Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait (sometimes referred to as The Arnolfini Wedding) was a painting completed by Jan van Eyck in 1434. The painting is believed to be a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. Why the painting was commissioned is still up for debate.
Two prominent theories have been made to this painting's origins. The first theory argues that Arnolfini had the painting commissioned to celebrate his marriage to a new wife. The second theory argues that Arnolfini had the painting commissioned to celebrate his marriage to his previous wife that had died. Another divisive issue in the painting is determining whether or not Arnolfini's wife is pregnant.
Regardless of the many interpretations that have been made about this painting it is well known for Van Eyck's use of oils instead of tempera, and it helped solidify his reputation as one the great early oil painters.
Jan van Eyck
(1390 - 1441)
Little is known about Jan van Eyck's early life, and the exact date and year he was born has still never been determined. Inscriptions in his paintings use Greek or Hebrew lettering, which suggests that he was well educated.
Van Eyck first appears on record as a painter for John of Bavaria between 1422 and 1424, and he would stay in the service of John of Bavaria until his death in 1425. After John of Bavaria's death, Van Eyck would move to Bruges and work for Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy where he would serve until his death.
Duke Philip paid Van Eyck a very high salary, and regarded him as the greatest painter of his time. In addition to completing paintings for the Duke, Van Eyck would also travel on diplomatic missions for him as well. While now working on one of the Duke's projects or traveling for him, Van Eyck would take on alternative artistic projects. The painting of the Arnolfi Marriage was one of these artistic ventures
The Arnolfi Portrait
Jan van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait
Type of Painting
Oil on Oak Panel
82 x 60cm
National Gallery, London UK
The Arnolfi Portrait Analysis
Some of the most widely acknowledged features of the Arnolfi Portrait are its attention to detail and its ability to realistically recreate the look of a room and people in a room. One of the most interesting aspects of the painting is the solemnity of it, considering that it is a painting that is meant to honor marriage. It would appear that Van Eyck is trying to depict marriage as something sacred and formal, rather than something that is romantic and blissful. There are many symbolic objects and gestures in the painting, too, and those are discussed below.
The Roles of Men and Women in Marriage
The roles of men and women in both a marriage and in society are depicted in this painting (or at least what people in the 14th century believed the roles to be). The idea that men are dominate is depicted by how the man holds his right hand. He is presumably taking a his marriage vow with that hand, but it is also a gesture that is connected with authority. The man also looks directly at the viewer of the painting, which is another symbolic idea associated with dominance.
The idea that women are submissive is depicted by how the wife lays her hand into her husbands hand. She is acknowledging her submission to him in the marriage. The wife is also looking at her husband instead of the viewer of the painting. By looking at her husband, and not at the floor this signifies her status as his equal in the painting (at least in terms of societal class). Since she is not looking directly at the viewer, she is not the dominant one in the marriage.
The roles of men and women in society are depicted by where they are positioned in the painting. The man is positioned by the window, which symbolizes man's need to be a part of the outer world at this time. The man must earn his living for the family outside the home to provide for his wife and family. The women is standing close to the bed and this represents the woman's role in taking care of the home.
One of the great debates in this painting has been centered around whether or not the wife is pregnant. Arguments in favor of pregnancy point to the swelling of the woman's belly, and the dragon figurine behind her which represents St. Margaret the patron Saint of childbirth, and her placement next to the bed.
The primary argument arguing against pregnancy is the fashion of the time. The way the woman is holding her dress makes her look pregnant, but it was also common during that time for a woman to hold her dress that way, which could mean she is not pregnant. The theory arguing that the painting was meant to be a commission for Arnolfini's deceased wife, would more than likely mean that she is not pregnant in the painting.
Since the reason for the commission is not entirely known, whether or not the woman is pregnant still continues to be debated.
The Mirror and Signature
The mirror on the back wall, along with the husband and wife are the three central figures in this painting. The round circles surrounding the frame of the mirror each depict a scene from the Passion of Christ. The glass bears the reflection of the couple, and two men who are presumably viewing them. The man who is dressed in red is presumed to by Jan van Eyck.
Above the mirror Van Eyck inscribes his signature in Latin, and the year which the painting was completed. The exact translation reads, "Jan van Eyck was here 1434."
The couple in this painting were extraordinarily wealthy and Van Eyck depicts there fortune symbolically in many ways. The clothes worn by both the man and the woman are extremely elaborate and they both bare significant coloring. Colored clothing was a status of nobility during this time. The small dog on the floor is a lap dog, which were common amongst the wealthier classes in Bruges.
Other symbols of wealth include the oranges on the table which were an exotic and very rare food at this time, the Anatolian rug that woman is standing on, and the elaborate chandelier poised above the couple. The mirror is also another item that also represents wealth.
The Legacy of the Arnolfi Portrait
The Arnolfi Portrait displays the remarkable talents of one of the Early Renaissance's/Late Middle Ages greatest painters, Jan van Eyck. The realistic portrayal of this couple and the details in the painting (especially the mirror) show a trend in painting that was focusing on creating more realistic looking paintings.
Van Eyck's choice to use oil instead of tempera makes this one of the oldest oil paintings in the world. The choice to use oil would inspire many of the great Renaissance painters after Van Eyck to also take up painting with oils. Van Eyck so was skilled at painting with oils he was erroneously credited with inventing oil painting. The Arnolfi Portrait is also cited as one of the earlier examples of genre painting, or art that depicts everyday life.
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