Research Reading: Girl in the Green Gown

In preparation for assignment 3 annotations I decided to research Jan van Eyck’s famous double portrait, starting my investigations by reading Girl in a Green Gown: The history and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. by Carola Hicks. Notes are in bullet format as an aid-memoir from my reading to help me later with the context of the painting

Carola Hicks
  • History of the painting can be fully traced back though the owners (which is unusual)
  • Prominent in the canon

The sections of the book are interspersed history of the painting since it was painted and details of the individual bits of the painting. I’ve broken those out for my notes into two sections because I found the constant back and forth in the book a bit irritating.

History of the painting

Court painter to the Duke of Burgundy

  • Jan van Eyck was born in southern Netherlands, possibly ‘Maaseik’, trained as a painter like his brothers
  • 19th may 1425 Jan van Eyck (who was 30 at the time) became official court painter and Varlet de Chambre (as far as I can gather any artistic duties that arise, even lesser crafts including painting the gallery walls, making table decorations for banquets etc) to Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy (the 3rd D of B)
  • History of the Duchy:
    • 1st Duke, Philip ‘the Bold’ (younger son of French King Jean II), 2nd Duke, John ‘the fearless’, 3rd Duke, Philip ‘the Good’
    • The 1st Duke, ‘the Bold’, was ‘awarded Duchy of Burgundy, an ancient feudal territory in Eastern France whose capital was Dijon’ p6 He married Margaret of Flanders so he had lands in Flanders, Brabant and Artois.
    • Someone killed or tried to French royal?
    • The 2nd Duke, ‘the fearless’ was assassinated
    • It was chic to wear black at court because the 3rd Duke, the Good, (from now on refered to as PTG, or Philip in these notes) stated his would wear black in eternal mourning for his murdered father. He viewed the French king as enemy rather than overlord and ran the Duchy as a monarchy. ‘Aggressive expansion’ saw his lands increase by Holland and Zeeland. ‘Combing the exquisite taste of the French court with the prosperity of the industrious low country, the Duchy of Burgundy developed a unique style and culture that made it the most sophisticated state in 15th century Europe’ p6
  • Previously, van Eyck worked for John ‘the Pitiless’, Duke of Bavaria but he died in Jan 1425. This was in the Hague, which he helped decorate. So he moved to Flanders, perhaps because his brother was working in Ghent.
  • PTG, impressed with van Eyck’s diplomacy, dispatched him on several ‘secret’ missions (perhaps to draw plans and fortifications for hostile sites). p9
  • He got sent to make bride-to-be portraits of Infanta Isabel (who was 31, so this was more for curtesy than to assess her beauty), daughter of King John of Portugal. During that visit he travelled to many places which he wouldn’t have otherwise seen and too inspiration from the landscape in the Iberian peninsula (unlike flat and foggy Flanders), eg the exotic southern trees in the St Bavo’s Cathedral altarpiece at Ghent that he painter. p9
  • Patronising the arts was also seen as proof of moral virtue’ p10
  • van Eyck was totally at the Dukes disposal and paid handsomely for it but allowed to take other commissions too.
  • 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

  • Venice of the West’ was the heart of international trade, as noted by Tafur who documented his travels in 1438 (p13)
  • He mentions luxury goods such as oranges and 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.
  • The 1st ever bilingual phrase book was made here in the 14th century to facilitate the trading. Flemish/French, then in 1483 a French/English was made.
  • 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’. p16
  • 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.
  • Recent political conflict from an uprising over taxes against the duke in 1437 left high gallows and heads of dead men on display, he also fined them, hence some starvation in certain parts.
  • In 1439, the Medici bank opened a branch in Bruge
  • The Arnolfini family were from Lucca, Italy.
  • It was probably a source of pride for PTG that his court painter was being chased for work by such 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 Flroence 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”. p20
  • Bruges-based member of Arnolfini family commissioned the double portrait which represents the ultimate assimilation of the Italian merchant community a man & his wife from Lucca in a settling & style entirely Flemish. p20

Don Diego de Guevara, Courtier, Ambassador, spy

  • The first owner was the man who commissioned the portrait of him and his wife, Arnofini. However, the first recorded one was Don Diego de Guevara, a Spaniard working in Flanders. (aristocratic family with distant royal connections p38. Courtier, Ambassador, spy. Skim read much of this history.
  • Diego commissioned a number of portraits of himself, notably one by Rogier van der Weyden & one by Michel Sittow (Washington national gallery of Art), the latter a devotional diptych (which is one side the portrait of the person and the other side the portrait of a Saint that they are praying to).
  • Buying a work by the great Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, and later presenting it (possibly as a bribe or a reward) to a Habsburg ruler, was typical of How Don Diego had reached the top in his chosen career.” p 47
  • 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).
  • He also had “Portrait of a Portuguese lady“, 1429?
  • He died in 1520 but he’d already given both van Eyck portraits to Marguerite of Austria, ruler of the Netherlands (and the most powerful woman of her day) by 1516 (according to an inventory of her art collection).

