The history of the lives of the Flemish primitives is difficult to reconstruct. There are precious few archival sources that have remained preserved from the 15th and 16th Centuries. Dedicated archival entities such as we know today were virtually non-existent then. If there are archival sources, then they are widely dispersed amongst municipal and other administrative archives, archives of churches and cloisters, and so forth. Frequently, strict attention was not paid to birth and other such data and were manipulated and recorded in various ways, and certain events were described by chroniclers only years later. Now and again, proof of payments for delivered services are retrieved in old accounting ledgers of city administrations, churches, abbeys and cloisters. And, sometimes the name of a master turns up in the membership registers of the guilds where they were members or on the death registers of the church or community to which they owed rent monies or membership dues. Some masters were in good standing with the management from their time and received an important skilled or political assignment.
Yet, in the 15th and mostly in the 16th Centuries, there were humanist writers who saw it as their charge to write about artists and art. Indeed, primarily in Italy there was a great deal of ink spilled about art. The humanist Bartolomeo Facio (1410-57) published already in 1456 his De viris illustribus, in which were biographies of and commentaries on northern artists. The Venetian nobleman Marcantonio Michiel (1484-1552) also wrote personal notations on the art collections in Northern Italian cities, in which painters from the Low Countries were to be found working. His Notizie d'opere del disegno (1521-43) contained quite a great deal of useful information for historians of art. Marcantonio Michiel corresponded with another Renaissance humanist: the Neapolitan Pietro Summonte (1463-1526). Their exchange of letters helped historians with the reconstruction of the lives of artists. One letter from Summonte to Marcantonio from 1524 mentions various works by Netherlandish painters who were present in Naples at the time. One of the most important sources for the lives and works of Italian artists is the Vite (1550), compiled and published by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). Many later biographies are based on the facts that were related by Vasari. However, not all that Vasari divulges is necessarily correct. Lodovico Guicciardini (1521-1589) was an Italian who settled himself in Antwerp beginning in 1542. His description of the Low Countries was published in 1567 and contained a significant discussion on artists. It is the first text that viewed the Low Countries as a whole.
Two important, though no more accurate, sources published in the Low Countries are the works of Dominicus Lampsonius (1532-1599) and Karel Van Mander (1548-1606). The gravures of Lampsonius provide us with portraits of many Flemish artists from the 15th and 16th Centuries. The portraits were complemented by Latin poems. Van Mander's Schilder-Boeck from 1604 is the earliest, non-Italian transmitted compilation of facts on the lives of the painters from the Low Countries. Van Mander to the Vite of Vasari as an example and added non-Italian painters to it. This is also primarily based on orally transmitted anecdotes and not on archival material, though this work is still one of the premier sources for information on the lives of the Flemish primitives. Before Van Mander, a Ghent jurist and humanist, Dionysius Harduinus or Hardewijn (1530-1605), made an attempt to collect information on the Flemish painters. Hardewijn's material is lost, but he was indeed cited by others as a source. As such, the Utrecht jurist Arnoldus Buchelius (1565-1641) mentions Hardewijn's notations as a source in his Res Picturae, a series of annotations on artists and works of art. In 1641-44, the work was published by Antonius Sanderus (1586-1664), a Flemish priest. His Flandria illustrata was a description-in Latin-of the most famous men in the region of Flanders. He also used the prior publications of Van Mander, Guiccardini and Hardewijn as source materials. In 1725, the work was translated into Dutch.
Regarding the most well-known masters, a certain biography would be orally transmitted. Yet, for most of the masters, the arc of their lives has remained unknown. In many cases, not even their names are known. Often, a so-called eponym that is an indication of their most characteristic work is how these anonymous masters are referenced. In this rubric we make an earnest attempt to provide some insight into the lives of the most well-known masters from the Burgundian Low Countries.
Do you wish to consult the primary sources yourself, than this list will get you on your way:
An early and comprehensive compendium of sources is Hans-Wolfgang von Löhneysen, Die ältere Niederlaändische Malerei: Künstler und Kritiker. Eisenbach, Roth, 1956. Another compendium of relevant primary sources: Wolfgang Stechow, Northern Renaissance Art 1400-1600. Sources and Documents. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1966 en in Carol M. Richardson, Kim Woods and Michael W. Franklin, Renaissance Art Reconsidered: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Oxford, Blackwell, 2007.
A shortlist of relevant primary sources concerning artists from the 15th and 16th Century:
Bartolomeo Facio (1410 - 1457), De viris illustribus (1456) published as Mehus, Laurentius. Bartholomaei Facii De viris illustribus liber: nunc primum ex. ms. cod. in lucem erutus. Florence: Ex typographio Joannis Pauli Giovannelli, 1745.
