Jan van Eyck

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Sep 19, 2023

Table of Content


Jan van Eyck (or Johannes de Eyck, Maaseik, c.1390-Brujas, July 9, 1441) was a Flemish painter who worked in Bruges. He is considered one of the finest northern European painters of the 15th century and the most celebrated of the Flemish Primitives. Robert Campin, who worked in Tournai, and the Van Eyck brothers in Flanders, were the transitional figures from the International Gothic to the so-called Flemish school. The Flemish style that occurred in the Netherlands in the 15th century has traditionally been considered the last phase of Gothic painting. Another current frames it in what has been called pre-renaissance. This late Gothic style of painting in the 15th century, which heralded the Nordic Renaissance in Europe, is also called Ars nova.


Jan van Eyck belonged to a family of painters. He has often been related to the painter Hubert van Eyck, who is considered his brother, because it is believed that both came from the same town, Maaseik. Another brother, Lambert van Eyck, is mentioned in Burgundian court documents and it is theorized that he may have been a painter and also that he oversaw the closing of Jan van Eyck's workshop in Bruges. Another significant, and rather younger, painter who worked in the south of France, Barthélemy van Eyck, is believed to have been a relative.

The date of Van Eyck's birth is unknown. A tradition dating back to Lucas de Heere (1559) and Marcus Van Vaernewijck (1568) fixes Jan van Eyck's birthplace at Maaseik, near Maastricht, in the province of Limburg, on the banks of the river Meuse and belonging to the diocese of Liège. Nothing is known about his training as an artist, not even if it was in France or in his homeland. Probably his training was in the field of miniature, from which he learned a love for minute details and refined technique, which is reflected even in pictorial works. It has been suggested that he may have been trained in Paris, but there is no evidence to support this.

The earliest extant document of him is from the court of John III of Bavaria, Prince-Bishop of Liège, Count of Holland and Zeeland, in The Hague, where payments were made to Jan van Eyck between October 1422 and September 1424 as court painter, with the court rank of valet, and first one and then two assistants. This suggests a date of birth in the year 1395, at the latest, and indeed possibly earlier. The apparent age of his possible self-portrait suggests to most scholars a date earlier than 1395.

His first artistic steps were taken in the world of miniatures, at a time dominated by the French late Gothic tradition. From this early period only the miniatures of the Turin Book of Hours remain. Their dating and commissioner are not clear. It has been suggested that it was commissioned by Duke William IV of Bavaria before 1417. However, it is generally understood that they were executed in The Hague for the Count of Holland, John of Bavaria between 1422 and 1424. Most of the miniatures it contained were destroyed by fire in 1904, although photographs exist, but another part of the manuscript is preserved in the Museo civico d'arte antica in Turin. In the best folios of the miniature book, attributed by Hulin de Loo to "master G" (possibly Jan van Eyck), the figures are already fully integrated in a realistic space, with a light that unifies the representation and delineates with great precision and minute details the room and the occupations of the characters. It is clear that Van Eyck, like Masaccio, posed himself the problem of reality: but while the Italian made a synthesis that embraced the essence of things alone, taking care to place it in a space with a unitary and rational perspective, the Flemish proceeded instead by analyzing with lucidity and attention the singular objects as they appear before our senses.

It is not known exactly if these miniatures were made by Jan or his brother Hubert, as is the case with other works of this period. The authorship of Van Eyck's works before 1426, when his brother Hubert died, is disputed and the attribution to Hubert or Jan is delicate. This is the case with the Three Marys before the Tomb in the Boymans van Beuningen Museum, which is usually attributed to Hubert because of the archaic nature of the composition. A Crucifixion in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin seems to be the work of Hubert van Eyck, and it has even been doubted whether the Dresden Triptych is the work of Jan or Hubert. The central panel of this triptych represents the Virgin enthroned with the Child and in the side panels are St. Michael with the donor on the left and St. Catherine on the right; the frame is still the original and on the outer face of the portholes can be seen an Annunciation painted with grisaille.

