The Arnolfini Portrait is a painting that has many interpretations, is it artwork of woman with child or a celebration of marriage, to commemorate a wife who died in childbirth, to highlight the figures status or a fashion statement? Completed in 1434 in Bruges, Belgium and admired for its profound dexterity and examined for its peculiar imagery, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait has remained a mystery since the 19th century. The Arnolfini Portrait’s earliest known history is remarkable, it’s rare to be able to locate a painting at various points across 500 years.
But for almost half a millennium, the mysterious twosome was left unidentified. By late nineteenth century, an art historian, Joseph Crowe suggested that the name of the man in the painting is Giovanni Arnolfini, a successful Italian banker and wealthy merchant living in Burges, Belgium.
It is a traditional belief that Jan van Eyck was a native of Maaseik, Belgium. October 1422, Jan van Eyck first surfaced in The Hague as a painter and court appointment to John of Bavaria, Count of Holland.
Van Eyck was believed to be born circa 1390 and his death was late June 1441. (Lane) The painting was bequeathed from one regal collection to another up to when the artwork dropped onto Joseph Bonaparte’s lap; who, by his brother Napoleon, had made him King of Spain. As Joseph was loading up a prodigious amount of the royal collection onto the train of carriages to Paris, the people of Portugal, France, and England were accumulating strength, obliging the French to take flight.
But the regal collection never arrived to its destination. Instead, in Vitoria, it was swiped in the course of the battle.
Sometime after the combat zone turned into an unusual marketplace and in the midst of this treasure was the Arnolfini Portrait. Regardless of Wellington’s strongest efforts to keep the royal collection works of art safe, found its way to the hands of Lieutenant Colonel James Hay. Therefore, Spain should be in possession of the Arnolfini Portrait but the painting turned up in England. Eventually the National Gallery in London purchased the painting in 1842 and can still be seen there today or on their website. It is unknown where Jan van Eyck may have attended school or whom he might have studied under. It would seem though that in the lines of Flemish tradition, Eyck most likely studied at an art school. It is however possible that he did not attend art school at all and instead learned from his brother, Herbert van Eyck. Herbert worked as an illuminator which can be seen in his attention to detail, as did Jan van Eyck but he definitely developed a style very much his own.
Jan van Eyck found inspiration from Gothic paintings and perhaps Masaccio. Jan van Eyck had many followers from different areas, such as the Netherlands, Germany,France, Spain, and Italy. In the Netherlands, van Eyck, created The Ghent Altarpiece, which is now one of the town’s monuments. Many painters have copied the originals and sold imitations of his work in the 15th century. In Germany, Painter Konrad Witz, copied Jan’s use of isolated figures in Mirror of Human Salvation. In France, Barthelemy d’Eyck often went to Jan’s shop and put his own personal style into the panels, like Virgin. In Spain, one of the first northern Europeans, Jan van Eyck, influenced Spanish art. And lastly, in Italy, Italian paintings were influenced by van Eyck more than any other country.
One well-known artist from Italy, Sandro Botticello, is known to have been influenced by Jan van Eyck. Jan van Eyck was also known as ‘the Father of oil painting’ and he pushed the use of oils into a new realm. Jan van Eyck was able to use detail and depict textures using oil paints and is seen in almost all of his paintings. Oil paints in the 15th century were heat-bodied linseed oil and were left in sunlight. Doing this allowed the paints to have a glossy texture. Van Eyck used the technique of layered paintings and used the rich coloring along with the use of light. Being a minimalist, Jan van Eyck painted using a fine brush and even argued that he painted with a single hair. The detail in the Arnolfini Portrait is exemplary, able to see tiny figures in full detail almost eluding the eye. Jan van Eyck’s strong attention to detail allows you to know exactly types of wood and metal that are painted.