Marcantonio Michiel (1484 - 1552), Notizie d'opere del disegno (1521 - 43). Ongepubliceerd manuscript in de Biblioteca Marciana, Venetië. Voor meer info over de geschriften van Marcantonio Michiel zie Jennifer Fletcher, "Marcantonio Michiel: His Friends and Collection" The Burlington Magazine 123 No. 941 (August 1981:453-467) en "Marcantonio Michiel, 'che ha veduto assai'", The Burlington Magazine 123 No. 943 (October 1981:602-09).
Pietro Summonte (1463 - 1526) Zijn correspondentie met Marcantonio werd gepubliceerd in Fausto Niccolini, L'arte napoletana del Rinascimento, 1925.
Felipe de Guevara (1500 - 1563), Comentarios de la Pintura (1560) gepubliceerd door Antonio Ponz, Comentarios de la Pintura, Madrid: Don G. Ortega, 1788.
Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574), Vite de' più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino a' tempi nostri (1550) gepubliceerd als Le vite de'più eccellenti pittori, scuttori e architetti. Florence: Lorenzo Torrentino, 1550. Enlarged ed., Florence: T. Giunti, 1568 en Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptures and Architects. Translated by Gaston du C. de Vere. 10 vols. London: Macmillan and the Medici Society, 1912-15.
Marc van Vaernewyck (1518 - 1569), Van die beroerlicke tijden in die Nederlanden en voornamelick in Ghent 1566-1568 gepubliceerd door Ferdinand F.E. Vanderhaegen, Van die beroerlicke tijden in die Nederlanden en voornamelick in Ghent 1566-1568, Gent, 1872 -81 en Die Historie van Belgis, dienem anders noemen mach:Den Spieghel der nederlandsche Oudtheydt, Gent, 1574. Ook te raadplegen via Digitale Bibliotheek voor Nederlandse Letteren: http://www.dbnl.org/auteurs/auteur.php?id=vaer003
Lodovico Guicciardini (1521 - 1589), Descrittione di Lodavico Guicciardini patrito fiorentino di tutti i Paesi Bassi altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (1567) gepubliceerd als Descrittione di m. Lodouico Guicciardini patritio fiorentino, di tutti i Paesi Bassi, altrimenti detti Germania inferiore : con piu carte di geographia del paese, & col ritratto naturale di piu terre principali : con amplissimo indice di tutte le cose piu memorabili. Antwerp: Guglielmo Siluio, 1567, en in het Engels, The Description of the Low Countreys and of the Prouinces thereof, Gathered into an Epitome out of the Historie of Lodouico Guicchardini. London: Peter Short, 1593.
Dominicus Lampsonius (1532 - 1599), Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies (1572) gepubliceerd door Jean Puraye, Les effigies des peintres célèbs des Pays-Bas. Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1956.
Karel van Mander (1548 - 1606), Het Schilderboeck (1604) gepubliceerd als Het Schilder-Boeck waer in voor eerst de leerlustighe Jeught den grondt der Edel Vry Schilderconst in verscheyden deelen wort voorghedraghen Daer nae in dry deelen t'leuen der vermaerde doorluchtighe Schilders des ouden, en nieuwen tyds Eyntlyck d'wtlegghinghe op den Metamorphoseon pub. Ouidij Nasonis Oock daerbeneffens wtbeeldinghe der figueren Alles dienstich en nut den schilders Constbeminders en dichters, oock allen staten van menschen. Haarlem: Passchier van Wesbusch, 1603-1604, 2nd ed., Amsterdam: Cornelis Lodewijcksz. Van der Plasse and Jacob Pietersz. Wachter, 1616-1618. Ook te raadplegen via Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. http://www.dbnl.org/auteurs/auteur.php3?id=mand001.
Arnoldus Buchelius (1565 - 1641), Diarium Res Pictoriae, gepubliceerd in G.J. Hoogewerff en J.Q. Van Regteren Altena, ed. Arnoldus Buchelius "Res Pictoria". Aantekeningen over kunstenaars en kunstwerken voorkomende van zijn Diarium Res Pictoriae, notae quotidianae en desciptio Urbis Ultrajectinae. Quellenstudien zur holländischen Kunstgeschichte, 15. Den Haag, 1929.
Antonius Sanderus (1586-1664), Flandria illustrata, sive Desciptio comitatus istius per totum terrarum orbem celeberrini, eerste uitgave in 1641-44, gepubliceerd door Cornelis en Jean Blaeu in Amsterdam en in het Nederlands verschenen als Verheerlijkt Vlaandre: vertaling in het Nederduytsch, Leiden, 1725.