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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

I first saw this painting during an introductory art appreciation course in college.  My exposure to art had been very limited up to then, but the timing could not have been more perfect.  At the time, I was in the middle of a mental renaissance; I had just finished my military service and landed right in the middle of an intensive liberal arts curriculum that became the center of my life.  The professor was very good and "broke down" the painting progressively, pointing out the obvious and later delving into complex theories of interpretation few of us had thought about until then.  What fascinated me the most about the double portrait was the amount of detail included.  When examined in close detail, the amazing attention to the smallest articles in the room and the characters is simply amazing.  Later, when we realized the portrait measurements were only 2' 8" x 2' the sense of surprise led to that of absolute wonderment.  How can an artist put that much detail into a painting that small?

The composition is simply enough.  A husband and wife standing in a room showing the comforts of home.  The professor explained (based on my notes which I still have and from where I am typing most of this) that the composition was rare in "early" art because of its orthogonal perspective, a technique not usually practiced during van Eyck's time.  Along with this complex composition setting, van Eyck also employed the use of a mirror in the background which leads to a sense of space and depth to the confined portrait.  Two standing figures in a room with angles (orthogonal) that split the image through its center-middle is hardly a difficult one to understand.  The simplicity of this composition allows van Eyck to then incorporate the narrative of the Arnolfini's life with lush material details.  The furniture, the attire and practically every single item inside the painting tells a story of a young married couple embarking on their life together.  Giovanni Arnolfini was a merchant of some distinction at the time, and the exquisite detail of their attire is presented to depict their socio-economic status as much as their other fine possessions.  van Eyck creates luxury in every fold of the fabric, especially that of Mrs Arnolfini.  The pet dog is another sign of affluence, as is reported few people were able to keep such luxuries.  The fine mirror depicts the stations of the cross around the center mirror piece, no doubt a religious obligation from the time.


The story of the marriage in the portrait is a complicated one.  Some experts theorize that the woman in the painting is not Constanza Arnolfini, but a second unidentified one.  Very few details remain from the time, but it is commonly held that the portrait was done a year after Arnolfini's wife, Constanza, had died.  Other theories speculate Constanza Arnolfini being pregnant in the painting, and that the painting was done in honor of her having died during birth giving.  The story is very much unclear, and as such in the art world where stories such as this one lead to interesting (often false) narratives.

The painting resides at The National Gallery in London since 1842.  The rest of the provenance is nearly impossible to trace unless one has access to the records in London.

I consider this painting my introduction to art appreciation.  There are times when I realize how little time I dedicate to this part of my life-long learning, but I do take time to remember the joys that class introduced me to.  For me, it was the beginning of appreciating things more than just looking at them.

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