Jan van Eyck, (born c 1385 – 1390, Maaseik – died 1441, Bruges) was a famous Flemish painter of the early Renaissance, one of its' first representatives in the Netherlands; the unsurpassed portraitist who created more than 100 compositions on religious subjects. The exact date of the his birth is unknown.
Van Eyck's artistic style: formation of the fundamental principles of the Renaissance in the North of Europe. Fighting against the traditions of Medieval art, he preferred direct observation of reality, since he wanted to depict the world objectively. He far from scientific research of the perspective or the structure of the human body; neither did he know the heritage of antiquity: unlike the Italian artists, his style was guided mostly by his experience. He carefully studied the structure of the surrounding world, saw the subtleties of any object and was able to depict landscapes and interiors colourfully and in detail. Of particular importance to him was the image of a person, since he wanted to display accurately the appearance of the characters of his paintings.
In his portraits, the true accurate transmission of the characters' features deferred to the acute disclosure of their personalities. The painter created the first in the history of European art double portrait (the image of the merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife), imbued with intricate symbols, and at the same time – intimate lyrical experiences.
Jan van Eyck was born in the Northern Netherlands in Maaseik. He served his apprenticeship with his older brother Hubert, whom he worked with until 1426. He began his career in The Hague at the court of the Count of Holland. Since 1425, he was the court painter of Duke of Burgundy Philip III, the Good. In 1427–1428, he was part of the Duke's embassy to Spain, and later – to Portugal. In 1427 he visited Tournai. He worked in Lille and Ghent, in 1431 bought a house in Bruges and lived there until his death. Jan van Eyck died in Bruges in July 1441 (date of the funeral – July 9, 1441).
Jan van Eyck is an outstanding Netherlandish painter, one of the founders of Early Northern Reneissanse art.
The term “art nova” (“a new art”), borrowed from the history of music, very accurately determines the Netherlandish art of the first half of the 15th century. It was not the revival of antiquity, as in Italy, but an independent, intuitive and religious-mystical knowledge of the world that formed the basis of a new Northern European culture.
A man is not the peak of creation but only another evidence of the Creator's power. Heaven and earth, plants and animals, people themselves and all created by their hands – everything deserved reverent attention. And it was this feeling of the divine jewel of everyday life, living in Jan van Eyck's works, that largely became the starting point of the development of realism in the history of European painting.
In all likelihood, his date of birth should be considered the first half of the 1390s; while his birthplace is traditionally believed to be the city of Maaseik in the Netherlands province of Limburg. Jan took his first painting lessons (again, presumably) from his older brother Hubert.
By 1422, when his name was first mentioned in the documents, he was already a famous painter, who was in the service of John of Bavaria, the Count of Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut, whose court was located in The Hague.
After the death of John of Bavaria, the master, enjoying great fame, left Holland and settled in Flanders. In the spring of 1425 in Bruges he was employed as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, with "all the honours, privileges, rights, profits, and emoluments". In the same year, the artist moved to Lille.
By the nature of his service, or perhaps, due to the powerful ruler's trust, he was twice sent "on a secret mission". In 1427, he left for Spain and then for Portugal, together with Philip's ambassadors, whose task consisted in negotiations for a marriage between the widow-Duke and Princess Isabella of Portugal.
Fulfilling the mission entrusted to him, the artist painted two portraits of the bride and sent them to his master together with the draft marriage contract. At the beginning of 1430, he made it back to Flanders with a wedding cortege.
Around 1426, Madonna in the Church, one of his early works, was created. Like most of his works, the painting seems to glow from within, giving rise to a feeling of sublime joy.
Such an amazing effect of the internal glow was achieved due to the layer-by-layer application of oil paint on a white gypsum primer, carefully polished and varnished. Here it is necessary to dwell a little on the painter's discovery, which gave the impetus to the rapid spread of oil work technique across Europe. The fact is that for a long time he was considered the inventor of oil paints. This is not quite true.
