Who paid for the Picture?
At first glance this is a strange painting. The couple are not the gods or goddesses or Bible heroes and heroines who dominated so much of the art in the 15th century. But who are the individuals that have an uncanny resemblance to Putin’s facial features? Why are they there? What are they doing? Is she pregnant? Why is the room crammed full of luxury goods?
The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife, by Jan van Eyck, 1434
In 1434, in the merchant city of Bruges, Jan Van Eyck painted a picture of a man and his wife standing in a room.
This picture is a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami, a follower of fashion, comfortably dressed in lace and jewels, owner of a fine pair of slippers and an expensive eastern rug. The outside shoes have been discarded and slippers lie by the couple's bed as their pet dog looks contentedly out towards us.
No one had painted a domestic scene like this before. No one had signed a painting so prominently. And no one had created anything that looked so real.
We feel we ought to be able to walk into the room, touch the clothing, respond to those individuals, and look out the window at the cherry tree.
But as we will see it's an illusion; it's an illusion of a space.
Giovanni Arnolfini - a self-made man, a mobile European, a Renaissance high flyer.
He came from Lucca, a city in Tuscany, Italy, spent most of his life in Flanders, then part of the Duchy of Burgundy, probably always based in Bruges, a wealthy trading city and one of the main towns of the Burgundian court.
Van Eyck's painting was ground-breaking art, drawing us into an apparently cosy, harmonious domestic world. It is a secular picture for a material age. The couple are well off, but not nobles or from the court. They are aspirational and have the goods to prove it.
Van Eyck captured an atmosphere through conjuring reality from the careful strokes of his brush. The illusion is so complete that the closer you go, the more you see. The frame of a mirror contains more paintings - scenes from the life of Christ - and its curved glass shows us another image of the room with all its details reproduced as reflections. Everything seems to come alive and shout we are rich.
Looked at closely it becomes clear that these are more than ordinary objects. We take oranges for granted today, but they were incredibly costly in the 15th century - a sign of great wealth and prestige. To have oranges lying around on your chest at home would have indicated that you had money to burn.
The woman’s dress is no off-the–peg number. It is extraordinary and lavish in terms of the sheer quantity of cloth. This is bling Renaissance style with a very expensive fabric. If you look underneath it's clearly lined, probably with white ermine. This is fantastically expensive. Now she may never have owned a garment like this - it's a bit like borrowing a designer dress to go to a film premier today. But its how her husband wants her to be seen. It's not about what they owned as much as about what they would like to be seen to own.
The rug on the floor is from Turkey. In the 15th century rugs were rare and very expensive. They were for display, not for covering the floor. Its presence in the picture demonstrates the couple’s wealth, as well as a deeper association between the woman and the Virgin which was tradtionally used in Renaissance paintings..
Mirrors were uncommon at the time, expensive and reserved for the super rich. Being able to see yourself was a rare sight for most people. Yet in this picture it is given pride of place.
Chandeliers were also rare and most homes did not have any artificial light at all. The one in the painting is big and would have used a lot of expensive candles.
What is more, there is glass in the windows, yet another luxury at a time when most people made do with wooden shutters to keep out the cold, wind and rain.
Could this couple really have afforded all these things in their bedroom?
Jan Van Eyck was there in the sense that he is the storyteller.
He is the manipulator of reality. It's only by Van Eyck's art that we're there. And he wants us to remember that. But what story is Van Eyck telling? If the man took a step sideways his hat would be knocked off by the chandelier. And if the woman wanted to look at her reflection she would have to bend down to a mirror which is far too low.
But if the painting isn't meant to be a direct reproduction of reality, then what is it?
Are Arnolfini and his wife pretending to be living the luxury life style? If so, how can we accept anything in the painting as real? Are we in a bedroom? A bed would have been an expensive status symbol to be shown off to visitors, not hidden in a private chamber. Indeed beds like this would seldom have been slept in. But did they really own one? And although the woman looks pregnant, it's more likely that she's simply exaggerating a fashionable round bellied look. It's even possible that the entire room and its contents are no more than the creation of Van Eyck's imagination - the whole painting a game played between patron and artist.
There must have been some meaning for the original owner of this picture. There must have been some understanding between the artist and the patron who commissioned it. We may never be able to find out what that precise meaning was.
We have been tricked into thinking that Van Eyck is showing us reality, but Van Eyck's greatness doesn't lay in his ability to recreate reality, but in his ability as an illusionist. And the tricks of Van Eyck will always keep his most famous painting a mystery. The more we try to pull it apart, looking for answers, the more we realise that only faint echoes of the past remain.
Perhaps the biggest illusion is that the painting, rather than celebrating a marriage, is probably a memorial to one, as the woman had died in child birth by the time it was painted. If we assume this interpretation, it gives new meaning to various objects: one candle is lit the other is snuffed out, the rich rug was an accessory of death. The little figure carved on the chair is St Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.
