Arnolfini Portrait

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Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

While one may initially react to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait with, “What is Vladimir Putin doing in a fifteenth-century painting,” the marvel of this work starts beneath the surface – literally. Through infrared reflectography, art historians revealed the steps of van Eyck’s creative process and found that he changed his original design as he worked in order to create a better balance and to fit his mental image. Van Eyck did not include elements such as the dog and chair in his original sketch. Some items also changed as the painting progressed, such as the length of Arnolfini’s fur robe.

The work offers a view into the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini, a Tuscan merchant. Van Eyck creates a balanced, symmetrical picture using the mirror and chandelier in the middle and a switch from a brown color palette to one full of color. The joining of hands by the two subjects has the same effect as it draws the eye to the painting’s center. This unites the two sides of the work and symbolizes the union of Arnolfini and his bride. According to Michael Baxandall’s analysis of body language in art, the position of Arnolfini’s other hand represents demonstration.

The most striking aspect of Arnolfini Portrait lies in its detail. The robes and headwear worn by Arnolfini and his wife embody van Eyck’s artistic talent, especially through drapery and texture. The female subject has gentleness in her disposition that adds another level of emotion and humanity to the work. An open window brings light and openness into the room to guide them in their marriage.

The most impressive part of the painting, the mirror on the back wall shows the room from a different perspective with new subjects. Seeing that the entire canvas is only 32 inches by 23 inches, the immense detail in this mirror only grows more remarkable.

Jan van Eyck signed many of his works, ordinarily in the form of an inscription on the frame. The content and placement of these were strategically planned to show that each painting held specific meaning to its creator. These signatures depended on the painting and, in addition to being creative, usually provided a date of completion and the subject’s name and age. They allow modern observers to understand the emotion behind each work and put it within the context of art at that time and in that region.

In Arnolfini Portrait, van Eyck obviously meant for his signature to be a focal point, seeing that he placed it in middle of the picture between the two newlyweds. It translates to “Jan van Eyck was here,” which seems comical at first but shows that he put himself and his imagination into this painting – that he created it from nothing and left his presence on the canvas.

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