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Jan van Eyck

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Jan van Eyck

Portrait of a Man in a Turban, possible self-portrait, 1433

Jan van Eyck (Dutch: , before c. 1390 – before c. 9 July 1441) was an Early Netherlandish painter active in Bruges and one of the most significant Northern Renaissance artists of the 15th century. Outside of the Ghent Altarpiece completed with his brother Hubert van Eyck, and the illuminated miniatures ascribed to Hand G—believed to be Jan—of the Turin-Milan Hours, only about 25 surviving works are confidently attributed to him,[1] all dated between 1432 and 1439. Ten, including the Ghent altarpiece,[2] are dated and signed with a variation of his motto, ALS IK KAN (As I (Eyck) can),[3] always written in Greek characters, and transliterate as a pun on his name.

Little is known of his early life. The few surviving records indicate that he was born c. 1380–90, most likely in Maaseik. He took employment as painter and Valet de chambre with John of Bavaria-Straubing, ruler of Holland, in the Hague around 1422, when he was already a master painter with workshop assistants. After John's death in 1425 he was employed as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in Lille, where he remained until 1429 after which he moved to Bruges, working for Philip until his death there in 1441. It is known that he was highly regarded by Philip, and undertook a number of diplomatic visits abroad on his behalf, including to Lisbon in 1428 to arrange the Duke's marriage contract with Isabella of Portugal.

Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including commissioned portraits, donor portraits (with the donor kneeling before a seated Virgin Mary) and both large and portable altarpieces. He worked on panel, either as single panels, diptych,[4] triptychs, or polyptychs. He was well paid by Philip, who sought that the painter was secure financially and thus had artistic freedom and could paint "whenever he pleased".[5] His work comes from the International Gothic style, but he soon eclipsed it, in part through a greater emphasis on naturalism and realism. Van Eyck utilised a new level of virtuosity, mainly through the use of oil as a medium; the fact that oil dries so slowly allowed him more time and more scope for blending and mixing layers of different pigments.[6] He was highly influential and his techniques and style were quickly adopted and refined by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden and later generations of Early Netherlandish painters.

Life and career

Early life

The Three Marys at the Tomb, painted or begun by Jan's brother Hubert van Eyck, perhaps between 1410 and 1420, completed by member's of Jan's workshop c 1440.[7]

Little is known of Jan van Eyck's early life and neither the date nor place of his birth is documented. The first extant record of his life comes from the court of John of Bavaria at The Hague where, between 1422 and 1424, payments were made to Meyster Jan den malre (Master Jan the painter) who was then a court painter with the rank of valet de chambre, with at first one and then two assistants.[8] This suggests a date of birth of 1395 at the latest. However, his apparent age in the London probable self-portrait of 1433 suggests to most scholars a date closer to 1380.[5] He was identified in the late 1500s[9] as having been born in Maaseik, then a diocese of Liège. This claim is still considered credible on etymological grounds, considering that "Van Eyck" means "of Eyck" which is an old variant spelling of "eik". It is also supported by the fact that his daughter Lievine was in a nunnery in Maaseik after her father's death. Further the notes on his study preparatory drawing for Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati are written in the Maasland dialect.[10]

He had a sister Margareta, and at least two brothers, Hubert (died 1426) and Lambert (active between 1431 and 1442), both of whom were also painters. Yet the order of their births is not known.[5] Another significant, and rather younger, painter who worked in Southern France, Barthélemy van Eyck, is presumed to be a relation.[11] It is not known where Jan was educated, but he had knowledge of Latin and used the Greek and Hebrew alphabets in many of the inscriptions, indicating that he was schooled in the classics. From the coats of arms on his tombstone, it is believed he came from the gentry class.[5] This level of education was rare amongst painters, and surely made him more attractive to Philip as Valet de chambre.[12]

Court painter

Ghent Altarpiece, c. 1432, Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

Van Eyck first served John of Bavaria-Straubing, then ruler of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland. By this time van Eyck had assembled a small workshop and was involved in redecorating the Binnenhof palace in The Hague. After John's death in 1425 he moved to Bruges and came to the attention of Philip the Good c. 1425.[13] His emergence as a collectable painter generally follows his appointment to Philip's court, and from this point his activity in the court is comparatively well documented. He served as both court artist and diplomat and became a senior member of the Tournai painters' guild. On 18 October 1427, the Feast of St. Luke, he travelled to Tournai to attend a banquet in his honour, also attended by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden.[7]

Because of the regular salary he received from the court he was not dependent on commissions, and thus had relative artistic freedom.[14] Over the following decade van Eyck's reputation and technical ability grew, mostly from his innovative approaches towards the handling and manipulating of oil paint. Unlike most of his peers his reputation never diminished and he remained well regarded over the following centuries. His revolutionary approach to oil was such that a myth, perpetuated by oil painting.[15][16]

