"Tangible piece of luminous matter,
they confront us with a reconstruction rather than a mere representation of the visible world."
~Jan van Eyck
One of the more mysterious figures in art history is Jan van Eyck. As
an artist, he developed incredible technical skills that were coupled with his great understanding of the drama that could
be produced with chiroschiro, or dramatic lighting, as well as color usage. His works were superior
in color because of his innovations to the oil painting media that increased the quality of
color and surface treatments. These treatments of various subjects were used along with his understood knowledge of perspective. His works are generally tight oil paintings without visible brush strokes. With the Italians
dominating the Renaissance, van Eyck did not do as well with the understanding of perspective. This made his work have a flavor
of the Gothic style. With the skill of a Renaissance artist he had composed some great works.
One of the first great works that is believed to have been made by Jan, is what most believe is
his self portrait, Man in a Red Turban.
Man in a Red Turban
1433. Oil on wood. The
National Gallery, London, England
Jan first began under this older brother Hubert van Eyck (1366-1426), but when Jan was about thirty-six years old, he left the studio of his brother to paint for John
the Pitiless, Duke of Bavaria and Count of Holland and Hainaut. John was known for his appreciation of art and employed Jan
van Eych for three years. Later, Jan went to work for another noble, the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, who is known for
capturing Joan of Arc. Although he was hired to paint, he also performed many other duties,
like woking as his personal secretary and companion. Jan was also assigned to a painting mission to convince Isabella
of Portugal to marry Philip. But artistically, for Jan van Eych, it was the last decade of life that he would produce the
greatest works. His most famous work has many names. It is strange to me that this is often the case. Some call it the The Arnolfini Marriage ,Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife
, or The Wedding Portrait. What ever you prefer, realize we are talking about the same painting.
Painted seven years before his death, The Arnolfini Marriage
truly shows his talents and skill as a painter. The unique thing to keep in mind when looking at these works is that all of
the little parts. Everything from the cute little doggie down to the candle in the chandelier, communicate something about
these people and the intent of the painting. At this time art used symbols to communicate with a viewer. The formal view of this Gothic environment, tell us about this couple and their beliefs. The small carving on the bed represents St.
Margaret, who is the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth. This tells the viewer that there is a child that will be born
to them, however, she is not pregnant, this is simply the dress style at this time. Moving clockwise around the picture,
we then come to our cute little doggie, he tells us that Mr. Arnolfini is faithful to Mrs. Arnolfini (Actually her name is
Giovanna Cenami). She is seen wearing a green dress, which symbolizes her hope of
becoming a mother and her white veil is still used as a symbol in weddings as a sign of purity. The shoes on the floor
tell us that this is a sacred event. On the table behind Mr. Arnolfini, sit’s a group of tangerines. This
fruit may represent the couples desire for children as well as a symbol of their wealth, because the tangerine was an expansive
fruit. Over Mr. Arnolfini’s arm we see the beads representing the trinity, and over his head the chandelier with
one lit candle representing the one God. The mirror is decorated with carvings representing the passion
of Christ, thus showing their religious beliefs, but also is proof of the wedding and acts as a visual tool that shows us
the event (as well as the artist). There is also some humor in the work, most obvious is the way van Eyck signed his name.
He gives his credit in form of a faux graffiti that reads, "Jan van Eyck was here, 1434."
The Arnolfini Marriage
1434. Tempera on wood. 2 feet 4¼ inches X 1 foot
11½ inches. The National Gallery, London, England.
Another of van Eyck's great works that we
are going to explore is his Chancellor Rolin Madonna. This work shows Chancellor Rolin of Brabant (who also commissioned the work)
inside his incredible palace. Sitting across from him is Mary, who is being crowned the Queen of the Heavens, with her infant
son Jesus. At the center of the painting, we see two men standing along a parapet, as one explores the landscape through the
embrasure. The landscape includes the village, farmland and snowcapped mountains. This was the 15th century representation
of the world. The men the look out on the world are amazed at the beauty that God has created for them to live in. The metaphorical
connection between Chancellor Rolin the human and Mary the divine is the relief above Rolin’s head. This work explains
the human need for redemption by depicting the stories of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise, Cain murdering Abel,
the drunkenness of Noah, and the flood.
Chancellor Rolin Madonna
1435. Oil on wood. 2 feet 1½ inches x 2 feet ¼ inch. Musée du Louvre,
Jan van Eyck apparently had a limited interest in revolutionizing the art world.
Compared to most popular artists we are looking at, he knew painting and was extremely consistent, never
going beyond the boundaries he set for his career. But, to his credit, those boundaries
had a high standard for his art. He was an artist that was incredibly thoughtful of the perfection that goes into the finish
of his oil paintings. For some unknown reason signing works and dating works was not an issue at all. Van Eyck only signed
a small number of artworks. But that must not have been the point for him. It was the image itself that is important, not
the name on it.