Jan van Eyck is the most famous member of a family of painters traditionally believed to have originated from the town of Maaseik, in the diocese of Liège. The work of the Van Eycks, epitomized in the Ghent Altarpiece, brought an unprecedented realism to the themes and figures of late medieval art.
Van Eyck pursued a career at two courts, working for John of Bavaria, count of Hainaut-Holland (1422–24), and then securing a prestigious appointment with Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy (1425–41). Employment at court secured him a high social standing unusual for a painter, as well as artistic independence from the painters’ guild of Bruges, where he had settled by 1431. Evidence that the Van Eycks bore a coat-of-arms, and thus belonged to the gentry, and that Jan was literate (as shown by his own handwriting on a drawing), is consistent with the probability that some of his frequent travels for the duke were diplomatic missions. Many aspects of his work were surely intended to promote his personal reputation and abilities, including his practice of signing and dating his pictures (then unusual), and his playful and quasi-erudite use of Greek transliteration in his personal motto Als ich kan (As well as I can).
His artistic prestige rests partly on his unrivaled skill in pictorial illusionism. The landscape of his Crucifixion (33.92ab), with its rocky, cracked earth, fleeting cloud formations, and endless diminution of detail toward the blue horizon, reveals his systematic and discriminating study of the natural world. Van Eyck’s ability to manipulate the properties of the oil medium played a crucial role in the realization of such effects. From the fifteenth century onward, commentators have expressed their awe and astonishment at his ability to mimic reality and, in particular, to re-create the effects of light on different surfaces, from dull reflections on opaque surfaces to luminous, shifting highlights on metal or glass. Such effects abound in the Virgin of Canon van der Paele (1434–36), as shown by the glinting gold thread of the brocaded cope of Saint Donatian, the glow of rounded pearls and dazzle of faceted jewels in the costumes of the holy figures, or the small, distorted reflections of the figures of the Virgin and Child repeated in each curve of the polished helmet of Saint George. The almost clinical detail in the face of the kneeling patron vividly illustrates Van Eyck’s acute objectivity as a portraitist. Through his understanding of the effects of light and rigorous scrutiny of detail, Van Eyck is able to construct a convincingly unified and logical pictorial world, suffusing the absolute stillness of the scene with scintillating energy.
Despite this legendary objectivity, Van Eyck’s paintings are perhaps most remarkable for their pure fictions. He frequently aimed to deceive the eye and amaze the viewer with his sheer artistry: inscriptions in his work simulate carved or applied lettering; grisaille statuettes imitate real sculpture; painted mirrors reflect unseen, imaginary events occurring outside the picture space. In The Arnolfini Portrait, the convex mirror on the rear wall reflects two tiny figures entering the room, one of them probably Van Eyck himself, as suggested by his prominent signature above, which reads “Jan van Eyck has been here. 1434.” By indicating that these figures occupy the viewer’s space, the optical device of the mirror creates an ingenious fiction that implies continuity between the pictorial and the real worlds, involves the viewer directly in the picture’s construction and meaning, and, significantly, places the artist himself in a central, if relatively discrete, role. Another reflected self-portrait, this time in the shield of Saint George in the Virgin of Canon van der Paele, functions as part of Van Eyck’s textural realism but likewise challenges our credulity by reminding us, through this minor intrusion of the artist’s image, that his ostensible realism is an artifice.
Despite his individual fame, Van Eyck’s achievement was not carried out in isolation: as was customary, he employed workshop assistants, who made exact copies, variations and pastiches of his completed paintings. Such works no doubt helped to supply a vigorous demand for his work on the open market, while contributing to the recognition of his name throughout Europe. After Jan’s death in June 1441, his brother Lambert, who was also a painter, helped to settle his estate, and perhaps oversaw the closing of his workshop in Bruges.
Van Eyck’s principal artistic successor in Bruges was Petrus Christus. In his Portrait of a Carthusian of 1446 (49.7.19), Christus not only adopted the Eyckian style, but also the motif of the parapet with illusionistic carving which curtails the portrait at the lower edge: Van Eyck had used this device earlier in his portrait Leal Souvenir (1432).
Department of Art, Caldwell College
February 2, 2016
Maryan Ainsworth, Curator, Department of European Paintings; and Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman, Department of European Paintings
Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca. 1390–1441) and Workshop Assistant. The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, ca. 1440–41. Oil on canvas, transferred from wood; Each 22 1/4 x 7 2/3 in. (56.5 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1933 (33.92ab)
The past as fixed in amber? Nothing more to learn about an artwork? Nonsense! Digging deeper into the history of a work of art depends on the questions one asks and the ways in which scholars use the investigatory tools at their disposal.
On January 25, the Department of European Paintings let everyone in on one of the most fascinating and unexpected reassessments I can think of, relating to one of the Met's most prestigious masterpieces: Jan van Eyck's "diptych" (but was it a diptych?) of the Crucifixion and Last Judgment, which is on view through April 24 in the exhibition A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece.
Conservation Research Scholar Sophie Scully removes gilding added to the artwork's frame in the nineteenth century. Photograph by the author
To think this all began with an examination of the frame. Above, Conservation Research Scholar Sophie Scully works with the aid of a microscope as she removes the modern gilding that, since the nineteenth century, has hidden a fragmentary inscription related to the subjects of the two pictures that was carefully lettered on a red background.
Probing deeper into this painting is a project that involves people from many different disciplines, all working together to achieve a deeper understanding of the origin, initial appearance, and meaning of this amazing work. A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece shows where we are now in the process—for this is a work in progress. Among the recent findings on display in the exhibition is a newly identified drawing from Rotterdam's Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen that relates directly to the Crucifixion painting.
Imagine—this is all taking place at the same time that one of the landmarks of European painting, the Ghent Altarpiece (located in Saint Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent), is being cleaned and examined, and the VERONA Project is investigating all of the Van Eyck paintings held in European collections. We thought the time had come to accompany our exhibition with an event that will enable everyone to find out where we are in our understanding of this extraordinary master: a Sunday at the Met program, Rethinking Jan van Eyck: Discoveries from New Technical Investigations of His Paintings, on April 17. Join us then to learn more!
A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece, on view January 25–April 24, 2016
82nd and Fifth: Noise by Maryan W. Ainsworth
Sunday at the Met
Rethinking Jan van Eyck: Discoveries from New Technical Investigations of His Paintings
April 17, 2016, 3:00–4:30 p.m.
The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
Tags:Jan van Eyck, A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece, Crucifixion, Last Judgment, painting