La Grande Mère de l’Europe: Marguerite of Austria

  • According to her inventory 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.’ p55. A note in the margin added that ‘it was necessary to put on a lock to shut it; which Madame ordered to be made.’
  • She also owned van Eyck’s ‘Madonna at the fountain’ and ‘Madonna in a church‘, the latter of when she took as the model for her own devotional portrait, in ‘a room which imitated the architecture of earlier Burgundian style rather than the modern renaissance of her palace. The one up-to-date detail was her dog Bonte (lucky). Other parallels with the Arnolfini Portrait were the draped bed in the room and fruit on side board’. p 59.
  • 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”. p 60 She kept this in a room that meant something to her spiritually & emotionally rather than politically, within the context of memorials to her own brief but happy 3rd marriage.
  • One personal connotation in the van Eyck’s panting was the little figure carved on the chair beside the bed, depicting her patron saint & namesake St Margart. P61/62.
  • She died of gangrene in 1530 (aged 50), ‘ her will left everything to Charles V, but her niece Marie of Hungary who inherited the role of Regent of the Netherlands – and the Arnolfini Portrait.’ p 65.
  • Skim read much of this chapter on her history and how she was a princess pawn, forced to marry several times for strategic reasons and how she was a painter herself and a great collector of artworks.

The Amazon Queen: Marie of Hungary

  • She had a life very much like Marguerite. She loved hunting, it was her passion and ‘Modern’ art. But she still treasured the AP, she took it when she quit as regent. She reluctantly agreed to come back in 1558 but she had a heart attack and died learning everything in her will to her nephew, Philip II who ‘she actually disliked intensely’. P74

The Art Lover: Philip II

  • He made Spain his home base rather than a travelling court.
  • Passion for art & building
  • Four marriages & only one male heir
  • He inherited Marguerites whole art collection p90
  • He had copies of the Ghent Altarpiece made p91
  • His favourite Netherlandish painter was Hieronymus Bosch
  • Felipe (son of Don Diego) de Guevara write a history of art, Comentarios de la Pintura, 1560,
  • He boldly suggested that Phillip make his galleries available to art lovers
  • Inventory compiles after Phillips death in 1598 included 337 paintings
  • Many people wrote about the Ghent Altarpiece

Spanish Palances: From Philip to Napolean

  • It was in Alcazar by 1599 p99
  • it 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? P100
  • late 16th c fashion fascination over the classical mythology underlying Christian philosophy.
  • 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 p100
  • It survived a fire in 1734 and was next seen in the new Palacio Real by Philip V, grandson of Louis XIV
  • By 1787 Netherlandish artists were no longer prominent except for Rubens
  • In 1794 another inventory mentioned that it was keep in the retrete, lavatory!
  • Bonaparte moved into the Netherlands and Flemish art was targeted for the Louvre, his brother had gone into Spain and ‘liberated’ many paintings but the painting remained in Madrid

The Uninvited King of Spain: Joseph Bonaparte

  • Tried reinforcing and art export ban and established a new national art gallery in the Prado, he used the 1794 inventory and the AP ended up there p114/5
  • He took it with him to france when he left, ordered to evacuate by his brother Napoleon

Hero of Waterloo: Colonel James Hay

It was looted from Bonaparte’s baggage by the British Army at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 by a British army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay.

The dealers and the Prince and the Critics

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.