Jan van Eyck has often been linked as brother to painter and peer Hubert van Eyck, because both have been thought to originate from the same town in Belgium. One of Jan's most famous works, the Ghent Altarpiece, is believed to be a collaboration between the two, begun c. 1420 by Hubert and completed by Jan in 1432. Today it is difficult to decide which parts of the altarpiece are by Jan and which by Hubert. Another brother, Lambert, is mentioned in Burgundian court documents, and there is a conjecture that he too was a painter, and that he may have overseen the closing of Jan van Eyck's Bruges workshop.[17]

Maturity and success

It is known from historical record that van Eyck was considered a revolutionary master across northern Europe within his lifetime; his designs and methods were heavily copied and reproduced. His motto, one of the first and still most distinctive signatures in art history, ALS IK KAN ("AS I CAN"), a pun on his name,[18] first appeared in 1433 on Portrait of a Man in a Turban, which can be seen as indicative of his emerging self-confidence at the time. The years between 1434 and 1436 are generally considered his high point when he produced works including the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna and Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. He married the much younger Margaret, probably around 1432 and about the same time he bought a house in Bruges; she is unmentioned before he relocated, while the first of their two children was born in 1434. Very little is known of Margaret, even her maiden name is lost - contemporary records refer to her mainly as Damoiselle Marguierite.[19] She is thought to have been of aristocratic birth, though from the lower nobility, evidenced from her clothes in this portrait which are fashion but not of the sumptuousness worn by the bride in the Arnolfini Portrait. Later, as the widow of a renowned painter Margaret was afforded a modest pension by the city of Bruges after Jan's death. At least some of this income was invested in lottery.[20]

Records from 1437 on suggest that he was held in high esteem by the upper ranks of Burgundian nobility while also accepting many foreign commissions. He died young in July 1441, leaving behind many unfinished works to be completed by workshop journeymen; works that are nevertheless today considered major examples of Early Flemish painting.[21] His local and international reputation was aided by his ties to the then political and cultural influence of the Burgundian court.

Annunciation, 1434–1436; National Gallery of Art, Washington

Following the death of John of Bavaria in 1425, van Eyck entered the service of the powerful and influential Valois prince, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy.[22] He moved to Lille for a year soon after completing the Ghent Altarpiece, and then to Bruges, where he lived until his death in 1441. A number of documents published in the 20th century record his activities in Philip's service. He was sent on several diplomatic missions on behalf of the Duke, and worked on several projects which likely entailed more than painting, such as his difficult journey to Lisbon along with a group intended to prepare the ground for the Duke's wedding to Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck's task was to paint the bride, so that the Duke could visualise her before their marriage. Because Portugal was ridden with plague, their court was itinerant and the Dutch party met them at the out of way castle of Aviz. Van Eyck spent nine months there, returning successfully to the Netherlands with Isabella as a bride to be; the couple married on Christmas Day of 1429.[23] The princess was probably not particularly attractive, and that is exactly how Van Eyck conveyed her in the now lost portrait. Typically he showed his sitters as dignified, yet did not hide their imperfections.[24] After his return, he was preoccupied with completing the Ghent Altarpiece, which was concentrated on 6 May 1432 at Saint Bavo Cathedral during an official ceremony for Philip.

Van Eyck undertook a number of other journeys on Philip's behalf between 1426 and 1429, journeys described in records as "secret" commissions, for which he was paid multiples of his annual salary. Their precise nature is still unknown, but they seem to involve his acting as envoy of the court. In 1426 he departed for "certain distant lands", possibly to the Holy Land, a theory given weight by the topographical accuracy of Jerusalem in The Three Marys at the Tomb, a painting completed by members of his workshop c 1440.[10]

As court painter and valet de chambre to the Duke, van Eyck was exceptionally well paid.[22] His annual salary was quite high when he was first engaged, but it doubled twice in the first few years, and was often supplemented by special bonuses.[5] His salary alone makes him an exceptional figure among early Netherlandish painters, since most of them depended on individual commissions for their livelihoods. An indication that his art and person were held in extraordinarily high regard is a document from 1435 in which the Duke scolded his treasurers for not paying the painter his salary, arguing that van Eyck would leave and that he would nowhere be able to find his equal in his "art and science." Philip also served as godfather to one of van Eyck's children,[25] supported his widow upon the painter's death, and years later helped one of his daughters with the funds required to enter a convent.

Jan van Eyck died in Bruges in on the 9 July 1441 and was buried in the graveyard of the [26]


Jan van Eyck produced paintings for private clients in addition to his work at the court. Foremost among these is the Ghent Altarpiece painted for the merchant, financier and politician [27]

Paintings of the Virgin Mary

Dresden Triptych. Oil on oak panel, 1437. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Except for the Ghent Altarpiece, all of van Eyck's religious works feature the Virgin Mary as the central figure. She is typically seated, wearing a jewel-studded crown, cradling a playful child Christ who gazes at her and grips the hem of her dress in a manner that recalls the 13th-century Byzantine tradition of the Eleusa icon (Virgin of Tenderness).[28] She is sometimes shown reading a Book of Hours. She usually wears dresses of blue and red. In the 1432 Ghent Altarpiece Mary wears a crown adorned with flowers and stars. She is dressed as a bride, and reads from a girdle book draped with green cloth,[29] perhaps an element borrowed from Robert Campin's Virgin Annunicate.[30] But this work contain a number of motifs that later reappear; she is already Queen of Heaven, wearing a crown adorned with flowers and stars.

