Jan van Eyck
Maaseyck near Maastricht, Holy Roman Empire (now Netherlands)
Bruges (now Belgium)
Summary of Jan van Eyck
Part artist, part alchemist and some might claim part magician, the legacy of artist Jan van Eyck is shrouded in both mystery and legend. In his work, he achieved an astonishingly sophisticated level of realism, heretofore unknown in the art of painting. Glimmering jewels, reflective metals, lush satins and velvets, and even human flesh were each rendered with their own distinctive qualities with such a high degree of naturalism it seemed he had conjured a new artistic medium. A century after his death, this notion was put in writing as the 16th-century Florentine painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari credited the Netherlandish painter with the very invention of oil painting, a myth that continued well into the 19th century. But even as this legend was extinguished he reserves the title "Father of Oil Painting" and is credited with inventing the modern portrait, with his enigmatic Man in a Red Turban and confounding genre scene, The Arnolfini Portrait. Moreover, the search for his miraculous, and notoriously secretive, recipe for paint has continued through centuries, withstanding the scrutiny of connoisseurs, conservation, and the ever-changing developments in x-radiograph technology seeking the true formula of his lustrous, and enduring, oil medium. Questions once answered, lead only to more questions. The artist and his paintings remain an enticing enigma. As Max J. Friedländer, renowned early 20th century specialist in Early Netherlandish painting, once described: "Here as there - and indeed, in every old reference, the first name is van Eyck."
- The vast majority of artists working during the medieval era remained anonymous. In Northern Europe, this tradition changes in the early 15th century, around the time of Jan van Eyck's appointment to the court of Philip the Bold. The artist, who held a high position and seemed to have also served the duke in a diplomatic role, was among the first to sign his paintings, with his name "JOHANNES DE EYCK," sometimes followed by what has been described as his personal motto, Als ich kan (As well as I can), painted to look as though etched in the wood. His high status and fame throughout Europe, set the stage for the elevation of the painter from an anonymous craftsman to a celebrated figure.
- Art historian Erwin Panofsky coined the term "disguised symbolism" to describe early Northern Renaissance paintings in which everyday objects were theorized to hold symbolic meaning that required decoding by the viewer. This theory was born in his analysis of The Arnolfini Portrait as a wedding scene, in which nearly every object in the room provided clues to the sacred nature of the event underway. Although Panofsky's interpretation of this painting is largely disregarded today, his focus on iconography remains a key element in the interpretation of Flemish painting.
- The level of technical sophistication achieved in Jan van Eyck's paintings was unprecedented, leading to speculative theories about the superiority of his materials, tools and techniques ever since. Recently, the major British Pop artist David Hockney published an investigation of such matters in his book titled, Secret Knowledge, in which he contends that Jan van Eyck and others of his time used optical devices, such as concave mirrors, to project images onto the working surface of his canvas. This would allow the artist to capture the nuanced forms of complex objects, such as the gold-toned chandelier in The Arnolfini Portrait, to the viewer's astonishment. Although no written evidence from the time supports Hockney's theories, the British artist points to the concave mirror in the very painting itself as evidence of this advancement in the painter's knowledge.
- Jan van Eyck is a leading figure of early Netherlandish painting and considered, along with artists Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden, one of the "Flemish Primitives." This term was first used in the early decades of the 19th century replacing the previous designation as peintures gothiques (gothic painters) as interest in this period was revived during the Romantic era. Far from pejorative, Vanessa Paumen of The Flemish Research Centre for the Arts describes the term: "primitive stood for a sentiment, for frailty and a Christian softness that was embedded in the paintings." The Flemish Primitives are defined by geography, realistic artistic style and distinguished by their refinement of oil painting techniques.
Biography of Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck was born in the small town of Maaseyck, then known as Eyck, near a bend of the river Maas about 14 miles from Maastricht, the provincial capital of modern-day Limburg. The history of the region can be traced back to the Roman Empire era, and later grew into a religious center during the early medieval period. Notably, the nearby district of Aldeneik traces its history back to the early eighth century, with the founding of the Aldeneik Abbey by two sisters from a noble landowning family who had been educated at a Benedictine Abbey in Valenciennes.
Important Art by Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck is known as an innovator of veristic realism, not only for his meticulous portraiture but also for his stunning panoramic landscapes that appear to recede far into the distance. Predating the naturalistic landscapes of Leonardo da Vinci by over 50 years, paintings such as Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata demonstrate the Eyckian use of atmospheric perspective, and anticipate the later genre of the Baroque Dutch landscape tradition. Jan van Eyck positioned this scene in the rocky mountains of the legend, yet also included a miniature bustling Netherlandish city in the distance using his microscopic painting technique, a common trait of early Netherlandish book illumination and religious paintings. The style of the city's rendering lends credence to the theory of the artist's early career as a miniaturist, as the anonymous "Hand G" of the Turin-Milan hours.
