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Artist - Jan Van Eyck

At first glance, The Aronolfini Portrait seems unremarkable.  It’s a cozy domestic scene, complete with fluffy-tailed dog and dirty shoes.  Only on close inspection do the details come to life: the reflections sparkling on a chandelier, shadows falling on a carved wooden finial, cherries blooming on a tree outside.  And when your eye reaches the room’s back wall you notice an ornate Latin script that reads, “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”

 

It is a signature—one of the first artist’s signatures in history.  For a painting to draw such attention to himself was unprecedented.  Artisans painted anonymously to the glory of God, and they didn’t worry about things like shading, perspective, or depth.  Then out of the blue comes this purely secular painting of a man and a woman with their dog.  It was shadows, three-dimensional representation, and a signature.  This painting wasn’t just new, it was revolutionary.

 

An Artist By An Other Name

We don’t know much about van Eyck except that he was born in Flanders (part of present-day Belgium), but give the guy a break.  He was inventing the idea of the artist, and no one thought to jot down his biography.

 

The first we hear of him is in 1422, when he was working at The Hague as court painter to the Count of Holland.  In 1425, van Eyck took the position of court painter and varlet de chamber, a position of honor, to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy.  Philip esteemed van Eyck, sending him on diplomatic missions, serving as godfather to his children, and giving a pension to his widow.  The duke’s records include a letter in which he chews out his staff for failing to pay the artist’s salary on time.

 

One of van Eyck’s first known paintings is also one of his most famous.  The Ghent Altarpiece is an enormous multi panel painting created for St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.  It includes an inscription stating that it was begun by Hubert van Eyck but completed by Jan in 1432.  Of Hubert we know zilch, although the inscription claims “none was greater” in art; historians believe he was Jan’s older brother.

 

The ornate altarpiece rejects centuries of artistic tradition.  Instead of flat, symbolic representation, it achieves an unprecedented sense of three-dimensionality, particularly through the depiction of light and shadow.  Van Eyck also revolutionized the use of color by choosing paints with an oil base rather than tempera (egg-based).  Oil paints can be applied in layers to create translucent color; they also dry slowly, allowing for retouching.  (That’s why Michelangelo didn’t like oils—he thought they were for wimps.)  The result is more depth and brilliance and greater control.

 

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall

This point brings us back to van Eyck’s most famous painting, the Arnolfini Portrait, dated 1434.  The man is dressed in a fur-timed cloak and wears an enormous, poufy black hat (de rigueur for the Burgundian smart set); the woman wears a white headdress, green gown, and blue under dress.  A round, convex mirror in an ornate frame hangs on the back wall, reflecting the window, the couple, and, most intriguingly, two barely visible figures standing in a doorway, exactly where you would be if you were looking into the room.  Above the mirror is that strange signature: “Jan van Eyck was here.”

 

What makes this painting important?  First, its subject.  It is not religious: these are ordinary people, not saints or martyrs or even royalty.  Second, the realism is extraordinary.  Light floods in through the window, bathing the woman’s face in a soft glow.  The fur lining of the man’s robe seems soft and fluffy; the skin of the orange on the windowsill looks dimpled.

 

Questions remain about who and what the painting shows.  Early inventories describe it as a portrait of a man named Hernoul Le Fin, and nineteenth-century scholars connected the name to the Arnolfini family of Italian textile merchants working in Bruges.  For more than a century, it was believed the painting showed Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife, Giovanna Cenami, until it turned out that the couple married thirteen years after the date on the painting.  Scholars are now split.  Some believe it shows Giovanni with a previous wife, whereas others think it depicts a different Arnolfini altogether.

 

“King Of Painters”

After van Eyck’s death on July 9, 1441, his reputation as the “king of painters” spread throughout Europe.  One of the greatest inheritors of his tradition was seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), who’s light-drenched, middle-class interiors owe much to van Eyck’s legacy.  Van Eyck also granted later artists a greater sense of their own importance.  Throughout his oeuvre, he draws attention to his signature; several paintings even proclaim, “Jan van Eyck made me.”  We may not know much about him, but his prominent signature suggests that he believed in his importance as an artist.

 

 2009 Elizabeth Lunday - "Secret lives of great artists". All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2010 Barry. All rights reserved.