Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

Jan (also known as Johannes) Van Eyck was a 15th century painter from the Netherlands who is considered one of the best Northern European artists of the 15th century. He came from a family of painters but none achieved the success of Jan. Van Eyck has been called the "Father of Oil Painting" because of the misinformation perpetuated by Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century painter and biographer of the Renaissance artists. He credited Van Eyck with inventing oil painting. But his masterful techniques brought to light qualities of the oil paints never before realized. He would build up layers of transparent glazes which would then give him a surface on which he could capture the smallest detail. This would also preserve the colors.
Van Eyck spent several years as a court painter, first for John of Bavaria and then for Philip the Good of Burgandy.He was with the Burgandy Court, living in Bruges, from about 1425 until his death in 1441.
Van Eyck, unlike most of his contemporaries, was paid a very substantial salary and did not have to rely on commissions to make ends meet (although he did take on private clients) . Also unusual for his time was the fact that he signed and dated his works, on the frame of the painting. The frame was considered an important part of the painting and often the frame and the painting were painted together.
The Arnolfini Portrait was painted in 1434 and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It is one of the most analyzed paintings by art historians. For a long time it was thought to represent an announcement of an engagement or marriage (thus its alternative title, The Betrothal of Arnolfini, among several others). And the woman is probably not pregnant. The lifting of the skirt is often found in 15th century paintings of virgin saints.
Instead of signing the frame of this picture, Van Eyck signed the painting in an ornate script over the mirror. The inscription says "Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434" (Jan Van Eyck was here, 1434) There are 2 figures reflected in the mirror, as if they were just coming in. The man is lifting his hand as if he is greeting him. It is speculated that one of these figures is Van Eyck himself. (see detail of picture above).
The picture is supposedly of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his bride, Giovanna Cenami, but it has been established that they did not marry until 13 years after this painting was done. It is now believed to be Arnofini's cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini.
The details in this painting are extraordinary and unusual for the time. The clothing, ornaments, room decor all show that these were people of wealth. Even the oranges under the window were symbolic of wealth as they were very expensive in Bruges.

Some other paintings by Jan Van Eyck (left) St. Jerome (right) Madonna and Child

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