The earlier works tend to be donor portraits, where Mary is presented as an apparition before a donor kneeling in prayer to the side.[31][32] The idea of a saint appearing before a layperson was common in Northern donor portraits of the period.[31] In Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434–36), the Canon seems as if having just momentarily paused to reflect on a passage from his hand-held bible as the Virgin and Child with two saints appear before him, as if embodiments of his prayer.[33]

Mary's role in van Eyck's donor portraits reflects the beliefs of the period, and should be viewed in the context of the cult and worship surrounding her at the time, especially in terms of the often densely layered iconography. In the early 15th century Mary grew in importance as an intercessor between the divine and members of the Christian faith. The concept of purgatory as an intermediary state that each soul had to pass through before admission to heaven was at its height.[34] Prayer was the most obvious means of decreasing time in limbo, while the wealthy could commission new churches, extensions to existing ones, or devotional portraits. At the same time, there was a trend towards the sponsorship of requiem masses, often as part of the terms of a will, a practice that Joris van der Paele actively sponsored. With this income he endowed the churches with embroidered cloths and metal accessories such as chalices, plates and candlesticks.[35]

Madonna in the Church, c. 1438–40. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Eyck usually gives Mary three roles: Mother of Christ; the personification of the "Ecclesia Triumphans"; or Queen of Heaven.[36]

The idea of Mary as a metaphor for the Church itself is especially strong in his later paintings. In Madonna in the Church she dominates the cathedral; her head is almost level with the approximately sixty feet high gallery.[36] Art historian Otto Pächt describes the interior of Madonna in the Church as a "throne room" which envelopes her as if a "carrying case".[37] This distortion of scale is found in a number of other of his Madonna paintings, including Annunciation. Her monumental stature borrows from the works of 12th- and 13th-century Italian artists such as Cimabue and Giotto, who in turn reflect a tradition reaching back to an Italo-Byzantine type and emphasis her identification with the cathedral itself. Art historians in the 19th century thought the work was executed early in van Eyck's career and attributed her scale as the mistake of a relatively immature painter. The idea that her size represents her embodiment as the church was first suggested by Erwin Panofsky in 1941.[38] Till-Holger Borchert says that van Eyck did not paint her as "the Madonna in a church", but instead as metaphor, presenting Mary "as the Church".[39] The later works contain very exact architectural details, but are not modeled any actual historical buildings. He probably sought to create an ideal and perfect space for Mary's apparition,[40] and was more concerned with their visual impact rather than physical possibility.[41]

Ghent Altarpiece, detail showing the Virgin Mary

The Marian paintings are characterized by complex depictions of both physical space and light sources. Many of van Eyck's religious works contain a reduced interior space that is nonetheless subtly managed and arranged to convey a sense of intimacy without feeling constricted. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin is lit from both from the central portico and side windows, while the floor-tiles in comparison to other elements shows that the figures are only about six feet from the columned loggia screen, and that Rolin might have had to squeeze himself through the opening to get out that way.[42] The different elements of the cathedral are in Madonna in the Church are so specifically detailed, and the elements of Gothic and contemporary architecture so well delineated, that many art and architecture historians have concluded that he must have had enough architectural knowledge to make nuanced distinctions. Given the accuracy of the descriptions, many scholars have tried to link the painting with particular buildings.[43] But in all the buildings in van Eyck's work, the structure is imagined and probably an idealized formation of what he viewed as a perfect architectural space. This can be seen from the many examples of features that would be unlikely in a contemporary church, including the placing of a round arched triforium above a pointed colonnade in the Berlin work.[44]

All of the Marian work's are heavily lined with inscriptions, many of which reoccur in a number of pieces. The lettering on the arched throne above Mary's depiction in the Ghent Altarpiece is taken from a passage from the Book of Wisdom (7:29): "She is more beautiful than the sun and the army of the stars; compared to the light she is superior. She is truly the reflection of eternal light and a spotless mirror of God".[29] Wording from the same source is found on the hem of her robe and on the frame of Madonna in the Church, and on her dress in Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, reading EST ENIM HAEC SPECIOSIOR SOLE ET SUPER OMNEM STELLARUM DISPOSITIONEM. LUCI CONPARATA INVENITUR PRIOR[39] Inscriptions are present in all of van Eyck's paintings, but predominant in his Marian paintings. They seem to serve a number functions. They breathe life into portraits and give voice to those worshiping Mary but also play a functional role; given that contemporary religious works were commissioned for private devotion, the inscriptions may have been intended to be read as an incantation or personalized indulgence prayers. Harbison notes that van Eyck's privately commissioned works are unusually heavily inscribed with prayer, and that the words may have served a similar function to prayer tablets, or more exactly "Prayer Wings", of the type seen in the reconstructed London Virgin and Child triptych.[45]


