I was looking through a book, Art Revolution, by Lisa Cyr. In it, I discovered an artwork by Cynthia von Buhler that incorporated a figure that looked oh so familiar and I finally figured it out. It appears to have been taken from a famous painting by Jan Van Eyck (before c. 1390 – before c. 9 July 1441) – “Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and His Wife” commonly referred to as “The Arnolfini Portrait.” I decided it was time to have another look at this painting after studying it many years ago in my undergraduate life.
I remember seeing it for the first time at the National Gallery in London and being surprised at how small it was after seeing slides of it greatly enlarged. Much of the details I show here (eg the Passion of Christ around the convex mirror) can barely be seen with the naked eye.
With so much written about this artwork, it’s difficult to know where to begin and what to include. I’ve decided to give you a few interesting points and then give you a couple of links for further fascinating reading.
Anyway, here it is. Have a close look at it.
For many years, this painting was thought to be a wedding portrait, of a couple taking vows. Certainly that was the case when I was studying art history. My main foundational text was Art Through the Ages (6th ed) by Helen Gardner who said, “…Almost every object depicted is in some way symbolic of the holiness of matrimony. The persons themselves, hand in hand, take the marriage vows.”
Currently however, there is some speculation that it is, instead, a commemorative portrait. Margaret Koster puts forth arguments for this in an article in the Apollo. Click here to read it.) No one knows for sure who the couple are but the best guess is that it is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini a merchant from Bruges and his bride Costanza Trenta who he married in 1426. By the time this portrait was painted however, in 1434, Constanza had died. What’s more, the couple was childless which jives nicely with the idea of some scholars that Constanza may have died in childbirth. So the idea that this is a commemoration of Constanza seems to be valid. One thing’s for sure, there’s waaaaayyyy too much going on for it to be just a Double Portrait as a few other scholars have suggested.
Because of her apparent bulge, there has been much debate as to whether Constanza is pregnant. The general consensus nowadays is that Constanza was not pregnant. As proof, some scholars point to the look as fashionable and others compare the pregnant look to other paintings of the time that show for instance, the Virgin Mary at the time of the annunciation (ie. virgins aren’t generally pregnant!). Others add that the look is a symbolic way of suggesting fruitfulness in the marriage rather than an actual pregnancy. Certainly the tiny statue of St Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy, is also a symbolic indication of pregnancy. Mind you, if Constanza did die in childbirth, she would have been pregnant at some point!
Let’s look at some more close-ups. There is no question that the painting reveals the wealth of the Arnolfinis – the fur worn by both, the oranges, the large elaborate chandelier, the oriental rug, and probably the glass in the window. Everything in the painting also has a symbolic meaning. I’ll mention some of these but I also want you to see the amazing technique of Jan Van Eyck who painted in thin translucent layers of oil paint building up a glowing colour at a time when the quick-drying egg tempera was the more commonly used medium. (Van Eyck is generally credited with popularizing this new medium of oil painting.)
The rare delicacy of oranges have been said to represent love and marriage and also the innocence before Adam and Eve’s expulsion.
This could also be the reading of the cherries outside. I love this slice of outside life. Look at how Van Eyck paints the detail of wood and brick against the cherries and leaves and sky. And just above the opening is the glass in the window.
The dog represents fidelity and also wealth as apparently it was a rare breed. What I find interesting is that the dog looks out at the viewer. And there’s a human quality to the face. What does this mean? So far in my readings I haven’t read any commentary on this.
And then there’s that beautiful chandelier. The one lit candle has has most often been read as the all seeing eye of God. It has also been suggested that if indeed this is a memorial portrait, the lit candle represents the living man while the burnt out stub to the right is a metaphor for the deceased Constanza. Look at how beautifully Van Eyck has painted the gleam of the chandelier, changing between where it’s hit by light and where it remains in shadow.
Look at the sandals – they are outdoor sandals or pattens. You can see two pairs. They were typically removed as a sign of respect. What I’m amazed at is how Van Eyck shows the difference in wood between the floor and the sandal. He also shows off his masery of perspective (more on that below).
Speaking of the talent and exquisite work of the artist, look at the fabric of Constanza’s gown with the intricate detailing and the fur lining. Note also the oriental rug.
Then there’s the convex mirror surrounded by a wood frame showing scenes from the Passion of Christ. In the mirror are not only reflected the couple but also two other people. One is thought to be the painter himself (although not at the easel painting the couple), the other is unknown and so far in my research, I haven’t seen any suggestions as to who it might be. One of the reasons one of the figures is believed to be Van Eyck is the inscription on the wall above the mirror which reads, “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434” – a bit like graffiti!
And lastly, I’d like to show you a close-up of the faces.
This is definitely an individual with cleft chin, a defined cheekbone, and interesting nose with what may even be a nose hair.
On the other hand, is this the portrait of a real person or a generalized woman? Remember Constanza died in 1433, a year before the completion of this portrait in which case, Van Eyck would not have had the actual person to paint from.
As I am describing all the parts of the painting, I also see this as a showpiece for Van Eyck, revealing his talent to paint fabric, flesh, fur, metal, and all in a believable space. Jan Van Eyck was painting a type of linear perspective around the time it was being formulated so it’s unclear as to how he came to do this. Although the discovery of perspective is attributed to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) who in 1435, a year after Van Eyck’s painting was created, wrote about the theory of what we now call linear perspective in his book, Della Pittura (On Painting).
Here’s the painting again, this time with my added lines of perspective. The lines don’t seem to quite meet at a vanishing point but Van Eyck was moving in that direction.
Okay, that’s all I am going to write about this painting!! If you are interested in reading further, here are a couple of links to informative blogs I came across while researching this post:
Wikipedia has a very thorough examination of the painting
This one is written by Dr Allan Farber for the History of the Northern Renaissance Art course at SUNY Oneonta, a member of the State University of New York.
If you go to the National Gallery website, you can really zoom in. That’s what I did to capture the images above.
There has been much written about this painting, about its possible meaning (there’s a lot of symbolism!), about what’s going on, about who the couple are. And yet nothing is fully known – it still remains a tantalizing mystery.
Speaking generally about Van Eyck’s work, Gardner sums it up nicely: “The paintings of Jan Van Eyck have a weighty formality that banishes movement and action. His symmetrical groupings thus have the stillness and rigidity of the symbol-laden ceremony of the Mass; each person and thing has its prescribed place and is adorned as befits the sacred occasion.”
Please let me know your thoughts about the painting in the comment box below. (And if you can’t figure out how to do this or you get some error message, just reply to this email and I’ll be happy to insert the comments for you.)
If you got this far, you deserve a big thank you for journeying along with me. I do appreciate it!
Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!
PS. Here is the piece by Cynthia von Buhler that caught my attention and got this whole post going!