Hubert died on September 18, 1426, and Jan continued with the great work of Flemish painting of the early 15th century, the Ghent Polyptych, which he finished in 1432. It was commissioned by Jodocus Vijdts and his wife Isabella Borluut. It is made up of numerous panels. When it is closed it presents the Annunciation. When it is open it shows, in the upper part, what is called the Déesis, that is, Jesus Christ in the center as Pantocrator and on the sides the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, while on the left are the singing Angels and Adam and on the right the musical Angels and Eve. Below is a large panel with the theme of the Mystic Lamb in green meadows, and various social groups approached to worship it. On the sides are the Knights of Christ and Judges in integrity (on the left) and the Eremites and pilgrims (on the right). Also included are allegories of virtues, Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance. In this work we can appreciate some of the typical characteristics of Van Eyck's painting: analytical naturalism, use of luminous colors, care for the representation of the landscape and great lyricism, all elements that are represented even in the paintings executed a few years away from the Ghent Polyptych.

Begun sometime before 1426 and completed, at least in part, by 1432, this polyptych is considered 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 desire to deprive itself of classical idealization in favor of a faithful observation of nature. It stands in its original location, the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. It has had a turbulent history, surviving the iconoclastic uprisings of the 16th century, the French Revolution, changing tastes that led to its dissemination, and more recently Nazi looting. When World War II ended it was recovered in a salt mine. No less turbulent was the history of the interpretation of this work. A quatrain of alexandrine Latin verses, a copy of the original that appeared on this altarpiece, hidden beneath the painting and discovered by X-ray, states that Hubert began the work and Jan completed it: Hubert van Eyck maior quo nemo repertus (greater than any other) began the altarpiece, but Jan van Eyck - calling himself arte secundus (second best in art) - finished it. According to this inscription, the Ghent Polyptych is the result of the collaborative effort of Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert. The traditional interpretation is that Jan gathered the panels that Hubert had begun before his death in 1426, and added new ones of his own creation, assembling them all together. The question of who painted what, "Jan or Hubert?" has become a mythical question among art historians. Critics today seem inclined to attribute to Hubert the conception and partly the execution of the panel with the Adoration and the three upper panels, while all the rest would be executed by Jan who worked on it alternately, hence the lack of homogeneity between various compartments, which to be fully appreciated must be analyzed singularly. But there are some who even question the validity of the inscription, hence the involvement of Hubert van Eyck in the work. Around 1930, Emil Renders even argued that "Hubert van Eyck" was a total fiction invented by the Ghent humanists in the 16th century. More recently, Lotte Brand Philip (1971) has proposed that the inscription on the Ghent Polyptych has been misinterpreted, and that Hubert was (in Latin) the "fictor," not the "pictor," of the work. She interprets this to mean that Jan van Eyck painted the entire altarpiece, while his brother Hubert created the sculptural frame.

Worldly success

After the death of John III of Bavaria, in January 1425 he was reunited in Flanders with his brother, Hubert van Eyck, also a painter. He then entered the service of the powerful and influential Prince Valois, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy on May 19, 1425, as painter and valet de chambre, that is, valet, with a fixed annual salary that was initially 100 pounds. He was his official painter until his death. The artistic center of the Dukes of Burgundy, which had been Paris and Dijon, passed with Philip the Good to Flanders and Brabant. Philip did not have a fixed capital and moved the court between different palaces, mainly in the cities of Brussels, Bruges or Lille. Van Eyck apparently lived in Lille between 1426 and 1429.

A series of documents record his activities in the service of Philip. It is evident that he enjoyed great prestige and very good relations with the duke, and for this reason he would have been commissioned for secret trips of a diplomatic nature. On August 26, 1426, the painter was paid to undertake, on behalf of the duke, a pilgrimage and a distant secret journey, and again on October 27 of the same year for "certain distant secret journeys". Again in July and August 1427 he receives remuneration, it seems, for a diplomatic mission abroad. This testifies that during the years 1426 and 1427, Van Eyck would have made at least two distant journeys. The destination of these trips is still unknown today. It has been speculated that some of these payments refer to his possible participation in an embassy to Valencia in 1426, although there is no certainty. The idea was to ask Alfonso V of Aragon for the hand of his niece Isabella of Urgel for Philip the Good. The presence of Van Eyck seems plausible if one considers the interest that his work aroused in Alfonso V, who owned three paintings by Van Eyck, including a St. George and the dragon acquired in Bruges, and the fact that, between 1431 and 1436, the king sent Lluís Dalmau, his chamber painter, to perfect his knowledge of oil painting in Flanders. The Virgin of the Councilors by Lluís Dalmau (ca. 1445, Barcelona, MNAC) undoubtedly evokes the Ghent Polyptych.

