Jan Van Eyck was born somewhere around 1390 in the village of Maaseyck, near Maastricht (Belgium). His early life is somewhat of a mystery. Between 1422 and 1424 he was employed as a painter by John of Bavaria, Count of Holland. One year later he entered the service of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgandy. There he became court artist and equerry. Van Eyck was held in high esteem by the Duke and was not only Godfather to the Duke’s son, but was also paid a salary by him instead of working on commission (which was typical for artists of this time period). He worked for the Duke for 16 years (his lifetime) and also for wealthy Italians resident in the Netherlands, such as Giovanni Arnolfini.
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Jan Van Eyck was a Flemish Realist active in Bruges, who was considered by some as the first master of oil painting. His use of oil paints in his detailed panel paintings resulted in him being known as the father of oil painting. He was credited with originating a style of painting characterized by minutely realistic depictions of surface effects and natural light. He accomplished this by using an oil medium, which allowed the building up of paint in translucent layers, or glazes. By creating these layers he was able to capture objects in the minutest detail. This also gave him the ability to preserve his colors.
Due to Van Eyck’s social position with Philip the Good as a diplomat (negotiating marriage for the Duke); he was able to travel extensively. He had a great visual memory and eye for detail. Van Eyck was unique in his ability to accurately record historical style. No painter has ever been more preoccupied with artifacts and with the exact way something looks. In his paintings, he extends detailed information about things far past ordinary detail. Instead of doing as artists before him and suggesting areas and ideas, Van Eyck has left us with too much detail. No detail is left unexplored. He painted the world as if everything in it were both knowable and perfectly known.
Van Eyck’s artwork is also charged with symbolism. This attitude toward nature was one that Van Eyck seems “to have regarded each created thing as a symbol of the workings of God’s mind, and the universe as an immense structure of metaphors” (artchive.com). He has so many things packed into each painting that it is hard to find all of the symbols and we are often left to speculate what things might mean. Take for instance in The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, there are two rabbits holding up a pillar in the center of the painting, close to the book of hours. We are only left to speculate the meaning of this. Is it purely as a piece of conversation, or has the artist placed them there to symbolize true love overcoming carnal desire? Also in the same piece, two mockingbirds are shown in the garden just beyond the pillar. Are these put there to symbolize death, as the peacocks symbolize eternal life, or are they placed in the garden for balance and interest only? Although we are left to speculate about some symbols, others are pulled from classic symbols of the past that are commonly used as representations by many artists, such as the lilies in the garden being used to symbolize The Virgin Mary’s purity, or the cross being held in the baby Jesus’ hand.
I think the thing that makes this artist stand out the most to me is the interest he creates by combining the very heavy use of symbols, with the miniature detail. He carries his symbolism even into the deep background of his paintings. This gives the effect of excitement whenever finding one of Jan Van Eyck’s pieces of art. We as viewers of the scene before us, become detectives. We hungrily look for things that maybe we have overlooked. This not only brings us into the painting, but fosters thinking and debate! Every expression by the figures and even every creation itself seem to carry two meaningsâ€¦its own and a symbolic one.
Jan Van Eyck made both religious and secular images. His most well known religious work is The Ghent Altarpiece. This painting was originally started by his brother Hubert. Jan completed the work in 1432, six years after his brothers’ death. It is unclear how many of the twenty four panels Van Eyck finished or changed after his brother passed away. One of his most studied secular images is The Arnolfini Portrait made in 1434. Both of these paintings were oil on panel. Some of his other most popular paintings are: Portrait of a Man in a Turban (1433), The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (1435), Portrait of Margareta van Eyck (1439), and Madonna in the Church (c. 1425). Of the some twenty six main works documented, all seem to be either oil on panel or oil on canvas.
Several of Jan Van Eyck’s works were signed and dated, which allowed historians to correctly identify other works of his that were either left unsigned or had signed frames which were removed at some point in time. On a few of his works he has signed “ALS ICH KAN” (“As I can” or “As best I can”). In the Arnolfini Portrait he even signed on the wall in the picture itself “Jan Van Eyck was here”. He painstakingly made his paintings the most interesting I have seen.