This small 5-by-7 inch painting depicts an important moment during the saint's 40-day fast in the wilderness of Mount Penna (La Verna), when Francis of Assisi experienced a vision and received the stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ. The stigmata, which never heals, became the living proof of his holiness. Witness to the event is the crucified figure of Christ, who overlooks the monks, Francis and Leo, clad in the brown and grey habits that identify them as Franciscan. The depiction of the exhausted figures, however, has been described as anatomically awkward, and the two monks are not well integrated within the landscape (these may have been completed by assistants in the artist's workshop).
Small paintings such as this one were sometimes made to commemorate a successful pilgrimage, or as a portable devotional piece to accompany the devotee on a journey. Although van Eyck's representation of this legend follows the original Franciscan text quite literally, as Joseph J. Rishel of the Philadelphia Museum of Art writes, "the scene is presented as a miracle being witnessed within the context of the whole sweep of nature and human life." This painting is among the earliest in Northern Renaissance art depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. It was first re-attributed to van Eyck in 1857, a few years before it was discovered to have been mentioned in the will of Anselm Adornes, dated 1470. Adornes was a wealthy cloth merchant, part of the lively textile economy in Bruges, reportedly owned two paintings by van Eyck and left one to each of his daughters who resided at a Carthusian convent near Bruges. Dr. Katherine Luber, former curator of European paintings at the Philadelphia museum wrote about the influence of this early work, stating: "Most Netherlandish copies are indirect quotations of the Saint Francis paintings. Many are by artists who were close to van Eyck's workshop, or who lived and worked in Bruges after [van Eyck's] death." She also cites how the influence went beyond Northern Europe to "Florence at least briefly in the early 1470s, as a distinguished group of Florentine artists, including Botticelli, Verrocchio, and Filippino Lippi, copied elements of the rocky landscape and incorporated the motif of the small rock fountain in the foreground into compositions of their own."
This small oil painting provides an early example of the elements typical in van Eyck's secular portraits: the innovative three-quarters pose against a dark, flat background, a strong sense of light highlighting the identifying characteristics of the sitter's features, and the artist's amazing ability to capture the various textures of different fabrics. The sitter's gaze is unwavering, yet meditative, staring straight ahead and seemingly unaware of the viewer's presence. Most striking, perhaps, is van Eyck's careful attention to the nuance of flesh tones of the man's hands and facial features, including the light beard of one or two days' growth, a reoccurring feature in van Eyck's early male portraits. German art historian Till-Holger Borchert describes, "The man's left hand appears to be resting on a parapet that originally coincided with a painted frame. In his right he holds up a ring, which projects out of the panel into the world of the viewer." The missing frame is where the artist would typically sign and date his work, leaving this example as a highly possible but not unquestionable example of his early painting style. The slightly oversized head of the sitter wears the highly fashionable, if only for a short period, cerulean blue chaperon which helps to date the painting to approximately 1430.
Portraits such as these were commissioned for a variety of purposes, from commemorating an event, occupation or in memoriam. This work, originally thought to depict a goldsmith is now widely believed to, in Borchert's analysis, "[to] represent a type of painting circulated to propose a marriage." The intimate scale of the work, just over seven-by-five inches, supports this idea as it could be packed and taken to the family of the bride. This minuteness of detail and unusually fine differentiation between the qualities of texture and atmospheric light made Jan's work impossible to imitate. The careful delineation of every detail of life has been thought to reflect the glory of God's creation.
The Ghent Altarpiece is a monumental polyptych painting centered on themes of Redemption and Salvation. As the most stolen artwork in history, it is also a work with a troubled history. Additionally, after nearly 400 years of being the assumed masterpiece of Jan van Eyck, a discovery in 1823 cast doubts on this attribution. Ironically, it was Jan's own writing that put this into question with an inscription stating: "The painter Hubert van Eyck, greater than whom no one is to be found, began [the work]; Jan, the second brother, with art completed it." This last phrase has also been translated as, "Jan, his second in art, completed it." In 2016, the inscription was authenticated to Jan van Eyck, and records later discovered tie Hubert to two preliminary drawings submitted to the Ghent council and thereby confirm that he began the commission in the early 1420s. Following Hubert's death in 1426, work on the altarpiece continued under the supervision of Jan van Eyck until, as the inscription continues, "the work was paid for by Joos Vijd. By this verse on the 6th day of May you are invited to contemplate this work." Most scholars agree that the credit for this major work ought to be shared between the two brothers; exactly where the line is drawn between their respective contributions remains a source of debate.
The combination of infinite detail and epic scale in The Ghent Altarpiece marks an extraordinary achievement by the van Eycks. The altarpiece consists of 24 separate panels, with 12 different panels on view whether the altar is open or closed. The central theme of the closed altar is the Annunciation, taking place across multiple panels in the middle tier, within a relatively austere room, sometimes described as a chapel. The angel Gabriel has just spoken the phrase painted in gold on the panel, which translates from Latin to, "Hail who art full of grace, the Lord is with you," and the Virgin Mary's reply, written upside as if to be viewed from heaven reads, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord." The action is accompanied by everyday objects laden with symbolic meaning, such as white lilies held by Gabriel symbolic of Mary's purity, with a radiant dove above Mary - a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Through the windows the artist depicts a modern view of Ghent, connecting the sacred moment to the current day. Overseeing the event are Old Testament prophets Zacharias and Micah, and a pair of Sibyls, pagan seers associated with visions of the messiah; directly below is a pair of statues depicting Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist painted in the grisaille technique. Breaking the monochromatic palette of the closed altar are the donor portraits of Jodocus Vijd and his wife, Elizabeth Borluut cloaked in red and green.
