Beyond Gobbledigook

Jan van Eyck. The betrothal of the Arnolfini, 1434. Oil on wood, 81.8 x 59.7 cm, 32 1/4 x 23 1/2 in; National Gallery, London.

Posted in Oil on wood by Jessica on February 24, 2009

Jan van Eyck. The betrothal of the Arnolfini, 1434. Oil on wood, 81.8 x 59.7 cm, 32 1/4 x 23 1/2 in; National Gallery, London.

When I had first learned about Jan van Eyck, I wasn’t very impressed–I didn’t like the way he drew people’s eyes. The people always just looked very stern. I dismissed his work entirely and didn’t even consider him an influential painter, despite my professor and my readings saying so. But after learning more about his work, I came to greatly appreciate the fine details he puts into his paintings.

Jan van Eyck, in fact, is the inventor of oil-painting. Before, painters used egg-whites mixed with pigments, but this was extremely viscous and it dried quickly, not allowing for much freedom. With oil-painting, the painter is allowed to choose how much oil goes in. And most importantly, it gives the painter much more time and gives the paint a sort of “gleam” or “glaze,” as a transparent layer of oil can be placed on top a matted paint of say, red. It is that invention that allowed van Eyck to add such detail to all his paintings.

This painting, The betrothal of the Arnolfini, is perhaps his most famous. It depicts the betrothal of an Italian merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini, and Jeanne de Chenany. The painting seems fairly “standard,” but if one looks at it more closely, it tells so much more.

Instead of simply signing it with his name, Jan van Eyck signs it very obviously, in the middle, on top of the mirror.

He writes “Johannes de eyck fuit hic” (Jan van Eyck was here), as though a witness to the sacred event. He put himself in the painting.

My favorite part of the painting is the mirror.

Looking closely, van Eyck painted a reflection of the entire scene in a “fish-eye” sense, to once again, include himself in the painting as a witness. The detail is never-ending–the back of Jeanne’s dress, the chandelier, and the curve of the window.

What I like so much about this painting is that it is more than a painting, especially with so much of van Eyck’s inclusion of himself in the painting. What I also learned from my professor is that there are theories that the painting is not just a depiction of a betrothal, but hidden meanings. The sandals, the one candle on the chandelier, and the dog. Arguments have been made that the sandals mirror the scene in which God tells moses to “take his shoes off,” and Arnolfini’s doing so shows his reverence towards the betrothal. The dog is a faithful dog, a faithful companion, as do two people need to be faithful to one another when marrying. And the candle is the presence of God through light. Of course, it is all speculative and opponents have said that the dog is just “hanging around,” but really? Would van Eyck just put a dog in that was hanging around?

My professor said that he has not decided whether or not he believes the theories and I don’t think I have either. For now, I will just appreciate the painting and the mystery behind it.


5 Responses

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  1. johan baptiste said, on July 11, 2009 at 4:15 PM

    Well, Robert Campin used oil before Van Eyck

  2. False Nails said, on December 2, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    the good thing about oil paintings is that they last very long, they can even last for generations ,’~

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