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Jan van Eyck’s Influence: How He Pioneered Oil Painting and Changed Art History

May 1, 2020 10:42am

A recent Jan van Eyck survey
A recent Jan van Eyck survey in Belgium drew large crowds until it was unexpectedly closed early. STEPHANIE LECOCQ/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

The influence of Northern Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck has been so outsized, it is almost impossible to discuss oil painting without considering his impact. “Talking about Van Eyck is talking about the most powerful painter in the western hemisphere,” the painter Luc Tuymans once told Even magazine. “It is not Leonardo da Vinci. It is nobody else but van Eyck.”

Such a pronouncement may seem strange. The 15th-century painter died in 1441, likely in his early 50s, and he left behind just over 20 known oil paintings. Despite being well-respected in his day, a lot is still unknown about van Eyck—even the exact year of his birth remains a mystery. But his art continues to intrigue today—as evidenced by the fact that a humanoid lamb featured in his famed Ghent Altarpiece became an unexpected viral sensation earlier this year. (Hélène Dubois, a conservator who worked on the altarpiece’s $2.4 million restoration, led by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and funded by the Getty Foundation, claimed that the tweets mocking the lamb were “stupid,” but acknowledged the shock of seeing the “masterpiece” anew.)

Belgium, the modern state that includes van Eyck’s native County of Loon (in what is now Belgium), is currently undergoing what it has termed the Year of Van Eyck to toast the newly restored altarpiece. But the celebration was cut short, after the largest van Eyck show ever mounted—a blockbuster assembling more than half of van Eyck’s oil paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent—closed more than a month early because of the coronavirus pandemic. (This week, it was revealed that the exhibition would never reopen.) With the year of van Eyck continuing on in other forms, below is a guide to five of his most famous works by the artist, who is considered to be one of the first important oil painters.

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Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432. UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

Technically, van Eyck’s finest work was a collaborative production—scholars agree that Hubert, Jan’s older brother, conceived and started the Ghent Altarpiece, though it is unclear which van Eyck worked on which elements of the piece. But the mysteries have not ended there, as historians have spent centuries mulling over the work’s dense iconography. (Laypeople, too, have recently spent time musing over the work’s Lamb of God, which, after the restoration, looks shockingly human.)

Historians have spent the most time praising van Eyck’s style, which, like other Northern Renaissance artists, was more interested in the piling on of details, rendering fabric, furs, and surfaces in stunning detail and less about creating a naturalistic illusion of reality, like their Italian contemporaries who studied anatomy and biology to depict their subjects with more scientific accuracy. Van Eyck’s “observation of nature is even more patient, his knowledge of details even more exact” than the artists who came before him, art historian E. H. Gombrich once wrote. Such a tendency is abundantly evident in the Ghent Altarpiece, which weighs more than a ton and is 14.5 feet tall. And van Eyck’s reliance on oil paint—a then-new medium that allowed for artists to return repeatedly to an area of a canvas because it takes so long to dry—enabled him to render Adam and Eve in such realistic detail that the figures, depicted almost at life size, really do appear to occupy three-dimensional space.

The Ghent Altarpiece’s history is almost as interesting as the work itself, however. In 1566, years after countless artists, including Albrecht Dürer, began making the trek to the see the work, Protestants stormed St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, where the altarpiece is currently held, and tried to burn it. (They were unsuccessful in doing so.) And, during World War II, the altarpiece was pilfered by the Nazis. The Monuments Men, a group that helped retrieve stolen artworks, assisted in the return of the piece to the cathedral once the war ended, but the damage had been done—one panel from it has never been recovered.

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Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433. EILEEN TWEEDY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433

Could the mysterious male subject in this painting be van Eyck himself? Historians are still unsure. One clue comes in the man’s headwear—a piece of garb that was fashionable in 15th-century Burgundy known as a chaperon—which may have been tied up to avoid getting it dirty. Some scholars point to this as proof that it’s van Eyck at work, as he would have arranged the chaperon that way to keep it away from his paints. Regardless of who the subject is, the painting, which is owned by the National Gallery in London, captures the man’s psychology—and his physiognomy—in unusual detail. A close look at the canvas reveals that this man’s face is flecked with stubble; his chin even has some grey dots on it, hinting at the subject’s age. Toward the top, van Eyck has inscribed the phrase “Als Ich Can,” or “as I can,” which was likely meant as a mark of humbleness.

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Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434. EILEEN TWEEDY/SHUTTERSTOCK

The Arnolfini Wedding (1434)

Van Eyck’s career has been pervaded by various myths, among them the longstanding one that he invented oil paint. One that has circulated widely is the untrue suggestion that the woman in this painting from 1434 is pregnant because of the way she is holding her dress. In fact, viewers of the day would have been keyed in to the fact that the excessive amount of fabric she dons, rendered in painstaking naturalistic detail by van Eyck, would have signified her wealth.

The woman has been identified as Giovanna Cenami, who is here shown getting married to Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant who was likely passing through Bruges on business. At the work’s center is a convex mirror; look closely, and an image of van Eyck painting the canvas becomes visible. (These elements, of a mirror and the artist appearing in the work, would later serve as inspiration to Diego Velázquez in his 1656 painting Las Meninas.) Above it is van Eyck’s signature, which art historian Erwin Panofsky cited as evidence that the image was meant as a marriage contract, in keeping with Catholic customs about bearing witness to wedding ceremonies. The work is now in the collection of the National Gallery in London.

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Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, 1434/36. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Annunciation (1434/36)

Van Eyck’s artistry is often most evident in the methods by which he reworked Christian iconography, invoking biblical texts while also alluding to recent art history. In this scene depicting the annunciation, which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., van Eyck utilizes the vertical format to offer an image depicting a moment of transition. As the Angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will conceive Jesus Christ, van Eyck enacts a complex formal game in which old becomes new—not only on a metaphorical level, but also on a stylistic one. The church’s architecture moves from the Romanesque style to the Gothic style, with rounded windows of the clerestory giving way to pointed arches. The panel—which was likely part of an altarpiece—also pays homage to contemporaneous reenactments of biblical events that were important components of religious services.

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Jan van Eyck, The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, ca. 1440–41. METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment (ca. 1440–41)

It was long thought that these two panels, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, were meant as a diptych, but research has revealed that they once took a slightly different form, either as parts of triptych or as tabernacle doors. Whatever their original purpose was, the two panels evidence van Eyck’s masterly ability to paint details. At just under two feet tall, these panels are filled with an array of minute figures, some of whom are shown plunging into the depths of hell in the right half. (When the Met showcased recent studies devoted to the work in a show several years ago, a magnifying glass was supplied to allow viewers to admire them.) And there is still much left to consider about the works: some mysteries about these paintings—their landscapes, for example, may have been inspired by van Eyck’s travels as a diplomat and a spy, though it is unclear to what extent—remain unsolved.

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