“His eye was at one and the same time a microscope and a telescope”
“The Betrothal of the Arnolfini”
Considered perhaps Jan Van Eyck’s greatest triumph in the painting of portraits is “The Betrothal of the Arnolfini” or “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434). This portrait is an oil on wood (32 ¼” x 23 ½”), and is one of his most famous portraits. This painting represents an Italian merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini, who had come to the Netherlands on business, with is bride Jeanne de Chenany. This was a new and revolutionary way of painting portraits in its portrayal of a piece of the real world. The meticulous way the entire room was painted in every detail from carpet, slippers, drapery, chandelier and pet. It is as if we have stepped into their home. It is speculated that this picture represents the moment of the couples’ betrothal. The young woman is clothed in a vibrant green gown lined with fur and blue undergarment. The weight of the garment is apparent in the deep folds it creates. Her head covering is white with delicate laced edging. Even a gold necklace and brown leather belt are shown. She tilts her head forward, eyes slightly down showing modesty. Her dainty build shown in her hands contrast the heavy material of her robe. She is shown just after placing her hand lightly in her husband’s. Her left hand holds up the folds of her dress, possibly symbolizing fertility or her wish for children. Her husband is shown in a large black hat, black collared shirt and ¾ lengths brown, fur lined coat. His left hand rests under her right and his right hand is raised as in an oath. In the foreground a pair of traditional wooden shoes are shown on the floor. The wood planking and detailed rug are shown on the floor as well. There is a dog shown in between the couple on the foreground floor, possibly a family pet or to symbolize loyalty. Behind them on the floor were another pair of shoes (possibly the wife’s) at the base of the seat. The couple’s shoes being removed could represent custom or the reference to being on holy ground. Going up the scene from the shoes, the seat is shown in detail with squared wooden posts, ornate caps and fluffed pillow. The mirror at center and focal point of the painting shows the backs of the betrothed and also two more people (possibly Van Eyck and a witness or father). The ten small circles surrounding the mirror each contain a tiny scene from the passion of Christ. This technique is called “miniaturist”. To the left of the mirror hangs rosary beads, and to the right a hard bristled broom. Above the mirror is an inscription reading “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434”, or “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434”. Above the mirror hangs an ornately decorated chandelier with a single candle placed in it (the candle is lit even though it is daytime). A window to the left of Arnolfini is open, and the light from the room comes in from this point. Fruit lays on a wooden table top and windowsill, possibly symbolizing the couple’s wealth or the temptation of Adam and Eve. The red draped bed to the right behind the young woman leads to the belief that the picture was of the couple’s bridal chamber.
The painting seems to be recording an event of the betrothal between the Arnolfini couple. The figures look serious and somber. Both faces of the figures are without expression. The line quality is beautifully precise. Every detail is shown. The brushwork is tight. All of the details, large and small, help to draw us further into the painting. The focal point of the painting is the mirror between the couple in the painting. Jewel toned colors are used in this painting. The husband is painted in browns and blacks, the wife in cool colors, and the bed and seat are done in warm colors of rust. The painting is very appealing to me because it is so detailed and because there are so many items that are interesting to look at. The viewer becomes the witness and we could imagine that if we looked to our side we might see Van Eyck standing with us.
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The function of this work might be as a recording of events or merely as a gift for the couple shown here. I think the technique is more a reflection of the artist’s personal style than a reflection of the subject shown. The elements in the painting are expertly painted and arranged in beautiful detail, accurately portraying the meaning of the painting. He also puts many things in the painting that would make our minds engage and think about the artwork in depth.
“The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin”
Jan Van Eyck’s painting of “The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin” (1435) is 66 x 62 cm oil on panel. The painting was originally made of the Saint Sebastian chapel in the church of Notre-Dame-du-Chantel, Autun. The central figures shown in the painting are Nicolas Rolin (1376/1380-1462), the Virgin Mary, and Christ as an infant. Nicolas Rolin was chancellor to Philip the Good. He commissioned this painting to decorate the chapel, and as the donor, he was painted very realistically.
