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Jan van Eyck


Jan van Eyck, the most famous and innovative Flemish painter of the 15th century, is thought to have come from the village of Maaseyck in Limbourg.

No record of his birthdate survives, but it is believed to have been about 1390; his career, however, is well documented. He was employed (1422-24) at the court of John of Bavaria, count of Holland, at The Hague, and in 1425 he was made court painter and valet de chambre to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. He became a close member of the duke’s court and undertook several secret missions for him, including a trip (1428-29) to Spain and Portugal in connection with negotiations that resulted in the marriage (1430) of Philip of Burgundy and Isabella of Portugal. Documents show that in 1432-33 van Eyck bought a house in Bruges. He signed and dated a number of paintings between 1432 and 1439, all of which are painted in oil and varnished. According to documents, he was buried on July 9, 1441.

Van Eyck has been credited traditionally with the invention of painting in oils, and, although this is incorrect, there is no doubt that he perfected the technique. He used the oil medium to represent a variety of subjects with striking realism in microscopic detail; for example, he infused painted jewels and precious metals with a glowing inner light by means of subtle glazes over the highlights. Like Robert Campin, van Eyck carefully selected and arranged his subject matter so that it would contribute deeper symbolic meaning to his painting, a style that Erwin Panofsky has called disguised symbolism. The meticulous attention to detail in his paintings of architectural interiors and landscapes is also evident in his portraits, painted with unrelenting, dispassionate accuracy.

Van Eyck’s most famous and most controversial work is one of his first, the Ghent altarpiece (1432), a polyptych consisting of twenty panels in the Church of St. Bavo, Ghent. On the frame is an incomplete inscription in Latin that identifies the artists of the work as Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The usual interpretation is that Hubert van Eyck (d. Sept. 18, 1426) was the brother of Jan and that he was the painter who began the altarpiece, which Jan then completed. Another interpretation is that Hubert was neither Jan’s brother nor a painter, but a sculptor who carved an elaborate frame for the altar. Because of this controversy, attribution of the panels, which vary somewhat in scale and even in style, has differed, according to the arguments of scholars who have studied the problem. The exterior of the altar depicts Jodocus Vijdt, the donor, and his wife kneeling on either side of two grisaille (painted in gray to resemble statuary) representations of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist; above is an Annunciation. The brightly colored interior is dominated by a panel representing the Adoration of the Holy Lamb. Equally famous is the wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434; National Gallery, London), which the artist signed “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan van Eyck was here), testimony that he witnessed the ceremony. Other important paintings are the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1433-34 Louvre, Paris) and the Madonna of Canon van der Paele (1436; Groeninge Museum, Bruges).

Oil: developing a new painting medium

The van Eycks started their careers as manuscript illuminators. The often miniature detail and exquisite rendering found in van Eyck paintingsm such as the Annunciation, reveal a strong affinity with this art form. However, the single factor that most distinguishes the van Eycks from the art of manuscript illumination was the medium they used.

For many years Jan van Eyck was wrongly credited with the “discovery of painting in oil”. In fact, oil painting was already in existence, used to paint sculptures and to glaze over tempera paintings. The van Eycks’ real achievement was the development–after much experimentation–of a stable varnish that would dry at a consistent rate. This was created with linseed and nut oils, and mixed with resins.

The breakthrough came when Jan or Hubert mixed the oil into the actual paints they were using, instead of the egg medium that constituted tempera paint. The result was brilliance, translucence, and intensity of color as the pigment was suspended in a layer of oil that also trapped light. The flat, dull surface of tempera was transformed into a jewel-like medium, at once perfectly suited to the representation of precious metals and gems and, more significantly, to the vivid, convincing depiction of natural light.

Van Eyck’s inspired observations of light and its effects, executed with technical virtuosity through this new, transparent medium, enabled him to create a brilliant and lucid kind of reality. The invention of this technique transformed the appearance of painting.

Introduction to “The Complete Paintings of the Van Eycks”

“Jan van Eyck was the greatest artist of the early Netherlands school. He held high positions throughout his career, including court painter and diplomat in Bruges. So outstanding was his skill as an oil painter that the invention of the medium was at one time attributed to him, with his brother Hubert, also a painter. Van Eyck exploited the qualities of oil as never before, building up layers of transparent glazes, thus giving him a surface on which to capture objects in the minutest detail and allowing for the preservation of his colours. Nowhere is this better displayed than in this portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, a merchant from Lucca and a frequent visitor to Bruges, and his wife Giovanna Cenami. The signature on the back wall – ‘Jan Van Eyck was here, 1434’ – and his reflection in the mirror has led many to believe that he was a witness to their marriage. The carving of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, on the bed, and the presence of the dog – a traditional symbol of faithfulness – accentuate the marital theme.”

He was born somewhere around 1390 in the village of Maaseyck near Maastricht. Between 1422 and 1424, he was employed as a painter by John of Bavaria, Bishop of Liège; the next year, 1425, his famous relationship with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, began. As court artist and equerry, he moved to Philip’s court at Lille. Few such cases of mutual serendipity adorn the history of Renaissance patronage: instead of treating his artist as something between a jongleur and an artisan, as the Medici in their off moments were apt to do, Philip was moved to declare that he “would never find a man so much to his taste, or such a paragon of science and art.” For eleven years, Jan van Eyck worked in an atmosphere of gracefully reciprocated admiration. He worked, not only for Philip, but for wealthy Italians resident in the Netherlands, such as Giovanni Arnolfini; his fame spread rapidly to Italy, whose humanists called him the “onore della pittura” and “il più grande pittore del nostro tempo”; Vasari wrongly credited him with the invention of oil painting. His intimacy with Philip the Good is strikingly indicated by the diplomatic missions (whose object, insofar as it can be discovered, was to negotiate marriages for the Duke) that Jan van Eyck undertook on his behalf: to Spain in 1427, to Portugal and England in 1428, and another, perhaps to Prague, in 1436. There was one thing, apart from Jan’s social position and professional contacts, which this extensive travel must have benefited: his prodigious visual memory. Jan van Eyck was almost unique among northern – or, for that matter, Italian – artists of the early quattrocento for his virtuosity as a recorder of historical style. When he paints a Romanesque capital (as in The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin) he gets it right: it is not a Gothicization of Romanesque. The stained glass window and niello pavement inlays in the Washington Annunciation exactly preserve what must have struck him as their primitive crudeness. It is typical of Van Eyck that this should have been so. No painter has ever been more preoccupied with artifacts with the exact way a square cut ruby is set in its flange to the rim of a crown or pearls are sewn to the hem of a robe, with the joints in an arch, the dull sheen of pewter or the luster of polished silver, the pin in an iron door hinge, the binding of a missal or the angular wooden soles of a pair of discarded chopines. In a lesser artist, this preoccupation might become fetishistic. In Jan van Eyck, it does not. Each of the refined and sumptuous objects with which his world was populated is both concrete and self transcending; or so we instinctively feel. Why?”

“We may look for the answer in the hypothesis that Jan van Eyck pushed the problem of representation in art further than any artist had done before, or has since. Put baldly, this problem is: how much exact information can I load into a painting before suggestion takes over from fact? Total reality is unpaintable, because it is infinite. One can make approximations in paint which produce this or that illusion, but below a certain scale the approximations turn into shorthand microscopic reality cannot be rendered with a pasty, sloppy, granular substance like powdered minerals mixed in oil. William Blake’s “eternity in a grain of sand” was no visionary fancy, but a sober fact about matter.”

“Jan van Eyck’s extraordinary achievement rests on the fact that he did the opposite. In his paintings, he extended detailed information about things far past the ordinary limits of scrutiny; his eye acted “both as a telescope and as a microscope”, and it left us with too much, not the suggestive too little of other realist art. Who, allowed to look into the room where Arnolfini and his bride hold hands in their private sacrament, would even notice what Van Eyck saw, or bring to it the obsessed and simultaneous focus he imposed on every object, large or tiny, far or near – the grain in those fractionally uneven floorboards, the differences of texture and springiness between the lapdog’s hairs and the fur of Arnolfini’s robe, the limp silk tassels of the beads hanging on the wall and the stiff bristles of the twig broom – which repeats their shape on the other side of the mirror? Only with great difficulty – one might almost say, only by a strenuous act of the imagination – can you make the green and gold brocade behind the Ince Hall Madonna become paint at all. A fifteenth century writer praised Van Eyck for his landscapes, which seem to stretch “for fifty miles.” The point is that such a way of presenting the world as a visual whole has no more to do with the way we see it than, say, Leonardo’s quick frozen notations of eddies in a mill race. Distance blues out the colors of objects, alters their tones and fuzzes their contours. We do not perceive everything within a given field with equal and perfect clarity; we scan and select. Jan van Eyck’s realism is not a metaphor of natural, or human vision. He painted the world as if everything in it were both knowable and perfectly known; his aim (to paraphrase Panofsky again) was not representation, but reconstruction. His art is a harmony parallel to nature: “Myself will I remake” and the world, too. Thus, Van Eyck’s realism was creative in an almost hubristic way, for its object was to suggest God’s perceptions in creating the universe: to see things from the standpoint of absolute knowledge which is uniquely God’s possession.”

“Thus each object, each face and body in Jan van Eyck’s work is spiritualized by its almost total detail: his scrutiny goes beyond the concrete and waits for our symbolic imagination to catch up with it. The objects themselves are charged with symbolism; Jan van Eyck’s attitude to nature was medieval in that he 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. The casual eye is apt to read the Arnolfini betrothal portrait as a piece of genre, which looks forward to Vermeer and the Dutch intimists. But the probability is that Van Eyck designed it as a web of disguised symbols, intending to make a familiar com parison between the sacrament of marriage and the ideal relationship of the Virgin Mary as bride of God. The mirror on the wall, which is explicitly turned into a religious object by the ten scenes of Christ’s passion set in its frame, is a symbol of candor and purity; the little dog, an image of marital faithfulness – and so on. Spiritual states are externalized in objects. Even the fantastic splendors of marble, gold, glass and brocade in The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin are allegorized. The picture is one of the most aggressively confident celebrations of the belief that riches are a proof of virtue that has ever been painted; Chancellor Rolin has the wealth and contacts to arrange a private audience with God and His mother, and the angel holds the crown over Mary’s head with the faint, obsequious smile of a salesman at Cartier’s. Yet this image is, quite obviously, a variation on a more ancient one, that of the Virgin in her hortus conclusus, surrounded by attributes of purity and grace (the lily, the aromatic shrubs, the peacocks), remote from the mundane life of the city below the loggia.”

“By such means of vision and symbolism, Jan van Eyck temporarily did away with the division between secular and religious works of art. All nature is sacramentalized by the sheer intensity of his gaze.”

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