Painting Review: The Arnolfini Portrait

In preparation for assignment 3 annotations I have decided to research Jan van Eyck’s famous double portrait pictured below.

Jan van Eyck, active 1422; died 1441 Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife 1434 Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm Bought, 1842 NG186
Jan van Eyck, active 1422; died 1441
Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife
Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm
Bought, 1842


I’ve tried to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review. The grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.

Effects & techniques:

  1. What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? The mirror is like a bullseye in the middle of the painting, then the woman’s face, then the man’s then the shoes beside him
  2. Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? I ended up at the little dog
  3. Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? The oranges on the table and her shoes in the background
  4. Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The mirror
  5. Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? The furniture behind them, and I didn’t notice the one candle until later when I zoomed into that area


    1. Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate makes it feel simple, orderly & uncluttered but the simple colour scheme does seem artificial because its balanced by the more natural beiges and dark colours.
    2. Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? Contrasting colours of red and green of her dress and the furnishings make her appear prominent in the picture, his dark clothes make him seem to recede in comparison.
    3. Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? The slightly warm palate makes the place seem inviting and homely, she is in green with a quite peaceful if not exactly happy expression, the red and green contrast add tension to her.
    4. Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? The woman is painted in bright colours and the man in dark, this also draws your eye to her first.
    5. In what way is dark and light colour used?

    I.       How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? There is a wide range of colour values, this sets no particular effect

    II.       Are contrasting colour values present in the art work?   Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest, the man’s clothes & hat are dark against the pale skin of his hand and face making his portrait stand out. The woman’s features stand out less because there is less of a contrast with her light headdress there. The mirror & chandelier have highlights picking them out as points of interest and the women’s white fur trim stands out too.

    III.        Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms?   Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the folds of the giant dress and lush fabrics on the furniture.

    IV.       In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work?    The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, from mirror to headdress/face of the women, the lines lead you to the man’s face and hand then down his clothes to the bright area where his clogs are, back past the dog to the woman’s dress and up again.



  1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been carefully blended to make the soft, seamless shadows to model the scene with such accuracy. He has used translucent glazes applied in layers to generate the rich colours of the different fabrics and showing the other different surfaces and textures such as the beads, the wood and the peoples skin.
  2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? This seems a pretty conventional use but maybe not at the time it was painted?
  3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? the realism generated by the thinly layered paint makes the painting appear more factual – like a photograph
  4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? not really


Representation of depth Technique: Arnolfini Portrait Effect: Arnolfini Portrait
(a) overlapping Y the room feels 3 dimensional because we glimpse the furniture behind them
(b) diminishing scale Y Her shoes in the background are much smaller than those in the foreground
(c) atmospheric perspective Y The distorted perspective in the mirror has two hazy figures in it
(d) vertical placement Y the little dog and shoes at the bottom appears closest to us
(e) linear perspective Y the top of the bed and the window blinds on the other side frame the couple with linear perspective at the top, lower down the windowsill and the bed also frame the couple
(f) modelling Y the modelling of the various textures in the room, especially all the folds in her dress  make the illusion realistic


Use of lines:

Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal): Diagonal lines of perspective of the bed and window conflict with the V shape that their arms make. The man and woman are standing vertical in the composition either side of the mirror on the back wall. The man’s vertical hand stops your eye on its travel to the right and the woman’s vertical fur sleeve lining stops your eye on its travel left so you don’t end up going out of the picture. The hanging bit on the front of the bed is also effective at stopping your eye before you reach the edge at the left and the vertical sections of the window stop you on the right. The man’s tabard is also a strong vertical within his clothes The highlights on the chandelier make it virtually point at the mirror beneath it. The rug between them, and the lines of the floorboards are vertical lines which leads from the couple back into the room. The few horizontal lines are mainly at the back of the room and the line of the floorboard and check where the oranges are sitting but they are not really dominant.

Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. The contour lines are mainly soft and realistic.

Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’

It’s a bit superficial because I’ve already read so much about the painting before trying this exercise, but if I had not and I only had my answers above to go on I might make the following conclusions as to the meaning of the painting.

The man and woman are standing side by side and all the observed evidence points to her being more prominent in the picture than he is. There are lush furnishings and fur trimmings to their clothes so they seem comfortably well off, although it seems weird to be welcoming people into their bedroom, maybe a bedsit, so probably lower middle class? The mirror with a couple of people in it is obviously important so his gesture could be seen as a greeting to guests as the couple welcome people into their home. You don’t see who the guest are so maybe that’s not important. She looks pregnant. Perhaps this is a painting about a couple who will be imminently welcoming a new life into their home soon, although neither of them look that happy about it? i.e celebrate the baby picture.

Context & Meaning:

So I already know that this likely not what the meaning of the picture is from my reading in Girl in a Green Gown: The history and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. by Carola Hicks (notes from that are in this post) but I thought it was important to jot down what I think I would have thought before reading it (I can’t really remember because I’ve been reading it on and off since I finished Assignment 2). I’ve summaries my notes from various reading below (after the visit).

Visit in person:

I went back to the National Gallery to take a closer look. It’s really astounding to see in person. The level of detail is amazing, her shoes, the little dogs fur, it’s all painted so precisely. The light shines on it a little so I took some close up pictures with my phone of the higher up details. I was earwigging to one of the many tour groups that stopped past it while I was there, the tour leader thought she was pregnant which was interesting. He also said the little dogs hair had been painted with a one hair brush, which I could totally see being true given the detail. Also, he said that recently scholars now think that the one candle is the key to unravelling the whole meaning to the painting and that it could be a memorial to the wife, painted after her death. I suppose this would explain all the odd things about her, her out of fashion dress and classical, generalised features, if he was not painting her from life (as with the man). I haven’t yet got that far into all my books on the subject so the candle and its meaning I’ve yet to read about.

Arnolfini portrait - detail Arnolfini portrait - detail

Clearly two people in the mirror, also the tiny religious paintings all around the mirror.

Arnolfini portrait Arnolfini portrait - detail

The detail on the dog has to be seen in person to be believed, no reproduction can do it justice.

Also, the detail on the clogs and floorboards is more pronouced in person than in reproductions.Arnolfini portrait - detail


Researched content & meaning:

The history of the painting’s owners is well documented from 80 or so years after it was painted, there seems to be a bit of a sketchy period at the beginning which causes a lot of the following confusion and much of the mystery surrounding the painting, the identity of its characters and its meanings.

Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck was born in southern Netherlands, worked in the Hague. At 30, Jan van Eyck became court painter to Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy, 1425. He was trusted with diplomatic  ‘secret’ missions abroad and got to travel widely a see many things to add to his inspiration. Van Eyck was totally at the Dukes disposal and paid handsomely for it but allowed to take other commissions too. He painted many religious paintings too, including the Ghent Altarpiece. The first seven years (from 1425) he lived in Lille (except for foreign extended visits and to Ghent for the altarpiece) then in 1432, he moved back to Bruges where the duke spent much of his time. Bruges, ‘Venice of the West’ was the heart of international trade, as noted by Tafur who documented his travels in 1438. He mentions luxury goods such as oranges & lemons from Castile, wine from Greece, spices from Alexandria, furs from the black sea, silk and armour and all sorts of luxury imports. At times the harbour could serve over 700 ships per day. Local products included expertly woven woollens, linins & tapestries. Foreign traders were not allowed to sell these local, only for export, strictly enforced by guilds. Tafur noted that the local people were ‘exceedingly fastidious in their apparel, very extravagant in their food and much given to all kinds of luxury’. (Hicks, 2012). The town was not very tolerant of poor people though, and some were starving. Prostitution was rife. There were ‘mixed-sex’ baths, van Eyck had a side-line in painting ‘saucy bathing scenes’ (the originals have not survived though), presumably from the bath houses near where he lived in the red light district. The Canterbury tales by Chaucer alludes to Bruges ‘ambiguous reputation’, the Shipman’s tale and Pardoners tale specifically. It was probably a source of pride for the Duke that his court painter was being chased for work by prominent Italian families. He made a number of works for the Italian community, Anseln Adorno (Genoese family), bought two showing scenes of St Francis, another Genoese merchant, from Giustiniani family commissions a tryptic of the Virgin & child, Genoese Lomellini family also commissioned a tryptic that was eventually bought by King Alfonso of Naples, Lorenzo de Medici acquired St Jerome. Cardinal Ottoviano of Florence bought a titillating bathing scene (originally commissioned by Federico da Montefettro, Duke of Urbino (according to Vasari). “Having a van Eyck was a major status symbol by the 1430s”. (Hicks, 2012)