Van Eyck paints the chancellor kneeling before the Virgin and Child. The chancellor is shown on the left side of the loggia, dressed in gold brocade and furs (like a prince) betraying his desire to be viewed as a high ranking court dignitary. His patron saint is not shown beside him, as is custom. Just as oddly out of custom is his representation of being at the same height as the Virgin Mary. He is wearing a black silk belt decorated with gold studs. Infrared reflectography shows that Van Eyck had originally painted the Chancellor with a large purse on his side (representing his substantial wealth) which was probably covered up at the request of the Chancellor. On the cushion of the prayer stool beside the Chancellor is a book of hours, with a red fabric slip cover beneath it. The book seems to be open to the beginning of the liturgy for the service of Matins as suggested by the large letter “D” on the page. The painting suggests that the Chancellor is preparing to recite this prayer from his book. The portrait of the Chancellor is highly realistic and has been compared with Rogier van der Weyden’s portrait of the Chancellor on his altarpiece of the Last Judgment at Baume (it is very similar). His nose is strong and prominent, his chin is wide, and his hair is cut into a neat cap style. His eyes are set in concentration, but not looking directly at either the Christ child or Virgin.
Across from him the Virgin Mary sits in ¾ pose upon a brocade cushion, placed on a marble seat inlaid with designs. Her large red robe is edged with jewels, pearls, and braiding. The cloaks’ edging also has an inscription in gold taken from the Christian liturgy of Matins. The prayer focuses on the magnificence of creation. This theme is carried out by the background scenery and the globe in the infant Jesus’ hand (symbolizing that he is the creator of all things). She is looking at the cross on top of the globe, as a precursor to her son’s crucifixion. An angel holds a highly detailed crown over the virgin’s head, as a reference to her coronation in the heavenly city of Jerusalem. The angel’s rainbow colored wings represent the pact set between God and his creation. The naked infant Christ sits on a small piece of linen, a reference to his funeral shroud. The infant holds an ornate gold cross mounted atop a crystal globe. The globe symbolizes Christ’s earthly power and the cross symbolizes his spiritual dominion. The crystal is said to symbolize Mary’s virginity. The infant is raising his right hand toward the Chancellor in a gesture of blessing. The infant is not gazing at the Chancellor directly, and infrared reflectography shows that the infant’s hand was originally painted pointing downward. The architecture of the two large figures are in symmetrical composition that opposes the divine world with that of the human world.
The three arches in the background of the loggia represent the Holy Trinity. The arched pillars to each side of the loggia lead to colonnades. Most of the pillars are capped with decorative motifs. However, directly above the Chancellor we see carvings illustrating the Book of Genesis in several scenes (man’s original sins and their consequences). This crown of stone above the Chancellor’s head directly counterbalances the crown above Mary’s head. Flowers in the garden beyond the pillars are all symbols representing the Virgin Mary (lilies, peony, wild rose, irises, and daisies). The peacock symbolizes immortality or the pride of Nicolas Rolin. The two small figures in the center might very well be Van Eyck and his assistant.
The landscape on the left behind the Chancellor represents the earthly world and on the right behind Mary, the heavenly world. The river of life flows between both land masses and a bridge connects them together. The tiny cross on the bridge might represent the crucifixion of Christ to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.
I am in awe of Jan Van Eyck’s attention to detail and creativity. He cleverly uses the lines on the floor tiles and winding river in the distance to establish depth. Also the use of atmospheric perspective and lighting adds to the realism of this painting. I believe the focal point of the painting is the two small figures in the center of the painting (much as in the Arnolfini Portrait) and might in fact be Jan Van Eyck and his apprentice. The portrait is again done in rich jewel tones with crisp line work and incredible detail, as is Van Eyck’s style.
This painting is full of religious symbolism everywhere we look. However, Van Eyck seems to be portraying Nicolas Rolin as a wealthy and conceited man who sought to be on the same level as the Virgin herself. The rich gold brocade of his clothing, the money purse that has since been painted over, and the Chancellor being the same height as the Virgin all give evidence to this theory. I think it was rather daring of Van Eyck to paint the patron of the picture in a not so nice light. This painting is similar to many other works Van Eyck has created in the detail he used (The Virgin with Canon van der Paele, Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor). Most of his work can be easily interpreted, as most of the symbolism is uniform. I would buy this type of artwork because I find the detail and symbolism very appealing.
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