The Arnolfini Portrait, detail showing the female subject and convex mirror

Van Eyck was highly sought after as a portrait artist. Growing affluence across northern Europe meant that portraiture was no longer the preserve of royalty or the high aristocracy. An emerging merchant middle class, coupled with a growing awareness of humanist ideas of individual identity, lead to a demand both for secular and donor portraits.[24]

Van Eyck's portraits are characterized by his manipulation of oil paint and a meticulous attention to detail; his keen powers of observation and his tendency to apply layers of thin translucent glazes to create intensity of color and tone. He pioneered portraiture during the 1430s and was admired as far away as Italy for the naturalness of his depictions.[46] Today, eight three-quarters view portraits (excluding the London possible self-portrait) are attributed. His style was widely adopted, most notably by van der Weyden, Petrus Christus and Hans Memling.

The small Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon of c. 1430 is his earliest surviving portrait. It evidences many of the elements that were to become standard in his portraiture style, including the three-quarters view (a type he revived from antiquity which soon spread across Europe),[19] directional lighting,[24] elaborate headdress, and for the single portraits, the framing of the figure within an undefined narrow space, set against a flat black background. It is noted for its realism and acute observation of the small details of the sitter's appearance; the man has a light beard of one or two days' growth, a reoccurring feature in van Eyck's early male portraits, where the sitter is often either unshaven, or according to Lorne Campbell "rather inefficiently shaved".[47] Campbell lists other van Eyck unshaven sitters; Niccolò Albergati (1431), Jodocus Vijdt (1432), Jan van Eyck? (1433), Joris van der Paele (c. 1434–36), Nicolas Rolin (1435) and Jan de Leeuw (1436).[47]

Notes made on the reverse of his paper study for the Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati give insight Eyck's approach. Of his aspiration to record beard growth he wrote, "die stoppelen vanden barde wal grijsachtig" (the stubble of the beard grizzled).[48] On the other aspects of his attempts to record the old man's face he noted, "the iris of the eye, near the back of the pupil, brownish yellow. On the contours next to the white, bluish ... the white also yellowish ..."[49]

The Léal Souvenir portrait of 1432 continues the adherence to realism and acute observation of the small details of the sitter's appearance.[50] However by his later works, the sitter is at more of a distance, and the attention to detail less marked. The descriptions are less forensic, more of an overview, while the forms are broader and flatter.[48] Even in his early works, his descriptions of the model are not faithful reproductions; parts of the sitters face or form were altered to either present a better composition or fit an ideal. He often altered the relative proportions of his models head and body so that he could better focus on the elements of their features that interested him. This lead to distortions; in the portrait of his wife he altered the angle of her nose, and gave her a fashionably high forehead that nature had not.[51]

The stone parapet at the base of the canvas of Léal Souvenir is painted as if to simulate marked or scarred stone and contains three separate layers of inscriptions, each rendered in an illusionistic manner, giving the impression they are chiseled onto stone.[52] van Eyck typically set the inscriptions in the sitters voice, so that they, according to Till-Holger Borchert "appear to be speaking".[53] Examples include the Portrait of Jan de Leeuw which reads ... Jan de [Leeuw], who first opened his eyes on the Feast of St Ursla [21 October], 1401. Now Jan van Eyck has painted me, you can see when he began it. 1436.[53] In Portrait of Margaret van Eyck of 1439 the lettering acclaims My husband Johannes completed me in the year 1439 on 17 June, at the age of 33. As I can.[54]

Hands play a special significance in van Eyck's paintings and at least one is prominently held up.[55] In his early portraits the sitters are often shown holding objects indicative of their profession. The man in Léal Souvenir may have been a legal professional as he holds a scroll resembling a legal document.[56]

The Arnolfini Portrait of 1432 is filled with illusionism and symbolism,[57] as is the 1435 Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, commissioned to display Rolin's power, influence and piety.[58]

Turin-Milan Hours: Hand G

Mass of the Dead. From the Turin-Milan Hours, attributed to the anonymous Hand G, thought to be van Eyck. This work shows a very similar gothic interior to the Berlin Madonna in the Church

Since 1901 Jan van Eyck has often been credited as the anonymous artist known as Hand G of the Turin-Milan Hours.[59] If this is correct, the Turin illustrations are the only known works from his early period; according to Thomas Kren the earlier dates for Hand G precede any known panel painting in an Eyckian style, which "raise[s] provocative questions about the role that manuscript illumination may have played in the vaunted verisimilitude of Eyckian oil painting".[60] The evidence for attributing van Eyck rests on part on the fact that although the figures are mostly of the International Gothic type, they reappear in some of his later work. In addition, there are coats of arms connected with the Wittelsbach family with who he had connections in the Hague, while some of the figures in the miniatures echo the horsemen in the Ghent Altarpiece.[61]

Most of these miniatures were destroyed by fire in 1904 and survive only in photographs and copies; only three pages at most attributed to Hand G now survive, those with large miniatures of the Birth of John the Baptist, the Finding of the True Cross and the Office of the Dead (or Requiem Mass), with the bas-de-page miniatures and initials of the first and last of these. The Office of the Dead is often seen as recalling Jan's 1438–40 Madonna in the Church.[62] Four more were lost in 1904: all the elements of the pages with the miniatures called The Prayer on the Shore (or Duke William of Bavaria at the Seashore, the Sovereign's prayer etc.), and the night-scene of the Betrayal of Christ (which was already described by Durrieu as "worn" before the fire), the Coronation of the Virgin and its bas-de-page, and the large picture only of the seascape Voyage of St Julian & St Martha.[63]



Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, c. 1434–36. Groeningemuseum, Bruges. Van Eyck's Marian paintings are suffused with iconographic detail.

Van Eyck's work is characterised by the use of symbolism and biblical references.[64] Van Eyck incorporated a wide variety of iconographic elements, often conveying what he saw as a co-existence of the spiritual and material worlds. The iconography was embedded in the work unobtrusively; typically the references comprised small but key background details.[64] Van Eyck pioneered, and his innovations were taken up and developed by van der Weyden, Memling and Christus. Each employed rich and complex iconographical elements to create a heightened sense of contemporary beliefs and spiritual ideals.[65]

Craig Harbison describes the blending of realism and symbolism as perhaps "the most important aspect of early Flemish art".[65] The embedded symbols were meant to meld into the scenes and "was a deliberate strategy to create an experience of spiritual revelation."[66] Van Eyck's religious paintings in particular "always present the spectator with a transfigured view of visible reality".[67] To him the day-to-day is harmoniously steeped in symbolism, such that, according to Harbison, "descriptive data were rearranged ... so that they illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth."[67] This blend of the earthly and heavenly evidences van Eyck's belief that the "essential truth of Christian doctrine" can be found in "the marriage of secular and sacred worlds, of reality and symbol".[68] He depicts overly large Madonnas, whose unrealistic size shows the separation between the heavenly from earthly, but placed them in everyday settings such as churches, domestic chambers or seated with court officials.[68]

Yet the earthly churches are heavily decorated with heavenly symbols. A heavenly throne is clearly represented in some domestic chambers (for example in the Lucca Madonna). More difficult to discern are the settings for paintings such as Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, where the location is a fusion of the earthly and celestial.[69] Van Eyck's iconography is often so densely and intricately layered that a work has to be viewed multiple times before even the most obvious meaning of an element is apparent. The symbols were often subtly woven into the paintings so that they only became apparent after close and repeated viewing,[64] while much of the iconography reflects the idea that, according to John Ward, there is a "promised passage from sin and death to salvation and rebirth".[70]


Detail, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Van Eyck was the only 15th-century Netherlandish painter to sign his canvases.[71] His signature usually contains his personal motto ALS IK KAN (or a variant) – "As I Can", or "As Best I Can" – taken from the Flemish saying "As I can, not as I would", and which forms a pun on his name. The signature is sometimes inscribed using Greek lettering such as AAE IXH XAN.[72] The word Kan derives from the Middle Dutch word kunnen related to the German Kunst ("art").[73]

The words may be related to a type of formula of modesty sometimes seen in medieval literature, where the writer prefaces his work with an apology for a lack of perfection,[73] although, given the typical lavishness of the signatures and mottos, it may merely be a playful reference. Indeed, his motto is sometimes recorded in a manner intended to mimic Christ's monogram IHC XPC, for example in his 1440 Portrait of Christ.[73] Further, as the signature is often a variant of "Jan van Eyck was here", it can be seen as a, perhaps somewhat arrogant, assertion of the faithfulness and trustworthiness of the record; by none other than Jan van Eyck.[51]

The habit of signing his work ensured that his reputation survived, and attribution has not been as difficult and uncertain as with other first generation artists of the early Netherlandish school.[74] The signatures are usually completed in a decorative script, often of a kind reserved for legal documents, as can be seen in Léal Souvenir and the Arnolfini Portrait,[75] the latter of which is signed "Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434" ("Jan van Eyck was here 1434"), a way of recording his presence.