On October 18, 1427, Van Eyck, back in the Netherlands, was invited to a wine of honor by the magistrate of Tournai. He was still in Tournai on March 23, 1428. The negotiations in Valencia failed and Philip the Good sent an embassy to Lisbon (Portugal) to ask in marriage the Infanta Isabella, the daughter of John I. A document of the time confirms that Van Eyck was part of the embassy. Of the supposed trips of Van Eyck, this is the only one of which we have detailed information, as much of the reason as of the destiny thanks to the account that the king of arms of Flanders made of it on his return, conserved in a document titled Copie du verbal du voyage de Portugal qui se feist de par feu monseignueur le bon duc Phelippe de Bourgoingue, of which a second copy exists in Castilian with Lusitanianisms. The embassy left Sluys on October 19, 1428 and did not return until December 25 of the following year. In Portugal the ambassadors were received by John I in Avis on January 13, 1429. The presence in the embassy of Van Eyck and the reason for it is attested in the aforementioned document:

In January 1429, in the castle of Avis, he executed two portraits of the princess, now lost. They were finished on February 11 when four couriers left for Flanders, two by sea and two by land, with information about the marriage agreement and "the figure of the said lady made in painting". While waiting for a reply, three of the ambassadors and their entourages with other relatives and gentlemen, among whom Van Eyck may have been, visited Santiago de Compostela, and from there they went to meet the Duke of Arjona, the King of Castile, John II, with whom they would probably meet in Avila or Madrid, and the King of Granada, Muhammed VIII. The presence of the painter in the Iberian Peninsula could have contributed to awaken her interest in Flemish art, but it would also help to explain the presence in Van Eyck's work of decorative elements in tiles and carpets of orientalist, Nasrid or Valencian inspiration.

These trips allowed him to recognize new luminosities, skies and diaphanous atmospheres and even to notice new vegetation. In the Ghent Polyptych, Mediterranean species are depicted with almost naturalistic precision as part of the landscape of the paradisiacal New Jerusalem.

There are no remaining works commissioned by the Count of Holland and the Duke of Burgundy. In fact, the works by Van Eyck that are undoubtedly attributed to him, duly signed and dated, all belong to the last decade of his life and, moreover, are not commissioned by those nobles but by merchants, high officials and clergymen in a private capacity. It seems that after 1429 he settled in Bruges, where he acquired a house in 1431; around the same time, he married a certain Marguerite, whose origin is unknown. They had a son in 1434 and then another perhaps in 1435. The duke gratified them with a gift and was the godfather of one of the sons. He seems to have worked in 1433 in the palace of Coudenberg in Brussels. As painter and valet to the duke, Jan van Eyck was exceptionally well paid. His annual salary was quite high when he was first hired, but it was doubled twice in the early years and he often received supplements for special commissions. His salary alone makes Jan van Eyck an exceptional figure among the Flemish Primitives, since most of them depended on commissions to earn their livelihood. In 1434-1435, the magistrate of the city of Bruges paid Van Eyck for the polychromy of six statues and his baldachin on the façade of the Town Hall. The visit that the magistrate had made on July 17, 1432 to his workshop perhaps referred to this commission. An indication that Van Eyck's art and person were extraordinarily highly regarded is an administrative incident in September 1434: the chamber of accounts in Lille refused to pay Van Eyck; on March 13, 1435, the duke personally intervened on behalf of his painter, reprimanding his treasurers for not paying him his salary, arguing that Van Eyck would abandon them and that he would not be able to find anyone to match his "art and science." At this time he continued to make trips on behalf of the duke, being in Hesdin in 1431-1432 and in Lille in the year 1432.

On August 20, 1436, he was paid for "certain distant journeys in foreign lands". This is probably a mission in non-Christian lands, related to the crusade projects of Philip the Good, perhaps a trip through Byzantium or Jerusalem. It cannot be excluded that Van Eyck had to survey roads and territories and reflect them on a map.

