Arts feature

How Jan van Eyck revolutionised painting

Jan van Eyck changed the art of picture-making more fundamentally than anyone who has ever lived, says Martin Gayford

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

We know tantalisingly little about Jan van Eyck, but one thing is sure. He once spent a week in Falmouth. In 1428 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, sent a formal delegation of nobles and courtiers to negotiate his marriage with Isabella, daughter of the King of Portugal. One of these was Van Eyck.

The official party set off from the port of Sluis in Flanders on 19 October, and arrived the next day in Sandwich, where they then spent a fortnight waiting for two Venetian ships to get there from London. Once embarked, they were driven by gales to take refuge in ports on the English coast, including Falmouth.

In the surviving account of the trip, Van Eyck (d.1441) is described as ‘an exquisite master of the art of painting’. There is an enormous amount we do not know about him — including when he was born — but one thing is clear: he was an artist of stupendous accomplishments. That is why the exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, which opened last week in Ghent, is a remarkable event. He changed the art of picture-making as fundamentally as anyone who ever lived.

Almost single-handedly — or that’s how it seems in retrospect, given the scanty evidence that survives — he brought about a transformation in the depiction of the world. Van Eyck introduced a level of verisimilitude that is still stunning nearly six centuries later — and utterly transcends anything that passed for naturalism in earlier painting.

Consider the oranges that rest on the windowsill in the National Gallery’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. They are not just coloured circles. They are represented with tender but extraordinary accuracy. It’s hard to resist using the word ‘photographic’.

The title of the exhibition, ‘an optical revolution’, is spot-on. Much of Van Eyck’s ‘realism’ rests on the depiction of the way light falls — the reflections on polished metal were a speciality, for example, and Van Eyck grasped exactly how they differed from those in a convex mirror such as the one in the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’.

Those oranges are just one item from an almost infinite list of things seen by Van Eyck with amazing acuity, and often — as far as we know — recorded for the very first time: the flight of swallows, dozens of different plants, clouds, the textures of fur, flesh, wood, stone and ceramics, the exact pattern of body hair, follicle by follicle, on Adam’s naked body, the precise hue and shape of a wart on a clergyman’s cheek, and so on. But how did he make this leap from the art that came just before him? That is a mystery which has not been solved.

One of the essays in the exhibition catalogue suggests that he studied medieval treatises, in Latin, on the science of optics. That doesn’t sound like the way an artist would think or learn. Better, to my mind, is the proposal by another scholar that he must have done an immense number of detailed studies from life. That must be true. I also think of David Hockney’s comparison of his studio on Gouden-Handstraat in Bruges with a Hollywood set: that is, full of props and costumes. There is no other way to attain such results except close study from life.

Very few of his own words survive, but those that do, make that point. In the upper centre of the ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, in beautiful, flowing script, he inscribed the words, ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic’ — ‘Jan van Eyck was here’. On a portrait drawing, usually identified as Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, he added terse notes to himself on the subtly shifting colours he could see in the middle-aged clergyman’s skin: ‘Between the eyes sanguineous, close to the hair palish, the wart purplish…’ you can almost hear him muttering to himself.

This exhibition has to be in Ghent because that is where Van Eyck’s largest and most elaborate work is to be found: a complicated arrangement of folding wooden panels known as the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’. This was made for the church of St Bavo, finished in 1432, and perhaps — according to an endlessly discussed inscription — begun by his elder brother, Hubert. It has long been prized and praised as one of the fundamental masterpieces of European art. In 1520 Albrecht Dürer paid a visit, and judged it ‘a most precious painting, full of thought’.

It has not, however, stayed put in the place for which Van Eyck painted it (taking careful account of the angle of light from the chapel windows). Its movements over the century are an index of the power struggles of history. In 1794, after a French invasion, the central panels moved to Paris, where they were eventually displayed in the Musée Napoléon. These were returned to Ghent after the Battle of Waterloo, but in the meantime most of the panels from the wings had gone to Berlin where they were considered a monument of German art (Flanders being counted as essentially Germanic).

These went back to Ghent after the first world war, as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles (after which one was stolen, never to reappear). During the second world war the whole altarpiece was removed by the Nazis and stored — along with sundry masterpieces by Michelangelo and Vermeer — in the salt mines of Altaussee. Its intended destination was the Führermuseum planned for Hitler’s home town of Linz.

Afterwards it was once more returned to St Bavo and restored. Now the altarpiece has been cleaned yet again, revealing that the eyes of the mystic lamb of God are surprisingly human-looking, and also that the whole work, despite its numerous adventures, is in surprisingly good condition. Indeed, so are almost all the surviving pictures by Van Eyck, which provides one more bit of information: his painting technique — unlike, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s — was remarkably sound.

Apart from what can be deduced from the pictures, only odd scraps of information survive about Van Eyck — mostly relating to the terms and conditions of his employment by the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. In 1434, the Duke increased his annual payment by a factor of more than seven. When the accounts department at Lille dragged its feet about this, the painter apparently threatened to resign. There is a stiff letter from Philip explaining that it would be ‘greatly to his displeasure’ if Van Eyck left, because ‘we would not find his like more to our taste, one so excellent in his art and science’. So he was valued, and knew his value.

That voyage to Portugal provides a clue to the unique services he could provide. The reason why Van Eyck was on that galley, kicking his heels at Falmouth — or perhaps closely observing the local scene — was that he was to make a portrait of the Duke’s prospective bride ‘to paint my lady the Infanta Isabella from life’. No one else in 15th-century Europe, and few ever anywhere, could have created such a trustworthy picture of this young woman. Philip was prepared to risk his married life on it.


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Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, until 30 April.

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