The Dresden Triptych is van Eyck's only extant religious work to contain his motto.[76]


Many of his paintings are heavily inscribed, in lettering of Greek, Latin or vernacular Dutch. Campbell sees in many examples a "certain consistency which suggest that he himself had painted them", rather than they are later additions.[49] The letterings seem to serve different functions depending on the type of work on which they appear. In his single panel portraits they give voice to the sitter,[77] most notably in Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, where the Greek lettering on the frame translates as My husband Johannes completed me in the year 1439 on 17 June, at the age of 33. As I can.[19] By contrast the inscriptions on his public, formal religious commissions are written from the point of view of the patron, and there to underscore his piousness, charity and dedication to the saint who he is shown accompanying. This can be seen in his Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, reads An inscription on the lower imitation frame refers to the donation, "Joris van der Paele, canon of this church, had this work made by painter Jan van Eyck. And he founded two chaplaincies here in the choir of the Lord. 1434. He only completed it in 1436, however."[78]


Copy of a van Eyck, Portrait of Isabella of Portugal. Private collection

Exceptionally for his time, van Eyck often signed and dated his frames,[79] 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 to the master's workshop, their work was often considered as equal in skill to that of the painter.

He designed and painted the frames for his single head portrits to look like imitation stone, with the signature or other inscriptions giving the impression that they had been chiseled into the stone. The frames serve other illuinostic purposes; in Portrait of Isabella of Portugal she eyes gaze coyly but directly out of the painting, as rests her hands on the edge of the a faux stone parapet. With this gesture Isabella extends her presence out of the pictorial space and into that of the viewer.[56]

Many of the original frames are lost and known only through copies or inventory records. The London Portrait of a Man was likely half of a double portrait or pendant; the last record of the original frames contained many inscriptions, but not all were original; the frames were often overpainted by later artists.[51] Portrait of Jan de Leeuw also bears it's original frame, which is painted over to look like bronze.[24]

Many of his frames are heavily inscribed, which serves a dual purpose. They are decorative but also function to set the context for the significance of the imagery, similar to the function of margins in medieval manuscripts. Pieces such as the Dresden Tryptich were usually commissioned for private devotion, and van Eyck would have expected the viewer to contemplate text and imagery in unison.[80] The interior panels of the small 1437 Dresden Triptych are outlined with two layers of painted bronze frames, inscribed with mostly Latin lettering. The texts are drawn from a variety of sources, in the central frames from biblical descriptions of the assumption, while the inner wings are lined with fragments of prayers dedicated to saints Michael and Catherine.[81]

Workshop, unfinished or lost works

Members of his workshop completed works based on his designs in the years after his death in the summer of 1441. This was not unusual; the widow or other relative of a master would often carry on the business after her death. It is thought that Lambert took over after 1441.[82] Such works are many and include the Ince Hall Madonna, Saint Jerome in His Study, a Madonna of Jan Vos (Virgin and Child with St Barbara and Elizabeth) c. 1443, the Ypres Maelbeke Madonna c. 1440–45, Triptych of Petrus Wyts, late 15th century, and a St Christopher now in Philadelphia of c. 1460–70, as well of a series of 15th-century pencil on paper drawings of the twelve apostles.[83] A number of designs were reproduced by second generation Nerherlandish arists of the first rank, including Petrus Christus, who painted a version of the Exeter Madonna.[84]

In other instances members of his workshop finished incomplete paintaings after his death. The upper portions of the right hand panel of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych are generally considered the work of a weaker painter with a less individual style. It is thought that van Eyck died leaving the panel unfinished but with completed underdrawings, and the upper area was finished by workshop members or followers.[85]

Three works are confidently attributed but know only from copies. Portrait of Isabella of Portugal dates to his 1428 visit to Portugal for Philip to draw up a preliminary marriage agreement with the daughter of John I of Portugal.[86] From surviving copies it can be deduced that apart from the actual oak frame there were two other 'painted on' frames, one of which was lettered with gothic inscription to the top, while a faux stone parapet provided support for her hands to rest upon.[56]

Copy of a lost van Eyck, Woman Bathing, early 16th-century copy by unknown artist, Netherlandish

Two exant copies of his Woman Bathing were made in the 60 years after death, but it is known mostly through its appearance in Willem van Haecht's expansive 1628 painting The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest, a view of a collector's gallery which contains many other identifiable old masters. Woman Bathing bears many similarities to Arnolfini Portrait, including an interior with a bed and a small dog, a mirror and its reflection, a chest of drawers and clogs on the floor, while the angle the attendant woman faces from, and her dress and the outline of her figure, are broadly similar.[86]

Reputation and legacy

Statue of the van Eyck brothers in Ghent. The plaque reads Huberto et Johanni van Eyck

In the earliest significant source on van Eyck, a 1454 biography in Genoese humanist Bartolomeo Facio's De viris illustribus, Jan van Eyck is named "the leading painter" of his day. Facio places him among the best artists of the early 15th century, along with Rogier van der Weyden, Gentile da Fabriano, and Pisanello. It is particularly interesting that Facio shows as much enthusiasm for Netherlandish painters as he does for Italian painters. This text sheds light on aspects of Jan van Eyck's production now lost, citing a bathing scene owned by a prominent Italian, but mistakenly attributing to van Eyck a world map painted by another.[87] Facio records that van Eyck was a learned man, and that he was versed in the classics, particularly Pliny the Elder's work on painting. This is supported by records of an inscription from Ovid's Ars Amatoria, which was on the now-lost original frame of the Arnolfini Portrait, and by the many Latin inscriptions in van Eyck paintings, often using the Greek alphabet.