Immediately above the woman's hand there is a carved wooden monster, perhaps presaging her death. The convex mirror is framed with 10 roundels depicting the passion and death of Christ. The green dress of the woman (neither costume is such as one would wear about the house) symbolises love. The man's garb would indicate grief.
Some of you may be thinking if the woman was dead who did Eyck paint? The answer is we do not really know. It could have been Eyck’s own wife, or conjured from his imagination and ideas of the patron. Whatever the source, the painting may be a statement of enduring love, and the woman is an apparition or vision.
Van Eyck unusually for his time painted in oils. This allowed him to do amazing things and to create textures in unprecedented detail. Look at the polished brass of the chandelier which glints in the light, the skin of an orange, the fur of a cloak, the stitching of a hat. In the hairs of the dog, Van Eyck painted flecks of pure colour, confident in an ability to produce - on a wider scale - the silky texture of a living animal.
Many paintings at that time were not signed. But what do we have here? On the wall Eyck writes: "Jan Van Eyck was here" This is an extraordinary act of self-awareness. Some people even believe that one of the two sketched figures painted as reflections in the convex mirror is also a self-portrait - Van Eyck placing himself at the very centre of the world he had portrayed .
Fascinating Facts About Van Eyck
One of the great ideas about the Renaissance is that it is the age of the discovery of the individual - selfies were all the rage among the well-to-do.
Most art in this period is produced on commission. The buyer finds the artist through a variety of means and comes with a set of specifications. I want to look like X,Y and Z. I want the following saints, etc. in my image. And usually some sort of legal document might be drawn up to make sure that the artist provides specifically what the patron required.
We begin to find people who painted and who would have been considered artisans in the past becoming grand figures, even high value artists. Jan van Eyck in a sense is almost there, Albrecht Durer, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael had established this status. These are self aware superstar artists making their bid for immortal fame and fortune.
When Van Eyck painted this painting, he was living in Bruges, the most important trading centre of Northern Europe in the fifteenth century - a centre which had various foreign residents, diplomats, traders, merchants, especially Italians. There was a large Italian colony in Bruges. More than fifteen nations were represented in Bruges during this period - Russia, the Orient, Spain, and Portugal. Precious materials, fruits, spices, herbs of all sorts came into the port. At one point in the mid-fifteenth century they reported more than hundred and fifty large galleons docked in the port of Bruges. Arnolfini represents for us the birth of a new kind of international trader who within a short period of time - a decade or so - can go from relative insignificance to be powerful enough to buy paintings and fine objects from all over the world.
And we know that Van Eyck had some contact with these Italians as well as with other middle class functionaries, bureaucrats, courtiers. He was a court painter for the Duke of Burgundy at the same time. So when we look at this painting, what we see is not actually nobility, not aristocracy but something of the middle class or, upper middle class - the merchant class and images of their illusions.
Van Eyck Pictures
Van Eyck's date of birth is unclear, but it was probably c.1395. He came from Southern Netherlands.
Almost nothing is known of his early life but we do know that he entered the service of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy in 1426 where he started by doing a bit of decorating in his palace.
According to contemporary accounts Van Eyck was good-natured.
Everyone who came in contact him admired his intellect and engaging wit. He was paid enormous sums for his paintings and lived a lavish lifestyle.
He regularly dined on stuffed pigeons (a delicacy back then), caviar, extravagantly made cakes and imported liquors.
Jan van Eyck was not concerned with painting suffering or misery; his masterpieces appealed only to the wealthier classes, who required of art a feast for the eye but no spiritual emotion.
As an artist every brush stroke is as keen and biting as a sharp knife. He was always creating; rethinking problems, and breaking new ground as an artist. With him everything is delicate and bright; the flowers are in bloom, jewels sparkle, and an idyllic atmosphere pervades his world. Van Eyck was the only 15th-century Netherlandish painter to sign his canvases.
Exceptionally for his time, Van Eyck often signed and dated his frames, then considered an integral part of the work - the two were often painted together, and while the frames were constructed by a body of craftsmen separate from his workshop, their work was often considered as equal in skill to that of the painter.
Jan van Eyck was something of a diplomat as well as a painter. When he was in the service of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, he was sent on several secret missions, and in 1428 he accompanied the ambassadors of the duke to Portugal in order to paint the portrait of Isabella of Portugal, who was married to the duke.
Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, c 1430
Portrait of Jan de Leeuwe, 1436
Tyiptych of the Virgin and Child, Open, 1437
Madonna of Chanellor Nicolas Rolin, c 1435. As Chancellor of Burgandy Roilin was one of the most feared figures at court. He was also an important art patron.
The Ghent Alterpiece, 1432.
Probably one of Eyck's most famous works.
Portrait of a Man in a Turban, possible self-portrait, 1433