To the period 1432-1439, already living in Bruges, belong the dated paintings that are undoubtedly considered to be by Jan van Eyck. There are some works of uncertain attribution that are more attributed to his workshop, as is the case with a St. Jerome in his studio that is believed to have been made in whole or in part by the workshop. Also attributed to this workshop is The Fountain of Grace and Triumph of the Church over the Synagogue in the Prado Museum, from the Monastery of El Parral, whose date of execution is debated, ranging between 1430 and 1455. A second work by Van Eyck and the workshop is directly related to Spain and testifies to the early appreciation that his painting reached in the peninsula: the Diptych of the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment, bought from a convent near Madrid (or Burgos) in the mid-nineteenth century by Prince D. P. Tatistcheff when he was in the mid-19th century. At his death, Jan Van Eyck left unfinished the Virgin of Nicolas Van Maelbecke (private collection, Great Britain), which was destined for the church of St. Martin in Ypres.

According to an account for the funeral in the church of St. Donacien in Bruges, an account closed on June 23, 1441, he died shortly before that date. As a member of the ducal "family", he was buried in the cloister attached to this church; in 1442, through the intervention of his brother Lambert, his tomb was transferred to the interior of the church. The tombstone in the center of which the arms of the painters' guild were engraved disappeared in 1800 with the destruction of the church (cf. P. De Molo's drawing around 1785). A copper epitaph from the beginning of the 16th century disappeared during the religious wars. A new epitaph, in painted wood, was put up in 1768; it disappeared since 1782. Lucas de Heere and Marcus Van Vaernewijck state that Van Eyck died young.

On July 22, 1441, therefore after his death, the duke still paid the widow a part of his annual income and, when his daughter Lievine entered the convent of St. Agnes in Maaseik in 1449-1450, he assigned her a gratuity. Virtually nothing has survived of the commissions Van Eyck executed for Philip the Good. He worked on the decoration of the residences of Hesdin (1431 or 1432), Brussels (1433), and Lille (1434). Generally, a painting of a hunting party at the court of Philip the Good, a copy of the second quarter of the sixteenth century of a lost work of obvious Eyckian character, is related to these works. Around 1460, when, in his Treatise on architecture, Filarete dealt with the ornamentation of palaces, he mentions the name of Jan van Eyck. He had undoubtedly painted portraits of the duke and his family. Many 17th century engraved portraits mention Van Eyck as Inventor, which may be a clue. An 18th century drawing in a private German collection bears an inscription stating that it is a portrait of the Infanta Isabella painted in Portugal. In 1456, Bartolomeo Facio describes a "mappa mundi" made by Jan van Eyck for Philip the Good. It was very meticulous and allowed to measure distances. It is possible that he failed to identify a map of the world signed at the Prinsenhof in Ghent. It is not excluded that the duke commissioned decorative works of heraldic character from Jan van Eyck.

Apart from his best known work, the Ghent Polyptych, Jan van Eyck's oeuvre consists mainly of depictions of the Virgin Mary and portraits.

One of Van Eyck's main panels is his Virgin in a Church (ca. 1438), preserved in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, which evokes an interior illuminated with a precious and immaterial light that aroused great admiration; there were two copies of this work, which are due to Gossaert and the one known as the Master of 1499.

The Virgin Mary is the subject of two remarkable commemorative panels: the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin in the Louvre in Paris and the Madonna of Canon Van der Paele in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin was executed between 1434 and 1435, and many relate it to the peace of Arras stipulated in 1435. It was commissioned by the chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy and was intended for his chapel in the cathedral of Autun. The scene takes place inside a closed environment but with a wide arcade in the background that creates a complex play of light and shadow. The two main figures, the Virgin and the donor, are perfectly balanced and arranged facing each other; the clothes of the chancellor in adoration are decorated with precious embroidery, while the Child holds in his hand a luminous cross and the Virgin is dressed in a long red robe on which are inscribed in gold letters the steps of the morning office recited during the mass celebrated in front of the chancellor.

The arcades reveal a view of a river city reproduced in all its details: the buildings, the streets and even the tiny inhabitants. This descriptive detail in the composition contributed to its view from the inside and was considered the ideal solution to combine the representation of an interior with the exterior landscape that opens up in the background.