  1. ^ a b Borchert (2008), 12
  2. ^ In 1998 NYT critic Holland Cotter estimated "only two dozen or so paintings...attributed...with varying degrees of confidence, along with some drawings and a few pages from...the Turin-Milan Hours". See Mysteries in the Crystalline World of a Flemish Master, 24 April, 1998. There is a complex relationship and tension between art historians and holding museums in assigning authorship. Of the 40 or so works considered origionals in the mid 80s, around ten are now vigorously contested by leading researchers as workshop
  3. ^ As examples, the Dresden Triptych and Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) are signed ALC IXH XAN
  4. ^ Since dismantled
  5. ^ a b c d e Campbell (1998), 174
  6. ^ Toman (2011), 322
  7. ^ a b Borchert (2008), 9
  8. ^ Châtelet, Albert, Early Dutch Painting, Painting in the northern Netherlands in the fifteenth century. 27–8, 1980, Montreux, Lausanne, ISBN 2-88260-009-7
  9. ^ By the Ghent humanist Marcus van Vaernewyck and Lucas de Heer of Ghent
  10. ^ a b Borchert (2008), 8
  11. ^ Dhanens, Elizabeth (1980). Hubert and Jan van Eyck. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection. ISBN 0-933516-13-4
  12. ^ Campbell (1998), 20
  13. ^ Wolff, Hand (1987), 75
  14. ^ Jones (2011), 23
  15. ^ The myth was propagated by Karel van Mander. In fact oil painting as a technique for painting wood statues and other objects is much older and Theophilus (Roger of Helmarshausen?) clearly gives instructions in his 1125 treatise, On Divers Arts. It is accepted that the van Eyck brothers were among the earliest Early Netherlandish painters to employ it for detailed panel paintings and that they achieved new and unforeseen effects through the use of glazes, wet-on-wet and other techniques. See Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art, 236–39. Phaidon, 1995. ISBN 0-7148-3355-X
  16. ^ Borchert (2008), 92–94
  17. ^ Jan van Eyck (ca. 1380/90–1441)". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 17 March 2012.
  18. ^ Nash (2008), 152
  19. ^ a b c Borchert (2011), 149
  20. ^ Van Der Elst (2005), 65
  21. ^ Borchert (2008), 94
  22. ^ a b Chilvers, 246
  23. ^ Macfall, Haldane. "A History of Painting: The Renaissance in the North and the Flemish Genius Part Four". Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 15. ISBN 1-4179-4509-5
  24. ^ a b c d Borchert (2008), 35
  25. ^ Chilvers (2004), 246
  26. ^ Borchert, 94
  27. ^ Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art, 236–9. Phaidon, 1995
  28. ^ Harbison (1991), 158–162
  29. ^ a b Dhanens (1980), 106–108
  30. ^ Pächt (1994), 129
  31. ^ a b Harbison (1995), 96
  32. ^ Nash (2008), 283
  33. ^ Rothstein (2005), 50
  34. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: Europe's House Divided. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 11-13. ISBN 0-14-303538-X
  35. ^ Harbison (1997), 160
  36. ^ a b Harbison (1991), 169
  37. ^ Pächt (1999), 203–205
  38. ^ Panofsky (1953), 145
  39. ^ a b Borchert, 63
  40. ^ Harbison (1995), 101
  41. ^ Dhanens (1980), 328
  42. ^ Harbison (1991), 100
  43. ^ Snyder (1985), 100; Harbison (1991), 169–175
  44. ^ Wood, Christopher. Forgery, Replica, Fiction: Temporalities of German Renaissance Art. University of Chicago Press, 2008. 195–96. ISBN 0-226-90597-7
  45. ^ Harbison (1995), 95–96. Both wings are later additions.
  46. ^ Bauman (1986), 4
  47. ^ a b Campbell (1998), 216
  48. ^ a b Pächt (1999), 109
  49. ^ a b Campbell (1998), 31
  50. ^ Kemperdick (2006), 19
  51. ^ a b c Campbell (1998), 32
  52. ^ Panofsky (1953), 80
  53. ^ a b Borchert (2008), 42
  54. ^ Borchert (2008), 149
  55. ^ Pächt (1999), 108
  56. ^ a b c Pächt (1999), 110
  57. ^ Dhanens (1980), 198
  58. ^ Dhanens (1980), 269–270
  59. ^ It's is also possible that Hand G was a follower of Van Eyck's. See Campbell (1998), 174
  60. ^ Kren (2003), 83
  61. ^ Borchert (2008), 83
  62. ^ Borchert (2008), 80
  63. ^ Kren (2003), 84, note 1. Châtelet, 34–35 and 194–196 – all except the Coronation are illustrated there. The titles all vary between authors. Châtelet additionally credits Hand G with parts of The Intercession of Christ and the Virgin in the Louvre (p.195)
  64. ^ a b c Ward (1994), 11
  65. ^ a b Harbison (1984), 601
  66. ^ Ward (1994), 9
  67. ^ a b Harbison (1984), 589
  68. ^ a b Harbison (1984), 590
  69. ^ Harbison (1984), 590–592
  70. ^ Ward (1994), 26
  71. ^ Harbison (1997), 31
  72. ^ Harbison (1997), 163
  73. ^ a b c Koerner (1996), 107
  74. ^ Macfall (2004), 17
  75. ^ Campbell (1998), 200
  76. ^ Dhanens (1980), 242
  77. ^ Nash (2008), 145
  78. ^ Borchert (2011), 146
  79. ^ Jones (2011), 21
  80. ^ Smith, 146
  81. ^ Streeton, Noëlle L.W. "Jan van Eyck's Dresden Triptych: new evidence for the Giustiniani of Genoa in the Borromei ledger for Bruges, 1438". Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2011.
  82. ^ Borchert (2008), 69
  83. ^ Borchert (2011), 150-59
  84. ^ Borchert (2008), 72
  85. ^ Borchert (2008), 86
  86. ^ a b Seidel (1991), 38
  87. ^ Renaissance Art Reconsidered, ed. Richardson, Carol M., Kim W. Woods, and Michael W. Franklin, 187


