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“Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck

"Arnolfini Portrait" by Jan van Eyck

“Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck

“Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck is a full-length double portrait, depicting the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges. Arnolfini was a member of a merchant family from Lucca living in Bruges, as an agent of the Medici family. The couple is depicted in their prosperous home. This masterpiece is considered one of the most original and sophisticated paintings in our heritage of early oil paintings.

This painting is famous for its elaborate symbolism, detailed rendering, geometric perspective, use of light, and for the various detailed elements in the picture, such as the mirror, to create a realistic space. The vibrant colours highlight the material wealth and opulence of the subject’s world. Van Eyck quest for realism means he probably employed a magnifying glass to paint the minute details such as the highlights inf the amber beads hanging beside the mirror and the smaller pictures within the mirror’s surround.

The painting is full of everyday details and symbolism. Van Eyck has injected symbolism throughout the picture, such as the little dog, which symbolises fidelity. And the bedpost’s crowning ornament is a small statue of Saint Margaret, who is the patron saint of childbirth.

The ornate Latin signature under the mirror translates as ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’. Jan van Eyck was a Flemish painter active in Bruges. He is one of the most significant representatives of Northern Renaissance art.  The “Arnolfini Portrait” and his “Ghent Altarpiece” are the oldest panel masterpieces that were executed in oils and not in tempera. Van Eyck took advantage of the longer drying time of oil paint, compared to tempera, to blend colours as wet paint to achieve variations in light and shade to create the illusion of three-dimensional depictions.

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441) was a Flemish painter who was one of the founders of Early Netherlandish painting. He was employed as a painter to John III the Pitiless, ruler of Holland and later as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy until he moved to Bruges in 1429 where he lived until his death. He was highly regarded by the Duke of Burgundy and undertook several diplomatic visits abroad.

About 20 surviving paintings are attributed to him, as well as the Ghent Altarpiece and the illuminated miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours. Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including altarpieces, single-panel religious figures and commissioned portraits.

Van Eyck’s work comes from the International Gothic style, but he soon eclipsed it, in part through a greater emphasis on naturalism and realism. He achieved a new level of virtuosity through his developments in the use of oil paint. He was highly influential, and his techniques and style were adopted and refined by the Early Netherlandish painters.

Bruges

Bruges is the capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders in the Flemish Region of Belgium, in the northwest of the country. Bruges became rich because of its tidal inlet that was important to local commerce. In 1089 Bruges became the capital of the County of Flanders.

In the 15th century, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, set up court in Bruges, as well as Brussels and Lille, attracting several artists, like Jan van Eyck, and other prominent personalities from all over Europe. The weavers and spinners of Bruges were thought to be the best in the world, and the population of Bruges grew to 200,000 inhabitants at around 1400 AD.

Starting around 1500, the Zwin channel, which had given the city its prosperity, started silting and the Golden Era ended. The city soon fell behind Antwerp as the economic flagship of the Low Countries. As Antwerp became increasingly dominant, Bruges became impoverished and gradually faded in importance. Its population dwindled to 50,000 by 1900.

Arnolfini Portrait

  • Title:             Arnolfini Portrait, The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage
  • Artist:           Jan van Eyck
  • Year:            1434
  • Medium:      Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards
  • Dimensions: 82.2 cm × 60 cm (32.4 in × 23.6 in)
  • Museum:      The National Gallery, London

Jan van Eyck

Reflections

  • Is she pregnant?
    • The impression is caused because of her extensive skirt material, which she gathers and presses to her abdomen. This was a symbol of wealth and status, not of pregnancy.
  • What are the symbols of wealth?
    • The chandelier, stained glass windows, elaborately woven rug, fur robes, mirror and oranges.
    • These symbols are also allusions to religious and fertility motifs.

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Insights into “Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan van Eyck

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“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those who roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished.” 
– Marcel Proust

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Photo Credit: 1) Jan van Eyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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