Jan van Eyck (sounds like: Yahn vahn Ike) was born in the Netherlands. He was a Renaissance painter but lived earlier than the Italian painters we have already looked at. No one is sure exactly when he was born but it was probably in the late 1380s or early 1390s.
Van Eyck’s older brother, Hubert van Eyck, was also a painter. He probably taught his little brother how to draw and paint. The brothers were both court painters and are believed to have worked together on some paintings.
In 1421, Jan van Eyck became a master painter and went to work for John of Bavaria. At the time he was the Count of Holland. When John of Bavaria died, van Eyck became court painter for the Duke. He was a loved and respected painter even during his lifetime.
The Duke treated van Eyck well and paid him a lot. He feared that van Eyck would seek work elsewhere and the Duke would never find a painter as talented. Most painters of the time worked for anyone who would hire them and had to worry about how they would be able to pay for things. Until van Eyck died, he worked for the Duke. He never had to worry about money.
For many years, this painting was thought to be a wedding portrait, of a couple taking vows. Certainly that was the case when I was studying art history. My main foundational text was Art Through the Ages (6th ed) by Helen Gardner who said, “…Almost every object depicted is in some way symbolic of the holiness of matrimony. The persons themselves, hand in hand, take the marriage vows.”
Currently however, there is some speculation that it is, instead, a commemorative portrait. No one knows for sure who the couple are but the best guess is that it is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini a merchant from Bruges and his bride Costanza Trenta who he married in 1426. By the time this portrait was painted however, in 1434, Constanza had died. What’s more, the couple was childless which jives nicely with the idea of some scholars that Constanza may have died in childbirth. So the idea that this is a commemoration of Constanza seems to be valid. One thing’s for sure, there’s waaaaayyyy too much going on for it to be just a Double Portrait as a few other scholars have suggested.
Because of her apparent bulge, there has been much debate as to whether Constanza is pregnant. The general consensus nowadays is that Constanza was not pregnant. As proof, some scholars point to the look as fashionable and others compare the pregnant look to other paintings of the time that show for instance, the Virgin Mary at the time of the annunciation (ie. virgins aren’t generally pregnant!). Others add that the look is a symbolic way of suggesting fruitfulness in the marriage rather than an actual pregnancy. Certainly the tiny statue of St Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy, is also a symbolic indication of pregnancy. Mind you, if Constanza did die in childbirth, she would have been pregnant at some point!
Let’s look at some more close-ups. There is no question that the painting reveals the wealth of the Arnolfinis – the fur worn by both, the oranges, the large elaborate chandelier, the oriental rug, and probably the glass in the window. Everything in the painting also has a symbolic meaning. I’ll mention some of these but I also want you to see the amazing technique of Jan Van Eyck who painted in thin translucent layers of oil paint building up a glowing colour at a time when the quick-drying egg tempera was the more commonly used medium. (Van Eyck is generally credited with popularizing this new medium of oil painting.)
The rare delicacy of oranges have been said to represent love and marriage and also the innocence before Adam and Eve’s expulsion.
This could also be the reading of the cherries outside. I love this slice of outside life. Look at how Van Eyck paints the detail of wood and brick against the cherries and leaves and sky. And just above the opening is the glass in the window.
The dog represents fidelity and also wealth as apparently it was a rare breed. What I find interesting is that the dog looks out at the viewer. And there’s a human quality to the face. What does this mean? So far in my readings I haven’t read any commentary on this.
And then there’s that beautiful chandelier. The one lit candle has has most often been read as the all seeing eye of God. It has also been suggested that if indeed this is a memorial portrait, the lit candle represents the living man while the burnt out stub to the right is a metaphor for the deceased Constanza. Look at how beautifully Van Eyck has painted the gleam of the chandelier, changing between where it’s hit by light and where it remains in shadow.
Look at the sandals – they are outdoor sandals or pattens. You can see two pairs. They were typically removed as a sign of respect. What I’m amazed at is how Van Eyck shows the difference in wood between the floor and the sandal. He also shows off his masery of perspective (more on that below).
Speaking of the talent and exquisite work of the artist, look at the fabric of Constanza’s gown with the intricate detailing and the fur lining. Note also the oriental rug.
Then there’s the convex mirror surrounded by a wood frame showing scenes from the Passion of Christ. In the mirror are not only reflected the couple but also two other people. One is thought to be the painter himself (although not at the easel painting the couple), the other is unknown and so far in my research, I haven’t seen any suggestions as to who it might be. One of the reasons one of the figures is believed to be Van Eyck is the inscription on the wall above the mirror which reads, “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434″ – a bit like graffiti!
And lastly, I’d like to show you a close-up of the faces.
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of Arnolfini’s face
This is definitely an individual with cleft chin, a defined cheekbone, and interesting nose with what may even be a nose hair.
On the other hand, is this the portrait of a real person or a generalized woman? Remember Constanza died in 1433, a year before the completion of this portrait in which case, Van Eyck would not have had the actual person to paint from.
As I am describing all the parts of the painting, I also see this as a showpiece for Van Eyck, revealing his talent to paint fabric, flesh, fur, metal, and all in a believable space. Jan Van Eyck was painting a type of linear perspective around the time it was being formulated so it’s unclear as to how he came to do this. Although the discovery of perspective is attributed to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) who in 1435, a year after Van Eyck’s painting was created, wrote about the theory of what we now call linear perspective in his book, Della Pittura (On Painting).