The Groeninge Museum possesses one of the world’s finest samples of early Flemish paintings, from Jan van Eyck through to Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Provoost. These paintings make up the kernel of the museum’s permanent collection, but there are later (albeit lesser) pieces on display too, reaching into the twentieth century, with works by the likes of Constant Permeke and Paul Delvaux.
Arguably the greatest of the early Flemish masters, Jan van Eyck (1385–1441) lived and worked in Bruges from 1430 until his death eleven years later. He was a key figure in the development of oil painting, modulating its tones to create paintings of extraordinary clarity and realism. The Groeninge has two gorgeous examples of his work, beginning with the miniature portrait of his wife, Margareta van Eyck, painted in 1439 and bearing his motto, “als ich can” (the best I can do). The painting is very much a private picture and one that had no commercial value, marking a small step away from the sponsored art – and religious preoccupations – of previous Flemish artists. The second Eyck painting is the remarkable Madonna and Child with Canon George van der Paele, a glowing and richly symbolic work with three figures surrounding the Madonna: the kneeling canon, St George (his patron saint) and St Donatian, to whom he is being presented. St George doffs his helmet to salute the infant Christ and speaks by means of the Hebrew word “Adonai” (Lord) inscribed on his chin strap, while Jesus replies through the green parrot in his left hand: folklore asserted that this type of parrot was fond of saying “Ave”, the Latin for welcome. The canon’s face is exquisitely executed, down to the sagging jowls and the bulging blood vessels at his temple, while the glasses and book in his hand add to his air of deep contemplation. Audaciously, van Eyck has broken with tradition by painting the canon among the saints rather than as a lesser figure – a distinct nod to the humanism that was gathering pace in contemporary Bruges.
The Groeninge possesses two fine and roughly contemporaneous copies of paintings by Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464), one-time official city painter to Brussels. The first is a tiny Portrait of Philip the Good, in which the pallor of the duke’s aquiline features, along with the brightness of his hatpin and chain of office, are skilfully balanced by the sombre cloak and hat. The second and much larger painting, St Luke painting the Portrait of Our Lady, is a rendering of a popular if highly improbable legend that Luke painted Mary – thereby becoming the patron saint of painters. The painting is notable for the detail of its Flemish background and the cheeky-chappie smile of the baby Christ.
Also noteworthy is the spookily stark Surrealism of Paul Delvaux’s (1897–1994) Serenity. One of the most interesting of Belgium’s modern artists, Delvaux started out as an Expressionist but came to – and stayed with – Surrealism in the 1930s. This painting is a classic example of his oeuvre and, if it whets your artistic appetite, you might consider visiting Delvaux’s old home, in St-Idesbald, which has been turned into a museum with a comprehensive selection of his paintings (see The Atlantikwall).
The Groeninge also owns a couple of minor oils and a number of etchings and drawings by James Ensor (1860–1949), one of Belgium’s most innovative painters, and Magritte’s (1898–1967) characteristically unnerving The Assault; for more on Magritte