van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. Every time I look at this painting I feel a mix of feelings. Let’s be honest: it’s a bit creepy and the two protagonists are kind of ugly, but for some reasons you want to know more about them and the scene or why that weird mirror on the wall…

Jan van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait
ARTIST: Jan van Eyck
NAME Arnolfini Portrait
LOCATION National Gallery, Londra
YEAR 1434
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 82.2 × 60 cm (32.4 × 23.6 in)
MATERIAL Oil on oak

It’s known as The Arnolfini Portrait or The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife and other names, but I prefer to stop here. What we have is for sure a couple (even for that there are some surprises actually) and the guy’s last name is Arnolfini.

It’s an old oil on oak painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434 on 3 vertical boards. So we are during Renaissance or, better, Northern Renaissance since van Eyck was Flemish.

Jan van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait
van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait

The Arnolfini

The painting doesn’t show a wedding, but a portrait of a possibly already married couple of the family Arnolfini. We are not even sure which member of the family Arnolfini is depicted.

There are a lot of theories about it, but we just know that whoever is represented here, was an Italian merchant who worked in Bruges.

And his wealth is shown in the very expensive clothing and furnishing, in particular the chandelier.
The guess is that the protagonists were a couple, but we are not sure about it. What we can say is that something important seems to going on. And we can tell that because at the center of the painting there is, perfectly visible, a convex mirror that is reflecting a fundamental detail that we’ll see soon. Also the perspective lines push our view to the back of the room where there is the mirror.

And it’s following these lines that we can notice other details: a portion of an expensive carpet in the center and four oranges on the left.

van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait - lines

Nowadays that doesn’t mean a lot, but, back then, oranges were rare, so that’s another symbol of Arnolfini’s wealth.

Arnolfini portrait “details”

If we stop a moment looking at the window we can see, well barely, another little detail: a tree of cherries. That means it was a warm season, but the protagonists are wearing heavy winter cloths and Arnolfini also a huge funny hat that for sure is not the best choice for a sunny Spring day… One reason more to think that something important is going on.

And if you think that the lady is pregnant and they had to tell their parents, the answer is no. She is not pregnant: the dress was just fashionable like that. What is weird is why wearing winter clothes when it’s not the right season and leave hints in the fruit… But that gives the opportunity to admire van Eyck skills: look at the little cuts on the green robe, the crispness of the lace she wears around her head and the fur. He did an awesome job in every detail. Even on the little dog.

Another weird thing is how they look or, I should say, they don’t look at each other: even if he is holding her hand. He is not looking at the viewer either, so what’s going on there?

The misterious mirror

As I anticipated before, probably something important since, going back to the mirror, we can see that they are not alone. In the mirror are visible 2 male figures in front of them. They are just standing, but it’s clear that the two protagonists wanted to look perfect for that occasion.
van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait - mirror detail
van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait - mirror detail
To reinforce that, van Eyck left his signature on the wall above the mirror that says “Johannes van Eyck fuit hic”, translated: “Johannes van Eyck was here”. Like he was a witness of that event.
van Eyck - Arnolfini Portrait - signature detail


What was it exactly? We still don’t know. What’s for sure is the great abilities of van Eyck who mastered the use of the oil technique applying several layers of thin translucent glazes to create a painting with an intensity of both tone and color. The glowing colors also help to highlight the realism and that’s why it’s seems so difficult to stop looking at this work of art.

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