When the polyptych is open, the full impact of van Eyck's achievement is clear. The Communion of Saints is portrayed, which, as described in the Revelation of St. John takes place in "the new heaven and the new earth." In comparison to the spare coloration of the closed altar, the interior scene is exuberantly rendered in brilliant coloration. The central panel of the lower tier depicts a crowd symbolizing the Eight Beatitudes (those described in the Sermon on the Mount) gathered around the altar where the sacrifice of the Lamb takes place in the heavenly garden. On the left, prophets are followed by patriarchs of the Old Testament; to the right the apostles of the New Testament kneel before the sacrifice followed by leading figures of the Church dressed in regal finery. The two end panels portray the knights of Christ on the left, such as Emperor Charlemagne and Louis IX (now a painted replica of the lost original), and the Just Judges on the far right.
The central panel of the open altarpiece, titled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, established the Flemish characteristic of using symbols as a means to communicate theological concerns. The Holy Trinity is symbolized by the dove of the Holy Spirit, within a glowing halo, an aniconic symbol of God, hovering in the sky over the lamb on the sacrificial altar, a symbol long associated with Christ. The blood from the lamb flows into a chalice, evoking the Eucharist, in the foreground an octagonal fountain represents eternal life, as the eight-sided polygon represents the intersection of heaven and earth. The elevated horizon is defined by thick groves of trees and a graceful Gothic cityscape. For van Eyck, this architectural style was often symbolic of the New Testament's promise of salvation.
Overseeing the gathering of the masses, on the top tier of the altar piece are three seated figures, Christ in majesty with St. John the Baptist on his right and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven on his left. This trio, known as the Deesis, shows Mary and St. John as intercessors between the faithful and Christ. A choir of angels flanks the figures, singing and playing instruments. The individuality of features and emotions betrayed by the singing angels is in stark contrast to idealization of Medieval art. Poignantly, the stark realism in the rendering of the first couple, the nude figures of Adam and Eve, marks a new ethos in religious painting. And yet, even this realism in loaded with symbolic meaning suggesting the toil of Adam after the Expulsion from the Garden. Over each figure is a scene from the Old Testament rendered in grisaille, the first sacrifice and first murder, linking the fall from grace to the hope for salvation, represented here as the sacrifice of the lamb and the Eucharist offering.
Charney, who also authored "Stealing the Mystic Lamb," describes The Ghent Altarpiece as "the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown." Although the grandeur suggests the influence of Byzantine icons, the realism and exactitude of details was something altogether new. In 1794, the central panels of the altarpiece were stolen by Napoleon's army and soon after put on display in the Louvre where they would inspire a generation of French artists; most famously, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' portrait depicting Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806). Charney continues, "The international reputation of the painting and its painter, particularly taking into account its establishment of a new artistic medium that would become the universal choice for centuries, makes for a strong argument that The Ghent Altarpiece is the most important painting in history."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jan van Eyck
- The Van Eycks and Their Art [ 1912 ]By W. H. James (William Henry James) Weale
- The Complete Paintings of the Van EycksBy Robert Hughes
- All the Paintings of Jan Van EyckOur PickBy Valentin Denis, translated by Paul Colacicchi
- Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and DocumentsBy Wolfgang Stechow
- From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting (1956)By Max J. Friedänder
- Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old MastersBy David Hockney
- ItalianRenaissanceArt.com, a short history of the Italian Renaissance with many paintings by the artists by Vincent Finnan, 2008-2018
- Short introductory AP Art History lesson on Jan van Eyck: biographical information, painting style and most important works by Matthew Helmer, PhD, Archaeologist and Professor, 2003-2018
- The Complete WorksOur PickShort biography, 17 of the most important works and how he built his reputation, 2002-2017
- "Flemish Primitives" an initiative of the Flemish Art Collection
- Joseph J. Rishel, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections
- Reviewed Work: Heures de Turin-Milan; Commentary by Anne H. van BurenBy Mark L. Evans / The Burlington Magazine / September 1998
- In the Name of the Thistle: Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portrait of 1493By Jeroen Stumpel and Jolein van Kregten / The Burlington Magazine / January 2002
- Adam and Eve: Shameless First Couple of the Ghent AltarpieceBy Linda Seidel / Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art / September 2008
- Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)Chronological presentation of his most important paintings with close-ups of details accompanied by Renaissance Music followed by a narrated analysis of the "Arnolfini Portrait" and other works
- Thorough AP Art History art analysis of the "Arnolfini Portrait" narrated by Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris