Arnolfini Portrait

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The Arnolfini Portrait (or The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, or other titles) is a 1434 oil painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. It forms a full-length double portrait, believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, presumably in their residence at the Flemish city of Bruges.

It is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art, because of its beauty, complex iconography, geometric orthogonal perspective, and expansion of the picture space with the use of a mirror. According to Ernst Gombrich "in its own way it was as new and revolutionary as Donatello's or Masaccio's work in Italy. A simple corner of the real world had suddenly been fixed on to a panel as if by magic ... For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term". The portrait has been considered by Erwin Panofsky and some other art historians as a unique form of marriage contract, recorded as a painting. Signed and dated by van Eyck in 1434, it is, with the Ghent Altarpiece by the same artist and his brother Hubert, the oldest very famous panel painting to have been executed in oils rather than in tempera. The painting was bought by the National Gallery in London in 1842.

Van Eyck used the technique of applying several layers of thin translucent glazes to create a painting with an intensity of both tone and colour. The glowing colours also help to highlight the realism, and to show the material wealth and opulence of Arnolfini's world. Van Eyck took advantage of the longer drying time of oil paint, compared to tempera, to blend colours by painting wet-in-wet to achieve subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three-dimensional forms. The medium of oil paint also permitted van Eyck to capture surface appearance and distinguish textures precisely. He also rendered the effects of both direct and diffuse light by showing the light from the window on the left reflected by various surfaces. It has been suggested that he used a magnifying glass in order to paint the minute details such as the individual highlights on each of the amber beads hanging beside the mirror.

The illusionism of the painting was remarkable for its time, in part for the rendering of detail, but particularly for the use of light to evoke space in an interior, for "its utterly convincing depiction of a room, as well of the people who inhabit it". Whatever meaning is given to the scene and its details, and there has been much debate on this, according to Craig Harbison the painting "is the only fifteenth-century Northern panel to survive in which the artist's contemporaries are shown engaged in some sort of action in a contemporary interior. It is indeed tempting to call this the first genre painting – a painting of everyday life – of modern times".

The painting is generally in very good condition, though with small losses of original paint and damages, which have mostly been retouched. Infrared reflectograms of the painting show many small alterations, or pentimenti, in the underdrawing: to both faces, to the mirror, and to other elements. The couple are shown in an upstairs room with a chest and a bed in it during early summer as indicated by the fruit on the cherry tree outside the window. The room probably functioned as a reception room, as it was the fashion in France and Burgundy where beds in reception rooms were used as seating, except, for example, when a mother with a new baby received visitors. The window has six interior wooden shutters, but only the top opening has glass, with clear bulls-eye pieces set in blue, red and green stained glass.

The two figures are very richly dressed; despite the season both their outer garments, his tabard and her dress, are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs may be the especially expensive sable for him and ermine or miniver for her. He wears a hat of plaited straw dyed black, as often worn in the summer at the time. His tabard was more purple than it appears now (as the pigments have faded over time) and may be intended to be silk velvet (another very expensive item). Underneath he wears a doublet of patterned material, probably silk damask. Her dress has elaborate dagging (cloth folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively) on the sleeves, and a long train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with white fur.

Although the woman's plain gold necklace and the rings that both wear are the only jewellery visible, both outfits would have been enormously expensive, and appreciated as such by a contemporary viewer. There may be an element of restraint in their clothes (especially the man) befitting their merchant status – portraits of aristocrats tend to show gold chains and more decorated cloth, although "the restrained colours of the man's clothing correspond to those favoured by Duke Phillip of Burgundy".


The Little Dog

The little dog symbolizes fidelity (fido), loyalty, or can be seen as an emblem of lust, signifying the couple's desire to have a child. Unlike the couple, he looks out to meet the gaze of the viewer. The dog could also be simply a lap dog, a gift from husband to wife. Many wealthy women in the court had lap dogs as companions. So, the dog could reflect the wealth of the couple and their position in courtly life.

The green of the woman's dress symbolizes hope, possibly the hope of becoming a mother. The bright green colour is also indicative of the couple's wealth; dying fabric such a shade was difficult, and therefore expensive. Her white cap could signify purity, but probably signifies her being married. Behind the pair, the curtains of the marriage bed have been opened; the red curtains might allude to the physical act of love between the married couple.

