Jan van Eyck
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Jan van Eyck or Johannes de Eyck (c. 1385 – July 9, 1441) was a 15th century Early Netherlandish painter who lived in the then Duchy of Burgundy and is considered one of the great painters of the late Middle Ages. His best-known works are The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and the Ghent Altarpiece.
There is a common misconception, which dates back to the sixteenth-century Vite of the Tuscan artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, that Jan van Eyck invented oil painting. It is however true that he achieved, or perfected, new and remarkable effects using this technique. Thus, due to his early mastery of the technique, he has often been referred to as the "father of oil painting."
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, Maaseik in Limburg (Belgium). Another brother, Lambert van Eyck 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. Another significant, and rather younger, painter who worked in Southern France, Barthélemy van Eyck, is presumed to be a relation.
Some individual works
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 Jodocus Vijdts and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. Started sometime before 1426 and completed, at least partially, by 1432, this polyptych has been seen to represent "the final conquest of reality in the North", differing from the great works of the Early Renaissance in Italy by virtue of its willingness to forgo classical idealization in favor of the faithful observation of nature. (Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art) It is housed in its original location, the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. It has had a turbulent history, surviving the 16th-century iconoclastic riots, the French Revolution, changing tastes which led to its dissemination, and most recently Nazi looting. When World War II ended it was recovered in a salt mine, and the story of its restoration drew considerable interest from the general public and greatly advanced the discipline of the scientific study of paintings. No less turbulent was the history of the interpretation of this work. Since an inscription states that Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, but that Jan van Eyck - calling himself arte secundus (second best in the art) - finished it identifies it as a collaborative effort of Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. The question of who painted what, or "Jan or Hubert?" has become a mythical one among art historians. Some even question the validity of the inscription, and thus Hubert van Eyck's involvement. In the 1930s, Emil Renders even argued that "Hubert van Eyck" was a complete fiction invented by Ghent humanists in the 16th century. More recently, Lotte Brand Philip (1971) has proposed that the Ghent Altarpiece's inscription has been misread, and that Hubert was (in Latin) the "fictor", not the "pictor", of the work. She interprets this as meaning that Jan van Eyck painted the entire altarpiece, while his brother Hubert created its sculptural framework.
Exceptionally for his time, van Eyck often signed and dated his paintings on their frames, then considered an integral part of the work (the two were often painted together). However, in the celebrated Arnolfini Portrait (London, National Gallery) reproduced at left, van Eyck inscribed on the (pictorial) back wall above the convex mirror "Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434" (Jan van Eyck was here, 1434). The painting is one of the most frequently analyzed by art historians, but in recent years a number of popular interpretations have been questioned. This is probably not a painted marriage certificate, or the record of a betrothal, as originally suggested by Erwin Panofsky. The woman is probably also not pregnant, as the hand-gesture of lifting the dress recurs in contemporary renditions of virgin saints (including Jan van Eyck's own Dresden Triptych and a workshop piece, the Frick Madonna).