The paintings history:

Scholarly debate still rages but the first owner is assumed to be the man who commissioned the portrait of him and his wife, Arnofini. This is because of the Hernoul-le-fin /Arnoult fin references in the early inventories. No one can decide on which Arnofini though. The Arnolfini family were originally from Lucca, Italy and in 1439, the Medici bank opened a branch in Bruge, many Italian merchant families moved in for trading. The first recorded owner was Don Diego de Guevara, a Spaniard working in Flanders. (aristocratic family with distant royal connections. Courtier, Ambassador, spy). He’d bought the portrait at some point in the first decade of the 16th C and had his family arms & motto (‘hors du conte’) inscribed on the shutters (which protected it at that time). There seems to be uncertainly whether he added the shutters of if they were originally there. He gave both his van Eyck portraits to Marguerite of Austria, ruler of the Netherlands by 1516. According to an inventory of her art collection the Arnolfini portrait was ‘a large picture which is called Hernoul-le-fin with his wife within a room, which was given to Madame by don Diego, whose arms are on the cover of the picture. Made by the painter Johannes.’ (Hicks, 2012). A note in the margin added that ‘it was necessary to put on a lock to shut it; which Madame ordered to be made.’ In another inventory, 1523, the Arnolfini portrait was described as ‘a very fine picture [fort exquis, very rare praise indeed] with two shutters attached where there is painted a man & a woman standing, with their hands touching; made by the hand of Johannes, the arms & Motto of don Diego the person named on the two shatters Arnoult fin” (Hicks, 2012). Her niece Marie of Hungary inherited the role of Regent of the Netherlands and the Arnolfini Portrait in 1530. In 1558 her nephew, Philip II inherited it and took it to his home in Alcazar. Where it popped up in another record in 1599 (after his death). Tt had an Ovid verse attached to it (on the gilded frame) from The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria), See that you promise: what harm is there in promises? In promises, anyone can be rich”. Both Phillip and Marie appreciated Ovid (Titian commissions) so perhaps they had it added or was it there originally but not mentioned before this? The next recorded sighting was a century later, still in Alcazar on 1700 inventory of late Carlos II. This documented that the wooden shutters had been painted imitation marble. It survived a fire in 1734 and was next seen in the new Palacio Real by Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV. This might be where the original frame and the shutters were removed. In 1794 another inventory mentioned that it was keep in the retrete, lavatory! Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon, made king of Spain) used the 1794 inventory and the painting ended up in the new national art gallery in the Prado. He took it with him back to France when he left though. It was looted from his baggage by the British Army at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 by a British army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay. The Prince Regent had it on approval for a while but didn’t buy it so Hay sold it to the National Gallery in 1842.

What the scholars think?

