The fact that a Flanders-piece is a painting that only looks impressive from a distance cropped up on the HH feed this week—as did a few questions asking where such a peculiar phrase comes from (as well as a few theories of your own).
It’s a superb idea, but sadly no—this has nothing to do with the fact that Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anne of Cleves reportedly made her appear much more beautiful than she really was (and led to her being nicknamed “The Flanders Mare”). Nor, for that matter, has this got anything to do with the imprecise works of Impressionist painters (despite what you might have learned from Clueless). In fact, it’s all a lot more straightforward—and a lot more insulting—than all that.
Because Britain spent a considerable portion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries at near-constant war with the Netherlands, at the time, describing anything as Dutch, Flemish or Flanders was a sure sign that it was of poor quality.
A Dutch bargain, for instance, was a deal in which one party ended up considerably disadvantaged or worse off. A Dutch feast was a party where the host got drunk before their guests. A Flemish account was one that showed a deficit. And while a Flanders-piece was a painting whose poor quality became evident on closer inspection, a Flanders fortune was a pitiful amount of cash.
If all that seems a bit unfair on the Low Countries (which it is), fear not—the Dutch got their own back. Engelsche ziekte or “the English disease” is an old Dutch name for the bone-wasting disease rickets, while someone who has just tripped or stumbled might be said to have Engelse benen, or “English legs”. Clearly, it’s a two-way street.