The Arnolfini portrait

Jan van Eyck • Painting, 1434, 82×60 cm
Digital copy: 2.0 MB
3087 × 4226 px • JPEG
35.3 × 48.2 cm • 222 dpi
52.3 × 71.6 cm • 150 dpi
26.1 × 35.8 cm • 300 dpi
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About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait, Animalism, Interior
Style of art: Renaissance
Technique: Oil
Materials: Wood
Date of creation: 1434
Size: 82×60 cm
Artwork in selections: 112 selections
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Description of the artwork «The Arnolfini portrait»

"Portrait of the Arnolfini Couple" - perhaps the most recognizable work of Jan van Eyck, along with Gents altar. This picture is considered one of the most original and mysterious in Western art, thanks to its beauty, complex iconography, geometric orthogonal perspective and expansion of space with the help of a mirror. Many questions relating to it have not yet received a definite answer and are the subject of many years of disputes between scientists.

First of all, art critics cannot come to a common opinion whether this double portrait is a wedding one. Some experts see it as a unique form of a marriage contract, the conclusion of which was witnessed by the artist himself. However, the National Gallery in London, where the masterpiece is kept, unequivocally states that this is an image of a married couple, but not a marriage. This opinion is considered the most authoritative today.

With a high degree of probability, one can only assert that the painting depicts an Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his spouse, probably in their home in Bruges.

The second sentence in the description of the painting on the website of the National Gallery begins with the words "His wife is not pregnant ...". Indeed, after looking closely, you can see that the illusion of a rounded abdomen is formed by the folds of a heavy dress that the lady has collected and holds under her breasts. In general, the image of pregnant women in the Renaissance was considered inappropriate, and in the third trimester, women were at home demolitions and did not appear in public. The gesture of the heroine of the picture, which is now interpreted as a hint of future motherhood, then was a sign of female modesty - the girls were instructed in public to decently keep their hands on their belts.

Nevertheless, indications of pregnancy or its expectation in the picture are present - starting with ripened fruits on the windowsill and ending with a wooden statuette of Saint Margherita, the patroness of women in labor. She is depicted conquering the dragon heresy on the headboard - next to the head of the woman.

Some scientists, according to a number of signs, suggest that the young lady in the portrait actually passed away a year before writing the picture or while working on it. For example, in the iron chandelier above a man depicts a burning candle, and above the woman - extinguished. The second sign is the scenes of the Passion of Christ, written in tiny (half-nail) medallions in the frame of the mirror behind the heroes' backs. From the side of Arnolfini there are scenes of Jesus in his lifetime, from the side of his wife - scenes after death. However, the version of the posthumous portrait is also questioned.

Art critics do not hope to ever understand exactly what is presented in the picture. There is no doubt that this is not just a double portrait; something important is happening here. The hands of a couple are joined, both took off their shoes (the woman’s legs are hidden by a skirt, but by the sofa in the back of the room are her shoes). All this has a symbolic meaning. The absence of shoes on their feet, for example, may indicate a certain sacred event, and a burning candle in the chandelier may be a symbol of the presence of God.

Raising his hand, the man either makes a certain oath, or simply welcomes visitors, which can be considered in the mirror. It shows that on the threshold of the room (just at the place of the viewer) there are two people - perhaps witnesses of what is happening. It seems that one of them is the painter himself, which is supported by an elegant inscription between the mirror and the chandelier: "Johannes van eyck fuit hic" or "Jan van Eyck was here." This creates a sense of the presence of the artist and his testimony.

Heroes of the picture were very wealthy. In a sense, "Portrait of the Arnolfini couple" can be called a portrait of wealth. At the beginning of the 15th century, Bruges was an economically prosperous city and a major trading center in Northern Europe, and the Arnolfini family was an influential financial dynasty. Many details testify to the prosperity of spouses - from their clothes to the room furnishing. According to one version, a man - in a solemn atmosphere and in the presence of witnesses - transfers to his wife the rights to manage part of their property.

Dog standing between husband and wife, is a symbol of loyalty and loyalty - this animal is often included in the paired portraits of the spouses. Another interesting element is the oranges lying on the windowsill. They may also imply wealth, since these fruits were very expensive in Flanders. There is an assumption that Arnolfini brought them to the country, and this is a reference to the source of his condition. The carpet on the floor of the room also indicates the prosperity and taste of the owners of the house.

It is worth noting another misinterpretation of this picture: many believe that the action takes place in the bedroom. However, in the XV century in the Lowlands, the premises in the houses did not have a clear purpose. Beds could stand anywhere, including in the room where guests were received. The division of the chambers into ceremonial, intended for visitors, and internal occurred much later.

In Arnolfini's Portrait of a Couple, Van Eyck showed himself to be an innovator by using oil paints instead of the more common tempera. Thanks to them, he was able to achieve a radiant effect and a wealth of color that is impossible with tempera. The artist applied one translucent layer of paint on top of the previous one even before it was completely dry, getting fused strokes and softened contours. Transparent to each other, these layers create incredibly deep saturated colors, the illusion of a three-dimensional image and give the surface of the picture an enamel effect.

Contemporary British artist David Hockney, with the support of American optics specialist Charles Falco, hypothesized that the abrupt transition from medieval simplification of images to Renaissance realism is associated with the use of optical instruments, and not with the development of the skill of artists. One of the confirmation of their theory, the authors consider the work of Jan van Eyck, who, in their opinion, wrote the "Portrait of the Arnolfini couple" from the projection obtained with the help of a concave mirror. Hockney points out that chandelier in the picture depicted in the “ideal projection”, which is supposedly impossible to achieve without aids. In addition, under this fragment there is no preliminary drawing.

However, scientist David Stork from Stanford proved that the drawing of the chandelier was made with mistakes and that it can be drawn without special tools. In addition, in order to achieve the desired effect, Van Eyck had to take a sphere with a diameter of about two meters, and in his time these had not yet been produced.

Elongated figures, disproportionate to the surrounding objects, non-compliance with the rules of perspective and lack of interest in human anatomy suggest that this is not a picture of the Italian, but of the Northern Renaissance, which was characterized by accurate texture transfer and painstaking execution of the smallest details.

Author: Vlad Maslov