Erwin Panofsky, 1934, argued that many things point to the painting a sort of visual marriage certificate e.g. a legal record of the couple’s marriage, with signature and witnesses.  He also thought that many of the items in the painting have dual purpose as household item and an additional symbolic meaning. Art historians since Panofsky have used his arguments as a starting point to either refute or agree with his points. For example, in 1986, Jan Baptist Bedaux published an article which agrees with Panofsky points that this is a marriage contract portrait but he didn’t think that the items have symbolic meanings, he argued that if the everyday items were expected to be there by the contemporary viewers then how would they tell the difference between symbol and reality? Craig Harbison’s take on it is somewhere between the two. He thought that viewer could understand that items could have multiple associations so van Eyck uses those as devices to tell a story. This seems more reasonable to me than the two extremes, as in advertising today we use visual puns and multiple meanings to be witty etc, we know that Chaucer did in his writing, why not van Eyck. Harbison’s view is that scholars need to take into consideration both the secular and the religious aspects. Edwin Hall wrote a book about the painting representing a betrothal ceremony rather than a marriage.

Margaret D. Carroll posits that the painting represents the scene of a married couple (Giovanni Arnolfini and  Giovanna Cenami) where Giovanni is granting of legal authority to his wife to act on his behalf while he’s away (like a power of attorney). This still explains all the contractual elements, the inscription style text, the witnesses, the burnt out candle but it the gets around the niggly little issues present in previous arguments about marriage, such as there being no priest there, or that they are in a house not a church or consecrated ground. Also, bridal custom in those days was to have their hair down but hers is up. A betrothal scene would require members of her family there. She claimed it would serve practical purpose of a visual record of that PoA, not binding in a legal sense but permanently on display. Additionally, the portrait of them in all their finery is like an advert for his wares, and his reputation, i.e., he’ll be a good credit risk. It also demonstrated his piety in an age when merchants walked a difficult path of accumulating wealth whilst avoiding damnation. It’s quite an interesting take on it.

What I found particularly interesting was the information where she details a documented incident from the court 1470 where a woman sues Arnolfini for breach of written promises he made in 1458. She claimed that he raped her when she came over to request his help, her husband had been banished and she wanted Arnolfini to use his influence at the court. In an attempt to keep her quite he made her his mistress and drew up a contract promising her two houses among other expensive gifts but she claimed he took back the gifts and refused to make good on his promises. This made me think about that Ovid verse about promises on the frame of the portrait. In light of this information, perhaps that verse was added after this event? He didn’t refute the claims, he argued that the contract was void because according to law she couldn’t enter into that agreement (or any other contractual agreement) without the consent of her husband!

In 1998 Lorne Campbell identified Giovanni di Nicolao as the probable commissioner for this painting (from the five or so prominent Arnolfini’s in Bruges), since Giovanni di Nicolao would have been in Bruges for some time and would have had ample opportunity to meet Jan van Eyck. A more recent interpretation comes from Margaret Koster in 2003, who thinks this is a memorial portrait for Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini’s deceased wife, Costanza Trenta, who was dead by 1433. Apparently he never remarried. She points out the aspects in the painting which allude to death are all on the woman’s side of the picture, the snuffed out candle, the death scenes in the Passion roundels on the mirror, even the colours of their clothes, blue was a symbol of faithfulness and green was a symbol of love and the man is wearing the dark clothes of mourning (according to Koster this was before black was chic in the Burgundian court).  Herman Th. Colenbrander, in his paper “In Promises Anyone Can Be Rich!” Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Double Portrait: A “Morgengave” suggested the painting might show an old German custom of a husband promising a gift to his bride on the morning after their wedding night, a Morgengave. He has also suggested that the painting may have been a present from the artist to his friend.

Details, Context and Possible meanings:

The clothes: They wear products of Bruges (and associated luxury imports), fur, silk, wool, linen, leather, gold. “Discreet ostentation”, celebrating the merchant class in all its ‘permitted finery’. All very expensive at the time.  Much of the cloth and other items would have been traded by merchants like the Arnofini’s, much of this could have been an advert for his stock and trade. Their shoes would have been status symbols much as Jimmy Choos are today. He is very fashionable, he wears dark colours (as per the fashion at court sported by Duke Philip) & cutting edge linings of brown marten fur and a stylish imported straw hat. In contrast, her bulky green dress is quite old fashioned, “could have been warn at any time in the previous generation” & the fur lining for her is made from squirrel which was cheaper and more common and her linen headdress is provincial. Or was it too early to be in fashion and he is in mourning for his lost love? No conclusion can be drawn here then.