Vegetable oil paints were already known in the VII century, but still weren't quite popular since they dried long, often faded and cracked. Many artists sought to improve old recipes. Only Jan, somewhere around 1410, found the magic formula that made the paint quick-drying and allowed the painter to apply them in dense or transparent layers, without fear of mixing. Now it could be infinitely varied in colour, achieving unprecedented shades. And most importantly – a thin oil film resembling a lens at the same time reflected and absorbed the incident light, creating the very effect of the inner radiance of the painting.
New possibilities of oil painting helped the Van Eyck brothers create The Ghent Altarpiece – one of the greatest pictural monuments of Europe of the 15th century. Apparently, the work was started around 1422 by Hubert, and after his death in 1426 was continued by his family member, his younger brother.
The history of creation and the fate of The Ghent Altarpiece, like any other masterpiece, is full of mysteries and dramatic events. First of all, the researchers are haunted by the question about the work's authorship. An inscription on the frame, which stated that the artist Hubert van Eyck "maior quo nemo repertus" (greater than anyone) started the altarpiece, and Jan, calling himself "arte secundus" (second best in the art) completed it, appeared only in the XVI century and cannot be trusted.
There is an assumption that the word "artist" should be read as "sculptor" and it refers to the carver who performed the framing, which lead to a bold hypothesis of K. Voll and A. Renders: Did Hubert even exist? Or was it just a legend made up to give the main role in the creation of the altarpiece to the resident of Ghent? However, what about archival evidence of the life and death of Hubert?
Despite the variety of points of view on the role of each of the brothers in the creation of the Ghent Altarpiece, none of them seems sufficiently convincing. In any case, most of the work was done many years after the older brother's death.
The Ghent Altarpiece is unique. It's a large multilevel polyptych, reaching in the central part three and a half meters in height and five meters in width in the open form. Even if Jan van Eyck had never created anything else throughout his biography, he would still go down in history as the author of The Ghent Altarpiece. In 1432 the work was finished, and the folding icon took its' place in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist (now St Bavo's Cathedral).
The period of his highest artistic maturity was on the 1430s. By that time the artist moved from Lille to Bruges, bought a house with a stone facade, and soon married. In 1434, Duke Philip III became the godfather of Jan's first of ten children and, on the occasion of the birth of van Eyck's son, presented him with six silver bowls.
Take a look at Jan's works, filled with living and light. It seems that the precious gems and metals in his paintings are real and glow with inner light. His paint is so transparent that the painting has a unique, almost luminescent shine to it.
He was the first who began to create portraits, pursuing the goal of accurately recreating the individual appearance of the model and analytical study of human nature with its various distinguishing features and properties. The surviving portraits speak for his insight and deep respect for human individuality.
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), considered to be the first double portrait in the history of European art, is another undeniable masterpiece of the artist.
In the artwork The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c. 1436), there’s depicted the chancellor to Philip the Good – Nicolas Rolin, a rich and powerful man who achieved an important position due to his virtues (a rare case in the feudal world).
Nicolas Rolin is kneeling before the Queen of Heaven and taking blessing from the Infant Jesus. Through the loggia a beautiful landscape can be seen – the first panoramic landscape in European art, giving a broad picture of the earth and humanity.
The earthly and divine worlds came together face to face in this work full of deep symbolism.
He painted Mother of God many times.
At the heart of all his there's a drawing, often made from nature. A vivid example of the graphic skill of the artist is Saint Barbara – the subject of long disputes among scientists who didn't come to a common opinion whether it is a completed work or an unfinished underdrawing. The silverpoint drawing is made with a thin brush on a chalk ground, inserted in the author's frame which contains lettering: "Jan van Eyck made me in 1437".
The artist died on July 9, 1441 in Bruges, the city that became his native, and was buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Donatian. Only a year later, his relatives managed to rebury his body, already inside the church, near the font.
Jan van Eyck was one of the greatest geniuses whose work, full of great spiritual power and depth of ideas, became a source for the development of art in the Netherlands and other European countries. In his motto "As I can", there merged humility and dignity inherent in both the artist and all his work.