  • Ainsworth, Maryan; Christiansen, Keith (eds). From Van Eyck to Bruegel Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998. ISBN 0-300-08609-1
  • Borchert, Till-Holger. Van Eyck. London: Taschen, 2008. ISBN 3-8228-5687-8
  • Borchert, Till-Holger (ed). Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting. Groeningemuseum, Stedelijke Musea Brugge, 2002
  • Borchert, Till-Holger. Van Eyck to Durer. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. ISBN 978-0-500-23883-7
  • Campbell, Lorne. The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools. London: National Gallery Publications, 1998. ISBN 1-85709-171-X
  • Chilvers, Ian. The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-860476-9
  • Foister, Susan, Sue Jones and Delphine Cool (eds). Investigating Jan van Eyck. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000
  • Friedländer, Max J. Early Netherlandish Painting. Leiden: Praeger, 1967–76. ASIN B0006BQGOW
  • Graham, Jenny. Inventing van Eyck: The remaking of an artist for the modern age. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2007
  • Harbison, Craig. Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism. Edinburgh: Reaktion Books, 1997. ISBN 0-948462-79-5
  • Harbison, Craig. "Realism and Symbolism in Early Flemish Painting". The Art Bulletin, Volume 66, No. 4, December, 1984
  • Jones, Susan Frances. Van Eyck to Gossaert. National Gallery, 2011. ISBN 978-1-85709-504-3
  • Kemperdick, Stephan. The Early Portrait, from the Collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein and the Kunstmuseum Basel. Munich: Prestel, 2006. ISBN 3-7913-3598-7
  • Koerner, Joseph Leo. The moment of self-portraiture in German Renaissance art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. ISBN 0-226-44999-8
  • Kren, Thomas; McKendrick, Scott (eds). Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe. Los Angeles: Getty Museum/Royal Academy of Arts, 2003. ISBN 1-903973-28-7
  • Macfall, Haldane. "A History of Painting: The Renaissance in the North and the Flemish Genius Part Four". Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 15. ISBN 1-4179-4509-5
  • Pächt, Otto. Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting. New York: Harvey Miller, 1994. ISBN 1-872501-81-8
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting. London: Harper Collins, 1971. ISBN 0-06-430002-1
  • Philips, Lotte B. "The Ghent Altarpiece and the Art of Jan van Eyck". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. ISBN 0-691-03870-8
  • Seidel, Linda. "The Value of Verisimilitude in the Art of Jan Van Eyck". "Yale French Studies"; Contexts: Style and Values in Medieval Art and Literature, 1991
  • Smith, Jeffrey. The Northern Renaissance (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7148-3867-5
  • Van Der Elst, Joseph. "The Last Flowering of the Middle Ages". Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-4191-3806-5
  • Ward, John. "Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck's Paintings". Artibus et Historiae, Volume 15, No. 29, 1994
  • Wolff, Martha; Hand, John Oliver. Early Netherlandish painting. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1987. ISBN 0-521-34016-0

External links

  • Jan van Eyck Gallery at MuseumSyndicate
  • Closer to Van Eyck (The Ghent Altarpiece in 100 billion pixels)
  • Petrus Christus: Renaissance master of Bruges, a full text exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which contains lengthy discussions of Jan van Eyck, as well as many reproductions of his work
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