Famous Belgian Painters: A Journey Through the World of Flemish Masters

famous belgian painters

Belgium is a Western European nation deeply steeped in history and culture from the Celtic and Roman periods to the early and late middle ages, the Renaissance, and the Belgian Empire. Its history is enriched by intertwining with the surrounding neighbors of Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

The country’s diverse and opulent heritage gave rise to some famous early Belgians who have earned a place among the most significant artists in world history. Museums and galleries in Belgium and around the world house precious and priceless works by Flemish masters and Belgian genre painters.

Let this guide to Belgium’s early painters enhance your gallery-hopping experience in Belgium’s museums and art galleries around the world.

René Magritte (1898-1967)

René Magritte - Memory [c.1957]
René Magritte – Memory [c.1957] – Image courtesy of Gandalf’s Gallery

Surrealist artist René Magritte was one of Belgian’s most famous artists and produced some of history’s best-known works. Magritte’s paintings were depictions of ordinary objects presented in the most extraordinary ways. The result was thought-provoking masterpieces that bordered the line between reality and representation. For example, Magritte’s iconic Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) is actually a depiction of a pipe.

The famous surrealist from Belgium has influenced pop art, conceptual art, and minimalist art in more modern times. His most notable works include The Empire of Light and Les Amants. You can admire his works at the Magritte Museum in Brussels which is dedicated to him and at some of the world’s most notable museums including the Metropolitan Art Museum (MET) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Peter Paul Rubens, The miracle of Saint Walburga
Peter Paul Rubens, The miracle of Saint Walburga – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Born in Siegen, Germany, Peter Paul Rubens received a Renaissance humanist education in Antwerp, Belgium. At the age of 14, he began an artistic apprenticeship with Tobias Verhaecht. Later, he studied under Mannerist artists Otto van Veen and Adam van Noort., two of Antwerp’s leading painters at that time.

Peter Paul Reubens would go on to become the most important artist of the Flemish Baroque style which emphasized color, movement, and sensuality. His paintings included portraits, historical paintings, altarpieces, and landscapes.

You can admire the work of Rubens in major art galleries around the world.

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Anthony van Dyck, Equestrian portrait of prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano
Anthony van Dyck, Equestrian portrait of prince Tommaso Francesco of Savoy-Carignano – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Born to a wealthy silk merchant in Antwerp, Anthony Van Dyck began painting at an early age and was an independent painter in his late teens. In 1618, The Flemish Baroque artist became a master in the Antwerp Guild. After much success in Italy and the Spanish Netherlands, he went on to become the leading court painter in England.

Anthony Van Dyke was best known for his paintings of the aristocracy. He became the court painter for the archduchess Isabella, Habsburg Governor of Flanders, and returned to London in 1632 when Charles I of England requested him as the main court painter. Other works he is remembered for are an Iconography series of portrait etchings of other artists. In addition to portraits, he painted biblical and mythological subjects.

Look for works by Anthony van Dyck at National Gallery, London.

Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482)

Van der Goes, Monforte Altarpiece
Van der Goes, Monforte Altarpiece – Image courtesy of Frans Vandewalle

Born in Ghent, Belgium, Hugo van der Goes was a member of the Early Netherlandish and Northern Renaissance schools. He was one of the most popular Flemish painters and is remembered for several iconic works such as Fall and Redemption of Man, Portinari Triptych, and Monforte Altarpiece.

Through his portraits and altarpieces, and monumental style, Hugo introduced some significant innovations in painting such as using a specific color range and portraits featuring an individual’s mannerisms. His masterpiece, the Portinari Triptych In Florence was a great influence in the rise of realism and the use of color in Italian Renaissance art.

Huga wan der Goes suffered from depression and once tried to commit suicide. Explore his paintings at the MET in New York.

James Ensor (1860-1949)

James Ensor, The Intrigue
James Ensor, The Intrigue – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

James Ensor was a painter and printmaker from the fishing port of Ostend, Belgium where he lived most of his life. Even living away from the big city, he managed to significantly influence every facet of Belgian modernist art from expressionism to symbolism to surrealism and Dada. His signature style was the use of capricious color and distortion of form.

