Title: The Arnolfini Portrait
Author: Jan van Eyck (Maaseik, Prince-Bishopric of Liège, Holy Roman Empire, Before 1390 or 1395 – Bruges, County of Flanders, Burgundian Netherlands, July 9, 1441 )
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Northern Renaissance
Technique: Oil painting
Dimension: 82.2 cm x 60 cm (height x width)
Location: The National Gallery, London
I wondered if we could rewind the clock and witness one intricate moment that happened to be a subject of art history. In that moment, one Italian merchant and his wife with their lovely loyal dog stand in their well-appointed home, like daring the times for living forever or perhaps being remembered only.
And over time, that moment turned out an enigmatic depiction of the couple’s life which is primarily one of the most recognizable paintings regarding complex symbolism in art history.
Consequently, we could clearly say they dared the times!
THE PAINTING IS BETTER KNOWN FOR ITS QUESTIONS THAN ITS ANSWERS!
Having a good day? Got anything planned for this afternoon? If I say that we will be looking for one of the most complex works of Western art, would you be up for it? If you would, come and join us!
Today our selection call us from London. As we hurried on our way to get to the National Gallery, which houses Great Britain’s national collection of European paintings, we found ourselves thinking about what makes great art great. Then, we entered the ornate Room 63, one art piece, which could answer this question that caught our eyes!
As the one calls us to come closer, we are invigorated by our walk to the painting. And there it is! Before our very eyes, early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck‘s the Arnolfini Portrait, the painting better known for its questions than its answers!
Let’s attempt to solve all the questions and get to know the Arnolfini Portrait better. Let’s look at its purpose first!
THE PURPOSE OF THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT
Jan van Eyck uses symbolism in the Arnolfini Portrait, which gives evidence that the couple is in great wealth. Therefore, we could say the Arnolfini Portrait’s main purpose is making explicit the social status of the subjects. We will discuss what follows are some of the more extraordinary details on this matter later in our review!
WHY IS THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT SO FAMOUS?
Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait is full of dilemmas and questions marks. So naturally, we might say that its unsolving story and openness to interpretation make the Arnolfini Portrait such an intriguing and famous image!
Therefore, there are numerous versions of Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait. One of the best examples of it is Fernando Botero's as you can see below.
MORE THAN WORDS OR NAMES?
Even though, it is exhibited as the Arnolfini Portrait, its name is The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife in its original language. Also, at times, it was called in several names such as “The Arnolfini Wedding” or “The Arnolfini Marriage.” However, we still can not say that any of these terminologies are incorrect. Nevertheless, studies carried out over the centuries have caused some changes in its story, so how the painting is called has changed over time.
PEOPLE IN THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT
From time to time, various interpretations are made about the artwork’s story and the people seen in the painting. However, since there is no proven evidence, questions remain about who and what the painting shows. So, the Arnolfini Portrait still remains a mystery!
Early inventories describe it as a portrait of a man named Hernoul le Fin. Then nineteenth-century scholars connected the name to the Arnolfini family of Italian textile merchants working in Bruges. Which simply, the two figures in the painting were thought to be the Italian merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife, Jeanne Cenami for more than a century.
Erwin Panofsky’s Interpretation
On the other hand, art historian Erwin Panofsky has suggested that the couple was in their private area, in their bedrooms. He associated many details in the room with the sanctity of marriage.
The most significant proof of marriage is the couple’s hands meeting at the focal point and Givonni’s hand raised in the air as if he takes a wedding vow. Due to Erwin Panofsky’s very well-founded view is called “The Arnolfini Wedding” or “The Arnolfini Marriage.”
I can't help but wonder, is this a wedding scene indeed? It might depict just the one moment of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. While talking about its details, we will keep seeking answers to this question.
And, as we said just before, the painting was known as “The Arnolfini Marriage“ until Jacques Paviot, a French naval historian, discovered something crucial. It was established that the couple was married some years after 1434, written on the wall in the painting. In fact, they married in 1447. To put it another fact, when the Duke, “Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini,” got married to “Giovanna (Jeanne) Cenami,” it had been six years behind the unfortunate event, the death of Van Eyck.
Depicts Giovanni Di Nicolao Arnolfini and His Wife Costanza Trenta!
Yet, no one knows for sure who the couple is. But the best guess would be that Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini’s cousin, is a merchant from Bruges and his bride Costanza Trenta who he married in 1426.
Now it is believed that the Arnolfini Portrait depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Costanza Trenta, presumably in their residence at the Flemish city of Bruges.
THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT ANALYSIS
The Arnolfini Portrait which is a part of the period of the northern renaissance has numerous details. As seen in the painting’s details, The Dutch art culture and Jan van Eyck are deeply into symbolism.
According to the art critics, painting’s details do not randomly stay in their place. Instead, it results from a purpose, which is why these figures are selected for the Arnolfini Portrait. Because of that, one question suddenly occurred to us, are we looking at the actual room before our eyes, or could it all be in Jan van Eyck’s head?
Besides, it is good to keep in mind that if we are witnessing a wedding ceremony in the Arnolfini Portrait, most objects in the room take on a symbolic resonance.
The Arnolfini Portrait Technique
The Arnolfini Portrait is painted on an oak board using the oil painting technique. Nonetheless, its technique is not mediocre brushwork. Instead, Van Eyck effortlessly paints the minor details, the gorgeous fabrics, and the tiniest miniatures realistically and naturally. As can be seen, Jan van Eyck’s technique is impressive, making him one of the best-known painters in the world.
Head and Shoulders Above
Jan van Eyck stood out head and shoulders above his contemporaries. No one could imitate him. Some even claimed that Jan van Eyck had invented oil painting. But the truth was a bit different from that.
Van Eyck revolutionized color by choosing paints with an oil base rather than tempera (egg-based). Even though oil painting existed before him, we owe oil painting’s fame in Europe to Jan van Eyck and his brother today. He simply perfected oil painting.
Not only in the Arnolfini Portrait but also in his other artworks, Jan van Eyck uses oil paint with great delicacy. And he has successfully brought colors that can not be given with the tempera technique onto his canvas. The result is more depth and brilliance, and greater control. You can see his other paintings below.
On the other hand, fun fact, Michelangelo didn’t like oils, and he believed they were for wimps. Because, the oil paints can be applied in layers to make translucent color; they also dry slowly, allowing retouching.
The Arnolfini Portrait Period
The Arnolfini Portrait is a part of the period of the Northern Renaissance. Although Northern Renaissance carries some similarities, it is somewhat different from the Italian Renaissance.
For instance, intensive use of details and symbolism are the distinctive features of the northern Renaissance. In the north, renaissance rules such as linear perspective, size, and symmetry did not strictly enforce. Instead, emphasis was placed on texture and pattern.
If you notice, in the Arnolfini Portrait, the anatomy of the two figures in the table is not very successful. They look thinner and taller than an average person. For this reason, they are pretty far from the Italian Renaissance.
What Can You See in the Arnolfini Portrait?
The Arnolfini Portrait makes you feel like you are looking at a cozy domestic place with a presence of a man and a woman with their fluffy-tailed dog, shoes, and bed at first. However, the details come to life only on closer examination, such as the reflections in the mirror, sparkling chandelier, oranges on the table, cherries blooming on a tree outside. And when your eye reaches the back wall, you catch ornate Latin writing that reads, “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434.”
Both the husband and wife's faces are seen in a three-quarter view. Van Eyck used this angle, bringing a natural human character to the figures in other paintings as well.
Let’s get to analyze each figure in the painting!
The Italian Merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini
An enormous puffy black hat crowns Arnolfini’s head. He is dressed in a fur-trimmed cloak.
As mentioned earlier, the figure of Arnolfini symbolizes the impression of great wealth and status. In addition, the oranges on the far left of the table seem to confirm that the couple has a high welfare level since orange was a luxury in 19th century Bruges.
On the other hand, his modestly downcast eyes and his serious expression are in contrast to the welcoming gesture of his right hand, almost like a wave, as he moves to place it into his wife’s open palm.
When you take a close look, how real, soft, and fluffy the furs on the skirts of Arnolfini’s cloak seem, don’t they? The realism is remarkable. And how did he create the brilliance and the sense of depth depicted in folds in the dresses? I am speechless, Jan van Eyck just worked his magic.
Arnolfini’s Wife, Costanza
A white headdress of linen with intricate ruffle frames light bathed the youthful face of Arnolfini’s wife. In fact, this veil at the head of the Costanza was worn by the married women of the period.
Is the young woman pregnant or just wearing a fashionable gown?
Although Costanza gives the impression of being pregnant with her bloated belly at first glance, art historians say that if this is a marriage picture, Costanza can not be pregnant. To clarify, the situation does not comply with the moral understanding of those times.