The Virgin of Canon Van der Paele is the largest of Jan van Eyck's panels, after the Ghent Polyptych. Of his other religious paintings, the Annunciation of Washington D. C. stands out. Of the year 1433 is the Virgin and Child, called Ince Hall. The Virgin of the Fountain (signed and dated 1439, kept in the National Museum of Antwerp) and the one known as the Virgin of Lucca belong to the last period of the painter's activity.

In all these works the Virgin is represented in an idealized and poetic way, which contrasts with the realism in the representation of the donors.

Jan van Eyck is considered the founder of Western portraiture. His models are almost always depicted bust-length; the face, seen three-quarters turned to the left, and the eyes are often fixed on the viewer, which was a radical innovation at the time. His masterpiece in this genre, and one of the peaks of Flemish painting, is the Portrait of the Arnolfini couple (1434). It represents the moment of the wedding, in a Flemish interior, of a rich merchant established in Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife. It is one of the most frequently analyzed by art historians. Van Eyck inscribed on the back (pictorial) wall Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434 ("Jan van Eyck was here", 1434), above a circular convex mirror in which are vaguely reflected two characters, perhaps the two witnesses, one of whom would be Van Eyck himself. Although it is not exactly the system of specular play that Velázquez would later use in Las Meninas, there is an interesting precedent in Van Eyck's painting, which is, among other things, a search for the overcoming that the two-dimensionality of the painting imposes on the representation of spaces. One can therefore see in this work a true marriage certificate. Van Eyck reinforces an "integration" of the spectator within the virtual space represented in his work. As in almost all of Van Eyck's works, allegories and symbolism abound in this one. But in recent years several popular ideas have been questioned in this regard. For example, that it was not painted as a marriage certificate, or documentation of an engagement, as originally suggested by Erwin Panofsky. Although the woman appears to be pregnant, the hand gesture of lifting the dress appears in contemporary depictions of virgin saints (including Van Eyck's own Dresden Triptych and a workshop piece, the Frick Collection's Madonna); however, the body type, and the fashion that accentuated that body type, may emphasize the women's reproductive potential. Recently discovered documents indicate that Giovanni Arnolfini's wife died before 1434, along with details in the image, suggest that the woman portrayed had died (perhaps as a result of childbirth) before or during the process of making the painting. The psychological depth achieved in portraying the couple, as well as the detail in the meticulous and careful setting, is noteworthy in this portrait. It is considered one of the first bourgeois portraits, a genre that would have an extraordinary development.

Van Eyck painted a series of exceptionally evocative and haunting portraits. They reclaimed his work as a portrait painter for the accuracy of his portrayal of the models. Among them is that of his wife, Marguerite (Bruges, Groeninge Museum), and what is believed to be his self-portrait, Portrait of a Man, often erroneously titled Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, because what covers his head is a capirón. It has his signature and date of execution (October 21, 1433) and the Flemish motto that has become famous: AIC IXH XAN "Als ich kan", meaning "as I can", which is apparently a modest phrase ("I do what I can"), but in reality may be false modesty ("I do this because I can"). The dark background exalts the face of the man with a huge turban on his head, on which inevitably falls the gaze of the viewer who admires the amazing ability to represent the folds of the cloth through the contrast between light and shadow.

Even with doubts, it seems that a diptych representing the "Crucifixion" and the "Last Judgment", preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which dates it around 1440, is by Jan van Eyck. Perhaps it was part of a larger dismembered polyptych or it is only a diptych. The space of the Crucifixion is organized according to an enhanced point of view that increases the sense of depth; at the foot of the cross a large number of figures are gathered, including soldiers and court dignitaries portrayed with impassive distance, contrasting with the despair of the Virgin kneeling in the foreground and wrapped in a long sky-blue robe that exposes her face. The sense of drama is accentuated by the position of the thief on the right depicted with his body bent over the cross, as in an extreme attempt to free himself from the ropes, while the leaden sky announces the imminent death of Christ; the city seen in the background, with its numerous buildings reminiscent of the Flemish constructions of his time, represents the New Jerusalem.