Ensor experienced rejections and disappointments in his early career, leading him to feature grotesque figures such as skeletons, masks, and puppets in his work. The style became a defining characteristic of his work, and he finally became a dominant figure in the modernist art movement. He was a member of Les XX, an artistic group formed by 20 Belgian painters, designers, and sculptors.

Ensor’s best-known painting is the stunning Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. Completed in 1988, the post-impressionist painting is a parody of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem celebrated on Palm Sunday. The composition was a precursor to Expressionism. It is on display at the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California.

Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait – Iamge courtesy of Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder

Flemish Primitives painter Jan Van Eyck was one of Europe’s greatest painters during his lifetime. His emphasis on naturalism and realism revolutionized the Gothic style. He was an inspiration for a generation of later painters with his technique of oil-based color mixing.

Surviving records indicate that Jan Van Eyck was born in the late 14th century in Limburg, now present-day Belgium. He worked as a master painter in several roles including court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Philip paid him well so that he was secure enough to “paint whatever he pleased.” Around 1429, he moved to Bruges, Belgium where he lived until his death.

Jan Van Eyck’s works had both secular and religious themes and included commissioned portraits, altarpieces, single-panel religious figures, diptychs, triptychs, and polyptych panels. He is most remembered for the painting the Arnolfini Portrait and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. You will see it hanging in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.

Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)

Jacob Jordaens, The Rape of Europa
Jacob Jordaens, The Rape of Europa – Image courtesy of jean louis mazieres

Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and lived there his entire life. Unlike his contemporaries, he never studied abroad and his travel was limited to short trips to the Netherlands, Flanders, and Luxembourg. He was also a draughtsman and designed prints and tapestries. His paintings included mythological, biblical, landscapes, allegorical compositions, genre scenes, and portraits.

After the deaths of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, Jordaens became the leading painter of Flemish Baroque. He dismissed his contemporaries’ courtly aspirations through art that lacked idealism. Instead, his main influencers were northern Italian painters such as Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Bassano, and Caravaggio.

Jordaean’s principal patrons were local churches and the wealthy bourgeoisie. However, late in his career, he received royal commissions from King Charles I of England, the Dutch Republic, and Queen Christina of Spain.

Jacob Jordaens is best remembered for his large-scale genre scenes, As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, and The King Drinks (also known as Feast of the Bean King.)

Rogier Van Der Weyden (1399-1464)

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Sforza - Triptych
Rogier Van Der Weyden, Sforza – Triptych – Image courtesy of Kotomi_

Born in Tournai, Belgium, Rogier Van Der Weyden was an Early Netherlandish painter who became one of the most influential Northern painters of the 15th century. He was so successful, his paintings were exported to Italy and Spain. He received commissions from foreign princes and other important people.

Van Der Weden lived and painted during the same era as Jan van Dyck and surpassed van Dyck’s fame in Europe during the latter part of the 15th century. But due to changing tastes in art, his fame didn’t withstand the test of time. Today, he is rightly remembered as one of the best Early Flemish painters. He mostly painted portraits and religious triptychs. They were characterized by a broad range of colors and sympathetic expressions.

Several museums house collections by Van der Weyden including New York City, London, and Washington, DC.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings
Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings – Image courtesy of Gandalf’s Gallery

Belgian Jan Brueghel the Elder was born in Brussels as the son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He was a court painter of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. As a painter of depictions of pheasant life, he became a pioneer in genre painting. His works of art give an invaluable insight into the customs of folklife centuries ago. Together with his friend and colleague Peter Paul Reubens, he was one of the leading Flemish painters of the first half of the 17th century.

Jan Brueghel the Elder painted in several genres including flower still lifes, landscapes, seascapes, village scenes, allegorical and mythological scenes, and paintings of hell and the underworld. You can admire his paintings at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638)

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Alchemist
Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Alchemist – Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The eldest son of the legendary Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Younger was also a Flemish painter. In addition to re-creating his father’s works, he is also known for several original works of his own, mostly depicting scenes of rural life. Copies of his father’s work helped spread Pieter the Elder’s image internationally thanks to his studio’s large output and the local and export market.

It was once believed that Pieter the Younger authored paintings of hellfire and our grotesque imagery; therefore he was given the nickname “Hell Brueghel.” It was later determined that they were the paintings of his brother Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Pieter the Younger’s paintings can be seen in museums in cities like Amsterdam and Paris.

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