They say that even if the woman were pregnant at the time of the couple’s marriage, Van Eyck would not have eternalized it by incorporating this fact into his painting. In fact, according to the National Gallery, Costanza is not pregnant, as is often thought, but holding up her full-skirted dress in the contemporary fashion.
The Woman’s Green Dress
The woman is wearing a green dress symbolizes wealth and luxury. To clarify, the exquisite modeling of the folds of the emerald-green gown highlights the fabric’s quality and heavyweight. The fabric might be velvet, which was extremely expensive at that time. The intricate ruffles and pleats on the sleeves increase the overall impression of decadent and opulence.
It is known that these loose and long dresses were used to emphasize femininity and fertility at that time. However, again there is no evidence of her being pregnant in the period’s written sources.
To put another symbol of this high level of prosperity, we can point out that the Arnolfini couple wears showy thick clothes, despite the fact that it is summer by understanding that the season is summer from the cherry fruits seen from the open window.
The Faithful Dog With Well Trimmed Hair
One of the most loved and discussed details is the cute little dog we see in the middle. The dog was widely chosen as a visual symbol for its connection with loyalty and reputation as a faithful friend. Here, the dog stands between its owners’ feet, uniting the couple’s fidelity. In the Arnolfini Portrait, the little dog symbolizes loyalty or alternatively signifying the couple’s desire to have a child.
A chandelier is placed on the couple’s joined hands in the middle of the painting. The chandelier and the light are among the elements considered sacred in European painting. If you look carefully, the candle burning on the Arnolfini in the chandelier is marked as extinguished above its partner. Experts believe there may be a direct reference to the life that ends and death in this detail.
Jan van Eyck’s Signature
Above the mirror, it says Jan van Eyck was here in Latin. For a painter to draw such attention to himself was unprecedented. This writing on the wall, which is also considered the painter’s signature, is accepted as one of the most aesthetic signatures of the art of painting.
And even more, his signature is placed there like it supports all the interpretations that had been made.
The Central Mirror On The Wall
Ten miniature paintings encircle the convex mirror. The craftsmanship in such a piece would have been highly appreciated in the Netherlands at the time. They depict in astonishing detail The Passion of Jesus, which is the short final period including the crucifixion of Christ.
It is clear that Van Eyck is a highly detail-oriented painter. As we learned from the painter's notes, he added these small details to the Arnolfini Portrait with the help of a magnifying glass.
We see the mirror placed on the back wall of the room is one of the most striking details in the painting and is also one of the details of the artwork that creates a dilemma. If you look carefully at the mirror, you will see four-figure. So who are these figures?
WHO IS REFLECTED IN THE MIRROR?
Let’s look at some more close-ups. At least four figures can undoubtedly be seen reflected in the mirror. Two of them are a couple seen from behind, the third might be Van Eyck seen in the Arnolfini Portrait, and the fourth person’s identity is unclear.
Some take interpretation further by claiming that we are the ones in the mirror. We are witnessing this happy moment of this couple. What is your take on this?
It looks to me the mirror is the element that allows us to perceive the story more holistically.
With the presence of the mirror, we understand that the two figures we are looking at are not just a couple posing for the painter, and we cannot just say that this is a portrait. Therefore, we begin to wonder about his story from the painting.
IS THIS A WEDDING MOMENT?
As mentioned earlier, Panofsky argued that the picture showed a secret marriage ceremony. And he claimed the wedding moment witnessed by the painter himself concerning shown in the reflection of the mirror in the painting. With the addition of Eyck’s signature, Panofsky concluded, Jan van Eyck endowed his image with the power of a legal document. Yet, there is no evidence that it shows a wedding moment. In fact, according to the National Gallery, the painting is not intended as a record of their wedding.
IS THIS A REAL ROOM IN THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT?
If you remember, we mentioned the room might be nothing but fiction. Based on all these examinations, specialists say that the room we are looking at is a figment of Jan van Eyck’s imagination. And again, they say that Van Eyck designed the room according to the couple’s story. By which I mean, the room might be created to support Arnolfini’s story.
The significant thing about Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait is that it is one successful example of complex symbolism. Therefore, the gripping work of art demands to be visited again and again until its story and symbols are revealed. That brings us to the end. You can find his remarkable signature below…
“JAN VAN EYCK WAS HERE.”Jan van Eyck
Last but not least, if you are into art, we will have a blast seeing you here. I hope every art-related thing will find you; see you in our following review. ????✌
You can look at article, its name “The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution” by Jordan Butterfield, Sarah Lozano, Charis Ammon.
You can check out the video by the National Gallery on the Arnolfini Portrait below.