Her hair: is up in the style of a married woman, this and the lack of priest/church/consecrated ground rules out the wedding ceremony idea in my mind.

References to the Virgin/Bible or to lavish Wealth? there are many, suggesting hidden meanings for things, however they are used in the religious paintings to place the Virgin in a familiar setting to make her more accessible, so are they really associated with the Virgin for the contemporary audience who’d see these items in everyday life of the very very rich? Maybe it’s just us who see them as associated? I find it hard to draw any conclusions other than perhaps they could allude to both the secular and the religious, especially since reading Margaret D. Carroll’s take on the way merchants were perceived where they would have to demonstrate their piety and good faith, how better than to be associated with the Virgin? Most of the items cited are both a sign of the upwardly mobile, socially aspiring, wealthy merchant (the oranges scattered on the side, the arrangement of furniture, the expensive textiles, the giant chandelier, the rug on the floor, many of which Arnolfini would have traded in so an advert for wares) but also undoubtedly feature in Madonna paintings. For example, in his secular work, Woman at her Toilette, the room echoes that of the Arnolfinis down to the orange on the sill, the shutters on the window and furniture. There no shutters in any of the Madonna paintings. However, in Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation (c 1434, Louvre) there is a similar brass chandelier, this painting also has a red covered bed and oranges on the chimneypiece). “The choices of furniture and furnishings in this room are all very flattering to the Arnolfini’s rank and social aspirations and appropriate for either reception chamber or birthing chamber” (Hicks, 2012). According to the rules that Alienor de Poitiers’ manual of conduct les Aonneurs de la Cour.

References to Marriage/Childbirth

She may or may not be pregnant but van Eyck has given other women who are not pregnant the same stance. eg. naked Eve & Cumaean Sibyl in Ghent Altarpiece, and St Catherine in the Dresden triptych. The belt below the bust on her dress creates high-waisted effect giving the impression of a protruding stomach. The beads and chest are conventional bridal gifts of the time so they represents the stability of marriage. On the very top of the chair back is the carved figure of a haloed woman, her hands clasped in prayer, apparently emerging from the body of a scaly winged dragon whose paws clutch the wooden frame. This could be St Margaret of Antioch, a mayor saint and patron said of childbirth. Or it could be Martha, patron saint of housewives. Martha was symbolised in art by the bush she allegedly grasped while defeating her dragon, perhaps it’s significant that the armed figure is immediately adjacent to the brush in the painting? In secular terms de Poitiers specified there must be a carpet next to the bed in the reception room or birthing chamber. “Only rich people had rugs, and in court circles displayed them beside beds” (Hicks, 2012). Margaret D. Carroll seemed to allude to the possibility that maybe all the child birthing references were actually about money? Making investments bear fruit, not in a sinful interest way but in a respectable capital investments way. “All in all, the painting presents Arnolfini as the ideal type of a contemporary merchant, in many ways similar to the exemplar described by Bernardion: pious, wealthy, and ethical, whose investments bear fruit, and whose gestures of convent and good faith convey an enduring commitment to his wife and his contractual obligations. So, at least, the painting would have us believe.” (Carroll, 1993). So, not solid conclusions here either!

