Jan Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” – a close look

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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.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London

 

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.”

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail

 

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!

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of finial of St Margaret
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of finial of St Margaret

 

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.)

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of the oranges
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of the oranges

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.

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of the window with cherries outside
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of the window with cherries outside

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of the glass in the window
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of 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.

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of the dog
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of the dog

 

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.

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of chandelier
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of chandelier

 

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).

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of pattens
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of pattens

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of her pattens
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of the second pair of pattens

 

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.

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of Constanza's gown
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of Constanza’s gown

 

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!

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of the mirror
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of the mirror
Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of the inscription
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of the inscription

 

And lastly, I’d like to show you a close-up of the faces.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of Arnolfini's face
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of Arnolfini’s face

This is definitely an individual with cleft chin, a defined cheekbone, and interesting nose with what may even be a nose hair.

 

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - detail of Constanza's face
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – detail of Constanza’s face

 

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.

Jan Van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London - with annotated lines of perspective
Jan Van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on oak, 32.3 x 23.62 in, National Gallery, London – with annotated lines of perspective

 

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!

~ Gail

 

PS. Here is the piece by Cynthia von Buhler that caught my attention and got this whole post going!

 

Cynthia von Buhler, "Maestro Sartori Wants a Bit of Glory," 40 x 20 x 5 in, mixed media
Cynthia von Buhler, “Maestro Sartori Wants a Bit of Glory,” 40 x 20 x 5 in, mixed media

 

 

25 thoughts on “Jan Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” – a close look”

    1. So glad you enjoyed it Brett!! Love your thoughts about Mr Arnolfini- he does have a bit of that air about him. Sort of sniff sniff. And yeah, the graffiti is kinda fun isn’t it. I don’t think he did this in other paintings.

    2. John Mulvihill

      My iPad won’t let me leave a new comment so with Brett’s permission I’ll leave my two-part comment here.

      1) What struck me when I first saw this painting many years ago was the naturalism, especially the intimacy of the couple considering the compositional constraints of formal portraiture at the time. This visual record is all about HIM (using perhaps a blessing or greeting gesture) proclaiming his love (and with it his husbandly possession) of HER (so meek and acquiescent) to the WITNESSES (the painting’s viewers, we who are personified in the mirror). The subject is the one living creature in the painting whose likeness is reproduced with reliable accuracy because it is all about him and he paid for it. His expression is serious because of the solemnity of the occasion, and because this is how he will be remembered. (He will not be remembered as a handsome man.)

      2) The dog is not a Brussels Griffon, which is a present-day Toy breed, but one of its ancestors, a small terrier whose job it was to keep the stables free of vermin. As is their nature, the dog looks directly into the eyes of the visitors, ascertaining their next move. I enjoy speculating that the couple had a loving relationship with this dog, considering him part of the family, hence his consignment to immortality.

  1. Just looking at the painting again this morning and it suddenly occurred to me that the second figure in the mirror is me!! And I am standing by the painter Van Eyck looking into the room with the Arnolfinis. What does anyone else think about that concept I wonder?

  2. Thanks Gail, an informative sharing that brings the details of the painting to life and also orients it in time and culture

    Linda

    1. Good to hear from you Linda and so glad you enjoyed the blog. Always worth the effort (and this was a big one!) when I get appreciative feedback. 🙂

  3. Wow what a wealth of beautiful rich paint! Such gems of colour! I have seen the painting reproduced in books but never have enjoyed studying the details that you have shown. Thats a very interesting idea of yours, i.e. the viewer being “me”.Do you think Van Eyck could have been so clever? Whatever the painting is so exquisite! And yes, the face looks so like porcelain. I think she died giving birth the year before. Thanks for all your insight and work.

  4. Gail..!
    I have seen this painting in life and in art books but I have never appreciated
    the details that you have highlighted. I must say it has certainly raised my
    interest in going back to look at other Van Eyck paintings.
    It’s an excellent analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait . Thanks ….

  5. Fascinating if I ever get finished reading about this painting I will contact you again how did he ever work all the details into such small spaces?????

    1. Sandy, it was a long blog post that’s for sure but I did get so into the subject! I will look into his painting process. I figure he must have used a very small brush (one hair??) and a magnifying glass!

  6. Wow I see this in a completely new way. I think she was pregnant in this memorial painting. There may have been another portrait of her for Van Eyck to go by??
    thanks Judith

  7. Thanks for this. I have seen images of this portrait several times. But never at resolutions high enough to enjoy the detail. Not knowing the backstory until sometime on I always believed that Constanza was pregnant. I didn’t so much see it as a matrimonial portrait as a celebration(?)of their lives together. Outerwear like the pattons off, the comfort of a favoured pet. Isn’t that a family bed to the right? etc etc. As for her eyes vs his. I was never comfortable with his look. He almost reminds me of a grim reaper. And now it seems their love/matrriage was the death of her? I sure look at it differently now.

    1. Thanks Ralph for your very full comment. Love your descriptions of the comfort of home. And yes, the grim reaper alright. Maybe there’s something to that, Arnolfini acting as the personification of death!

  8. First time I viewed this was in Jansen’s History of Art in first year university. Completely changed my fledgling grasp of Art and it’s cultural importance, the iconography, and cosmology wrapped up in this singular painting, not to mention the exquisite detail accomplished by in some cases using a single hair of his brush. Hair raising, considering the wooden expressions of the subjects. Would love to see the real thing!

    1. I always wondered how instructors chose between Gardner and Jansen. I didn’t hear of Jansen until third or fourth year!

      It’s quite the painting isn’t it?! And yes, you just HAVE TO see the real thing!

      Thanks so much for commenting Peter 🙂

  9. Liza Armstrong

    Hi!
    Am studying for a mid-term in San Diego. Looking for some more info on this. Found it! Thank you so much for taking the time to post it.
    Liza

  10. Thank you for this detailed analysis of this beautiful painting. It’s so informative and well done that I’ve linked to it in a FB post for a group focusing on a series of novels that begin in Bruges and involve the thriving middle class (like Arnolfini) at just about this same time (Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo, if you’re curious).

    1. Thanks Terenia! I am glad you enjoyed the post.
      Gosh I haven’t read a Dorothy Dunnett novel in probably 25 years!! I will need to go and look that one up. 🙂

  11. Loved reading your analysis!! Just a quick question- I’m confused about the name wife portrayed in this painting; I’ve been hearing it as Giovanni Cenami in class, but in this case you’ve been using Costanza. Is there something I missed out on? Or is there more than one possible wife?

    1. Jenny so glad you enjoyed it. The book by Crowe and Cavalcaselle on Early Flemish Painters published in 1857, led the way for the thinking that this was a double portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Jeanne (or Giovanna) Cenami but it was discovered recently that they were married in 1447, 13 years after the date on the painting and six years after van Eyck’s death. Since then, it is accepted by many art historians that this Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Constanza Trenta. I have now added a link to Margaret Coster’s article in Apollo where she presents her thoughts and evidence for this being a commemorative rather than a wedding or betrothal portrait.
      I hope this helps!

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