The panel with the Last Judgment, on the other hand, is built according to a model of medieval derivations, with an arrangement in three planes and with figures of varying grandeur according to their degree of importance; at the top is Christ surrounded by angels carrying the instruments of the Passion, by the Virgin and St. John and below the twelve apostles with saints and blessed at the sides. In the lower part of the painting are the dead that emerge from the earth and the sea in attention of the judgment with the archangel Michael that remains above the skeleton of Death represented with bat wings used to delimit the space of the hells where the damned are thrown to feed terrible monsters that break the bodies into pieces.

The tablet also contains inscriptions intended for the correct interpretation of the images, conferring a scholarly function to the work that was perhaps intended for an educated person, who was therefore able to read it and understand its meaning.

Although the van Eyck brothers really inaugurated the Nordic renaissance, the miniaturists Gebroeders van Limburg, the sculptor Claus Sluter, and, even more directly, the painter Melchior Broederlam, must be taken into account as antecedents that influenced them. Jan van Eyck is as important to painting north of the Alps as Masaccio is to Italian art. There is a common misconception, dating back to the 16th century, the Vite of the Tuscan artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, that Jan van Eyck invented oil painting. However, oil painting as a technique for painting wood carvings and other objects is much earlier, and Theophilus (Roger of Helmarshausen?) gives clear instructions for oil-based painting in his treatise Diversarum Artium schedula sive de diversis artibus (1125). The so-called Strasbourg Manuscript also documents the diffusion of this technique in Flanders since the 14th century. But it is true that the Van Eyck brothers were among the first Flemish painters to use it for very detailed panel paintings. They were the ones who achieved new and outstanding effects through the use of glazes, the technique of painting with thin layers of wet paint over previous completely dry layers, and other techniques. Jan van Eyck increased the proportion of transparent oil in the mixture, which allowed him to superimpose several glazes, so that he achieved greater luminosity and intense colors. The binder used by Van Eyck was based on drying oil and another element that made the binder consistent, which was one of the difficulties encountered by later users of oil painting. He took the technique of oil painting and the realism of details (especially the representation of the materials) to a summit never reached before him, the Flemish technique allowing also the clarity of these. These layers of oil were applied on a support consisting of a wooden board (usually beech) polished and painted white, which achieves a reflection of light with the consequent brightness of the painting and a suggestion of depth. Van Eyck dared with these methods to attempt what would later be called trompe d'œil or trompe l'oeil. Because of Van Eyck's early mastery of the oil technique, he is traditionally known as the "father of oil painting".

This is an artist who was self-consciously aware of his own importance, being one of the first Flemish artists to sign and date his paintings on the frames, then considered an integral part of the work (the two were often painted together).

This skill with oils allowed him to reflect reality in a naturalistic way. In addition, he was meticulous and his works, generally of small size, have an extraordinary detail typical of the miniature world. Immediate antecedents that influence Van Eyck would be the excellent miniaturist Limbourg brothers, as well as the sculptor Claus Sluter: the way of representing the folds of the fabrics that Sluter makes in stone is practically the same way in which van Eyck paints the folds of the fabrics. Also mentioned as a predecessor of the Van Eyck is the little known but valuable painter Melchior Broederlam.

But, although this meticulousness is so reminiscent of enlightenment, there are features that clearly anticipate the Renaissance. This period of Flemish art is characterized by the naturalism of vivid oil colors, the meticulousness of details, the precision of textures and the search for new systems of representation of three-dimensional space (see Perspective). The human figures are framed in a naturalistic space. As far as the search for three-dimensional effects is concerned, Van Eyck does not resort so much to perspective with a vanishing point, but manages to give a certain impression of three-dimensionality through the technique of glazes.

He seeks a 'correct' optical coherence through empiricism that faithfully reflects what the artist sees with his own eyes. Thus, after a "perfect observation" he creates realistic and recognizable interiors, and meticulously composed landscapes and cities, allowing a "kind of osmosis between interior and exterior" that gives depth and realism to the work. Panofsky recognizes this characteristic, along with the exhaustive work of light, the way of delimiting the interior space of the work, and the attention to compositional detail, the "great secret of Eyckian work: the simultaneous understanding and, in a sense, reconciliation of the <two infinities>, the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large."