The inscription & the mirror: has been purported to be signification of artist as witness, a notary in the contractual agreement (whatever it might be). It’s also clearly authorship, be he usually signed his works on the frame so it’s clearly more than that, some significance to the paintings meaning. It is clearly in the “diamond of interest” section of the painting, along with the mirror, which was another status symbol, more rare than glass windows, ordinary people could never see their reflection but the elite could. Some say that this means that the two people in the mirror might be the artist and his assistant. This seems likely to me but it’s quite circumstantial. The text in the painting “Jan van Eyck was here” is often seen as evidence of testimony of his presence and authorship of the panel. Imply artist functioning as notary. “All viewers, after all, would have been struck by the incongruity of the appearance on this object of such a sort of text. Diplomatic handwriting on wood – not parchment – signals apparent disorder in the discourse of records, it would alert the viewer to the potential of words doing or meaning something other than that which is expected of them in a legal context” (Seidel, 1995) The inscription Johannes van Eyck fuit hic could mean Jan van Eyck has been here or Jan van Eyck was this man, followed by the date, Seidel seems convinced that the use of past tense in the inscription means that the two little figures cannot be the artist & his assistant but I don’t think that can be ruled out. Or it could be framing the picture maker’s role as storyteller, narrator of fiction. Modern viewers wouldn’t make these associations because of our familiarity and trust in realistic images (eg photographs) and our ignorance of diverse story telling practices. A favoured device of both Ovid and Chaucer (along with many others) was the introduction of a narrator to set the frame for their texts. “Jan’s self-inscription, like the authorial voices in their writing gives an air of truth to his tale, even as it alerts viewers to the fictional nature of the production. Use of past tense is used, like in Chaucer, for telling of a story as if truth” (Seidel, 1995) This is the theory I like the best, especially if the Ovid inscription was on the original frame made by Jan (see below).

References to Death: the Chandelier had six spaces for candles but only two shown and only one lit (on the man’s side) and the other (on the woman’s side) just a stub that has gone out leaving a little trail of smoke. Some think the candles signify the drafting of a dowry agreement (binding when it burns out), or other contractual arrangement (which would be more in keeping with the woman’s hair being up), while others say that the snuffed out candle signifies a death. Overhead lighting was one of the greatest luxuries in the middle ages but this would have been too ornate for a domestic setting and seems too large for the space available in the room. Again, no solid conclusions, only that it clearly means *something*.

The Dog: Certainly no conclusions at all can be made from the presence of the little dog looking out at us, he seems to stand for everything depending on what theory you’re trying to argue. He is a breed called the Brussels griffon, another distinctly local product, descendant of a long line of Flanders terries bred to catch rats. Dogs feature in the art of the day on tomb effigies, faithful unto death, also noblemen were painted with their hounds and wives with their lapdogs. It could have been the lapdog of choice in the Duke’s household as the his sister was pictured with one in the Bedford book of hours, so another point for socially aspiring. “van Eyck was also using the dog as a device to connect the modern and the biblical world, making the past and the present and brining holy characters to life by associating them with familiar objects and images.” (Hicks, 2012). I’ve also seen it mentioned as symbolising faithfulness in marriage, or perhaps the dog is a symbol of good faith between the two contracting parties? Or is he alerting the couple to the two people entering the room?

The identity of the characters: The national gallery just lists the painting as The Arnolfini Portrait because the identity of the sitters has only increased as more documents emerge. First mention of the Arnolfini name was in the 1516 inventory, was revived by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in the 1857 claims that the paining was aligned with the Italian merchant of Bruges, Giovanni Arnolfini and bride Giovanna Cenami. This wasn’t challenged unto late 20th New research has suggest that the marriage didn’t take place until 1447, 6 years after van Eycks death. Opps. Could it be a cousin, Giovani di Nicolao Arnolfini and bride Costanza Trenta (married in 1426). Costanza had died a year before the painting was made. Does it show Nicolao with second wife or was it a memorial to Costanza (maybe dies in childbirth)? This is possible, Pliny claimed that mirrors reflected the shadows of the dead. More recently Pierre-Michel Bertrand argues that the women is the heavily pregnant painters wife Margaret van Eyck (although she doesn’t look like her portrait in the facial features). Schabacker has argued that perhaps Arnolfini wasn’t the subject, in fact he could have been one of the original sellers? I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions here either!

