Thursday, 19 May 2011

Bite 114: Jan van Eyck - The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait), 1434,
oil on oak, 82 x 60 cm, National Gallery, London
Redolent in symbolism, this mysterious painting has been the subject of much conjecture among art historians.

The woman, thought to be Giovanna Cenami, is not believed to be pregnant here, despite appearances. This, along with the dog, fruit and bed, can be seen instead as indicative of fertility, in what many scholars believe to be a marriage or betrothal portrait. Whether this be the case or not, an oath is none-the-less seen to be taking place - Giovanni raising his hand and Giovanna lowering and opening hers. Extravagantly attired in highly expensive winter clothing the couple stands in the front room of their house, on the second story, with cherry blossoms outside suggesting early spring - further adding to the confusion surrounding this Early-Netherlandish work (a very early example of oil on wood instead of tempura).

Thoroughly justifying the extraordinarily fame of this work, however, more even than its remarkable realism and painstaking illusionistic technique, is the convex mirror and inscription in the centre of the painting, on the far wall behind the couple. In the round glass can be seen the backs of the Arnolfinis and a man in front of them holding up his hand, widely accepted to be the artist himself. Above this is transcribed (some even believe legally notorised): "Jan van Eyck has been here." This gesture of authorship attests to the role of the artist as witness, while also being a bold statement on consciousness and the human ego