Landscapes are depicted in detail after having been carefully observed. And it appears in Jan van Eyck, as seen in the Portrait of the Arnolfini couple, a faithful and loyal representation of a bourgeois interior with its everyday objects. He is also very detailed and meticulous when he represents the jewelry and fabrics of his models. He inaugurates the modern portrait that tries to faithfully reflect the model.

Van Eyck's treatment of light, thanks to his mastery of the oil technique, makes the following opinion of the critic Stirling quite correct: "Van Eyck rediscovers the truth interviewed in Hellenistic painting, but then forgotten, according to which shadows are found even in lightness, and light everywhere, even in shadows".

On the other hand, it is interesting to note a constant in Van Eyck's work: in addition to a very studied spatiality, the human figures (or human-looking figures) represented by him have an impassive attitude and tend to monumentality (a slight exception to such impassivity is found in the panel of the "singing angels", or St. George, belonging to the Polyptych of Ghent).

Van Eyck is described as a naturalist painter. Such a statement is quite true, being corroborated in the representation of Adam and Eve, naked, in the upper part of the Ghent Polyptych, portrayed without idealizations and without too much censorship: Van Eyck has painted almost all their hair. It is in this way that he has brought the religious closer to everyday life in a humble majesty and beauty. They are the first nudes in Northern European painting.

In his most substantial early source on him, a 1454 biography by the Genoese humanist Bartolomeo Facio (De viris illustribus), Jan van Eyck was called "the leading painter" of his time. 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 the Flemish painters as he does for the Italians. This text also sheds light on aspects of Jan van Eyck's output that are now lost, citing a bathing scene as well as a map of the world that Van Eyck painted for Philip the Good. Facio also documented Van Eyck as an enlightened man, and one who was versed in the classics, particularly Pliny the Elder's writings on painting. This is supported by the documents of an inscription from Ovid's Art of Loving that was in the original frame, now lost, of the Arnolfini Marriage, and by the many Latin inscriptions on his paintings, using the Roman alphabet, then reserved for educated men; he also writes phrases in other languages, such as Greek or Dutch. Jan van Eyck possibly had some knowledge of Latin due to his many missions abroad on behalf of the duke.

Van Eyck's astonishing technical skill and the accuracy of the carefully reproduced details were greatly admired by his contemporaries. Van Eyck's work has been abundantly copied by painters and illuminators. His compatriots still considered him the king of painters in the 16th century. In this way he exerted enormous influence on Flemish and European art in general. Petrus Cristus is considered to be his main disciple, although it is not known whether or not he was part of his workshop. Among his direct heirs we can mention Gerard David, Hugo van der Goes and Konrad Witz, and even Hans Memling, Martin Schongauer, or (although it is already clearly Renaissance) the Mabuse. Italians such as Antonello da Messina and Colantonio were also influenced by him. Van der Weyden follows his realistic style, although adding a greater dramatism.

His international renown, on the other hand, is attested in the Italian historiography of the 15th century, where we find information about Van Eyck, related, among others, by Ciriaco d'Ancona, Facio, Filarete and Giovanni Santi. He was the only Nordic master of the time whose fame and prestige were maintained in the following centuries, to the point that the myth arose that he had been the creator of oil painting.

A number of drawings preserved in drawing cabinets are also attributed to Jan van Eyck, including:


  1. Jan van Eyck
  2. Jan van Eyck
  3. ^ 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
  4. Laclotte, Michel; Cuzin, Juan-Pierre (1996). Dictionnaire de la peinture (en francés). París: Éditions Larousse. pp. 705-708. ISBN 2037500114.
  5. Châtelet, Albert (1980). Early Dutch Painting, Painting in the Northern Nertherlands in the fifteenth century (en inglés). Lausana: Montreux. pp. 27-28. ISBN 2882600097.
  6. Enciclopedia Católica (en inglés)
  7. Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art, pp. 236-9. Phaidon, 1995.
  8. Voor een diepgaande studie over dit onderwerp zie: Pim Brinkman, Het geheim van Van Eyck. Aantekeningen bij de uitvinding van het olieverven, Zwolle, 1993.
  9. Elisabeth Dhanens, Hubert en Jan van Eyck, Mercatorfonds, Antwerpen, 1980, p. 13.
  10. a b et c Borchert, p. 8
  11. Borchert, p. 10-11
  12. Tout l'œuvre peint, p. 86

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?