The frame & shutters:

Three 16th c inventories reference the painting, the closing wings and the Hernoult-le-fin eg Arnoult Fin association. Scolarcs cannot seem to agree if there were shutters on the orginal piece or if they were added later. Van Eyck’s little Dresden Triptych is behind closed doors, perhaps the Arnolfini Portrait had the doors on originally and it was only meant to be seen on special occasions, like the Ghent Altarpiece? “Wings closed, the operation of seeing, with its implication of viewer participation as engenderer and as witness, is deferred”. (Seidel, 1995). The fire in 1734 may have been the reason for removing the frame and the shutters. The shutters mentioned were painted with imitation stone and metal which is the sort of thing Jan would do too eg the fake marble in his portrait of Jan de Leauw (according to the book that is, the ones I found online didn’t have any stone in them apart from ) and the wings on the Dresden Triptych were quite plain. A later inventory records that an Ovid verse which tells of how the couple deceive each other. Incidentally, Giovanni had a recorded subsequent infidelity, could this be related? The Ovid verse could have been on the original frame as it’s just the sort of thing that van Eyck would have done to provide a literary context for this painting on the frame. E.g. like Chaucer he could be the ‘narrator’ or a story, hence the inscription on the painting so the painting could be a work of fiction. Or perhaps it was added later by an owner of the painting? Ovid was known widely in 15th C court circles so it’s possible.

My theory

My current favourite theory is my own (well I haven’t seen it written anywhere) and hinges on this, what if the painting was commissioned by the Duke himself as a little in-joke in court circles at Arnolfinis expense? We know the Duke had a habit of spending money on his “jokes” (contraptions which would squirt water on people etc). We know that at least some of the Arnolfini’s had dealings with the Duke (lent him money). It would explain all the elements, the man faithfully contracting something to the married women (might not be his own wife even, perhaps he did his little trick of rape and promise more than once?), the vague identity of the woman but the authentic looking portrait of the man, the dog looking out at the viewer, in on the joke. All the references to social climbing and over ostentation. The inscription (artist as storyteller). The realism drawing you in, (complete with the mirror with ‘witnesses’) and then the Ovid verse as the satirising punchline. It would even explain the shutters, enclosing the joke, until the Duke was ready to reveal it. This might even explain the departure of the painting from its underdrawing. The chandelier, patterns, sandals, oranges, beads, chair by the bed and the dog were absent from the underdrawing. The dog also doesn’t feature in the mirror so was probably added at a very late stage. The most modifications were made to the figures. The man’s facial features were moved down and resized, and his shoulders also lowered. The hat was made more impressive and the hem of tabard lowered. The feet were also changed to give a more elegant stance. The palm of the man’s hand was twisted further from the viewer and his other was made to fold more around the woman’s hand. Modification of the man’s hand changes the gesture away from the viewer and towards the woman, a shift in focus and more than an aesthetic decision. Could something at court have happened to put Arnolfini in disfavour, prompting perhaps a picture already underway to be subverted into a satire? I don’t know but this story appears to my sense of justice because Arnolfini sounded like a slimy creep to me 😉



Billinge, R., Campbell, L. (1995) ‘The Infra-red Reflectograms of Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife Giovanna Cenami(?)’. National Gallery Technical Bulletin Vol 16, pp 47–60.
At: (Accessed on 13 July 16)

Carroll, M. (1993) ‘”In the Name of God and Profit”: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait’ In: Representations, University of California Press No. 44, pp. 96-132 [online] At:
(Accessed on 7 October 16)

Hicks, C. (2012) Girl in a Green Gown: The history and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. Vintage

Koster. (2003) “The Arnolfini Double Portrait: A Simple Solution,” in Apollo (Sept. 2003): 3-14. At:
(Accessed on 7 October 16)

National Gallery. (2016) Jan van Eyck – The Arnolfini Portrait At:
(Accessed on 13 July 16)

Seidel, L. (1995) Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon. Cambridge University Press

Open University. (2016) Making sense of art history At:
(Accessed on 15 Aug 16)


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