The single candle in the left-front holder of the ornate six-branched chandelier is possibly the candle used in traditional Flemish marriage customs. Lit in full daylight, like the sanctuary lamp in a church, the candle may allude to the presence of the Holy Ghost or the ever-present eye of God. Alternatively, Margaret Koster posits that the painting is a memorial portrait, as the single lit candle on Giovanni's side contrasts with the burnt-out candle whose wax stub can just be seen on his wife's side, evoking a common literary metaphor: he lives on, she is dead.

The cherries present on the tree outside the window may symbolize love. The oranges which lie on the window sill and chest may symbolize the purity and innocence that reigned in the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man. They were uncommon and a sign of wealth in the Netherlands, but in Italy were a symbol of fecundity in marriage. The fruit could more simply be a sign of the couple's wealth since oranges were very expensive imports. It could be a sign of fertility as well.



Detail of the convex mirror
The small medallions set into the frame of the convex mirror at the back of the room show tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ and may represent God's promise of salvation for the figures reflected on the mirror's convex surface. Furthering the Memorial theory, all the scenes on the wife's side are of Christ's death and resurrection. Those on the husband's side concern Christ's life. The mirror itself may represent the eye of God observing the vows of the wedding. A spotless mirror was also an established symbol of Mary, referring to the Holy Virgin's immaculate conception and purity. The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway, one of whom may be the painter himself. In Panofsky's controversial view, the figures are shown to prove that the two witnesses required to make a wedding legal were present, and Van Eyck's signature on the wall acts as some form of actual documentation of an event at which he was himself present.

According to one author "The painting is often referenced for its immaculate depiction of non-Euclidean geometry", referring to the image on the convex mirror. Assuming a spherical mirror, the distortion has been correctly portrayed, except for the leftmost part of the window frame, the near edge of the table and the hem of the dress.


The provenance of the painting begins in 1434 when it was dated by van Eyck and presumably owned by the sitter(s). At some point before 1516 it came into the possession of Don Diego de Guevara (d. Brussels 1520), a Spanish career courtier of the Habsburgs (himself the subject of a fine portrait by Michael Sittow in the National Gallery of Art). He lived most of his life in the Netherlands, and may have known the Arnolfinis in their later years.

By 1516 he had given the portrait to Margaret of Austria, Habsburg Regent of the Netherlands, when it shows up as the first item in an inventory of her paintings, made in her presence at Mechelen. The item says (in French): "a large picture which is called Hernoul le Fin with his wife in a chamber, which was given to Madame by Don Diego, whose arms are on the cover of the said picture; done by the painter Johannes." A note in the margin says "It is necessary to put on a lock to close it: which Madame has ordered to be done." In a 1523–4 Mechelen inventory, a similar description is given, although this time the name of the subject is given as "Arnoult Fin".

In 1530 the painting was inherited by Margaret's niece Mary of Hungary, who in 1556 went to live in Spain. It is clearly described in an inventory taken after her death in 1558, when it was inherited by Philip II of Spain. A painting of two of his young daughters, "Infantas Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela of Spain" (Prado), commissioned by Philip clearly copies the pose of the figures. In 1599 a German visitor saw it in the Alcazar Palace in Madrid. Now it had verses from Ovid painted on the frame: "See that you promise: what harm is there in promises? In promises anyone can be rich." It is very likely that Velázquez knew the painting, which may have influenced his Las Meninas, which shows a room in the same palace. In 1700 the painting appeared in an inventory after the death of Carlos II with shutters and the verses from Ovid.

The Alcazar was rebuilt in the eighteenth century as the Royal Palace of Madrid, but the painting remained in the royal collection, and by 1794 had been moved to the "Palacio Nuevo". In 1816 the painting was in London, in the possession of Colonel James Hay, a Scottish soldier. He claimed that after he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Waterloo the previous year, the painting hung in the room where he convalesced in Brussels. He fell in love with it, and persuaded the owner to sell. More relevant to the real facts is no doubt Hay's presence at the Battle of Vitoria (1813) in Spain, where a large coach loaded by King Joseph Bonaparte with easily portable artworks from the Spanish royal collections was first plundered by British troops, before what was left was recovered by their commanders and returned to the Spanish.

Hay offered the painting to the Prince Regent, later George IV of England, via Sir Thomas Lawrence. The Prince had it on approval for two years at Carlton House before eventually returning it in 1818. Around 1828, Hay gave it to a friend to look after, not seeing it or the friend for the next thirteen years, until he arranged for it to be included in a public exhibition in 1841. It was bought the following year (1842) by the recently formed National Gallery, London for £600, as inventory number 186, where it remains. By then the shutters had gone, along with the original frame.


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