrich the pages of this exquisite work.


























                                  From Anne of Brittany’s Book of Hours, Jean Bourdichon

Earlier on, in Flanders, the brothers van Eyck painted their great Ghent altarpiece (c.1430), which includes lilies and irises growing in green meadows.  

Other artists, such as Hans Memling and Gerard David, also painted wildflowers. 

A magnificent sketch of red peonies (c.1470) by the Alsacian artist Martin Schongauer (1430-91) is a study for a painting entitled Madonna im Rosenhag (1473) is now at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Peony, Martin Schongauer, c. 1470

Early in the fifteenth century northern European influences reached Italy. Many Florentine artists often included beautifully executed flowers in landscapes, in pots or in vases in their religious paintings.

It is probably safe to assume that these artists made separate studies of those plants, which were later incorporated into their paintings. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few drawings by Pisanello (c.1397-1455), an iris by Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-1470), as well as those by the later Leonardo da Vinci and some of his contemporaries, most are lost.

                                  Iris, Jacopo Bellini


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  • From the Grimani Breviary, Simon and Alexander Bening
  • Lilies, detail from The Annunciation, Jan van Eyck, circa 1425-30.