Details and context of the painting

Followers of fashion

  • The man is seemingly painted with almost “photographic accuracy”, high cheekbones, long lean face, prominent nose & a slightly cleft chin. His greyish eyes are deep-set with a cold stare. Its “accuracy” appears truthful. p21
  • The woman‘s face is more idealistic. Her face is tilted down modestly, her skin is very smooth and her face oval. “Delicate highlights are cast by the reflection of her creamy linen headdress onto the underside of her plump jaw.” p21. Her mouth is small with a curvaceous lower lip and she has a tiny dimple in her chin. However, something is not quite right with the proportions, her eyebrows are too high (and too thin but this could have been the fashion to over-pluck). “In his Ghent altarpiece, the faces of the angels have the same characteristic high eyebrows, puffy skin below them, the long straight nose and rosebud month“, eg the angel of Annunciation. “Vision of idealised holy beauty.” p21
  • 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’.
  • 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. (p23)
  • Merchants who wore black were announcing their ‘loyaute’,
  • His outer garment is a heuque (a long tabard, sleeveless & open at the sides) made of luxury imported silk & velvet (from Lucca where the couple are from too). These were originally designed to be military items (worn over amour), but became fashionable for civilians in early 15th C (like us wearing combat trousers & camouflage). Velvet was very expensive to make & dark colours even more so (labour intensive to make quality dyes that would not fade). Woad and madder make black dye, kermes (from a wingless parasite in scarlet oak trees) was used to dye things violet. p 24 It’s fur lining (visible at the neck & side openings), was made of the next best thing to the sable (that the duke wore and a merchant wouldn’t dare to wear), pine marten. It was not restricted to princes but almost as prestigious. They were trapped in remote forests of Russia & northern Scandinavia and at least 100-skins were required to line a calf-length tabard such as this.
  • Under the tabard he wears a black doublet (a high necked, long sleeved jacket, probably satin in this case and woven in elaborate leafy patterns). He has purple hose on his legs (like modern tights), he also has fashionably pointed-toe, close-fitting soft leather ankle boots, revealing an contours of his feet (eg the softest leather). Usually these would be protected by wooden overshoes called patterns, which are pictured next to him as if they’d just been kicked off p2
  • For detailed Info on the straw hat, p 27.
  • “Deliberate contrasts between the man & women. black / white, cosmopolitan/local, up-to-date /old fashioned, dashing / demure”.
  • Despite angelic face, the woman’s appearance suggests the morally ambiguous of the fashion for eyebrow plucking was the sin of vanity.
  • The fashion of the day was for hair cones (disapproved of by the church because the devil has horns. The headdress is made from one long strip of material folded into layers, this is a simple version and she could have shown even more hair then she does within propriety.
  • The dress is made of an excessive amount of material, but of a style which came into fashion in late 14th Made of ‘famous woollen cloth spun from quality Spanish or English fleece & woven by the renowned Flemish weavers’. Must have been out from a circular pattern because the front is as long as the back. The belt below the bust creates high waisted effect giving the impression of a protruding stomach. This was socially desirable as fertility is a vital quality in a wife, those who are not in a recurrent state of pegncuy are failures. 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. “St Catherine in the Dresden triptych has the long loose hair that indicates virginity, yet her stomach is so protruding she rests her prayer book on it“. p 30. Sleeves known as “Bag-sleeves”, regarded so decadent that Scottish peasants were banned from wearing them in 1430. Green frilly pattern on the bottom of the sleeves is called “dagging”, edges stamped into dagged, zigzag outline & cut into little shapes like Maltese crosses, trimmed with pink shears to stop them from fraying. Proves how much time & fabric has been invested. This whole thing still slightly out of date, this peaked in late 14h C. p30 for Chaucer quote. Colour also out of date as bright colours were not so in vogue anymore. Rogier van der Weyden pointed Mary Magdalene is a similar gown (1445, National Gallery). Might have been advertising the clothe to English customers, another aspect of Arnolfini’s Portfolio. Fur lining, adds extra bulk & further confirms status of wife to wealthy man. This may have needed as many as 2000 squirrel skins. ‘Minever‘ is the white belly fur & the very best. p 32 & 33 for names & explanation of bits of squirrel fur skin. Her cuffs are clasped with pink & gold cuffs (echoing her husbands bands black & silver cuffs). Braids for these made from silk & gold thread from Italy, so may have also been an advert for Arnolfini wares too.
  • Her kicked off sandals are the one “fashionable element of her ensemble” p 34. Red leather with brass studs. Dyed leather, red (hers) & violet (his) were the hardest to produce, another luxury. Red made from Brazilwood (imported dye from redwood sappan trees in India), these would have been a status symbol much as jimmy chaos are today.
  • Genteel French author Christine de Pisa wrote an etiquette manual for women in early 15th c, warning the bourgeois wives not to go too far dressing like young noblewomen, wearing extravagant & ultra-fashionable clothes would show them to be vain & frivolous.
  • Their jewellery is restrained but costly. He has one ring on, and she has two, it may have been a custom to wear rings 1/2 way down fingers, Rogier van der Weyden portrait of a lady, 1460, wears the same. (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Also she has a double-stranded slim gold chain crafted from droplets of filigree. p36

The Beads and the Brush.

  • The beads and the brush that hang on the back wall either side of the mirror have a double meaning (and belong to the man). ‘String of amber prayer beads is a paternoster’ p50. Another advert for the Arnolfini’s business of import & export, supplying characteristically northern products to southern Europe. Made locally by the Bruges guild of paternosters. At the same time, they symbolise the woman’s piety & were an appropriate gift from husband to wife mid 15th C. A Lübeck paternoster (named after the opening words of the Lord’s prayer ‘Our father who art in Heaven’) was a standard present from a bridegroom to his bride.
  • They are not a necklace but one long strand, hung asymmetrically over a nail in the wall. “Apart from their religious significance, they illustrate van Eyck’s constant fascination with the brilliant effects of gemstones.” p50. The amber is painted as transparent, revealing the green silk thread running through the centre.
  • Seems to be 30 (13 right & 16 left), which was one of the standard set sizes, it was only later in the century that they were called rosaries (“derived from the image of the Virgin in an enclosed rose garden, the circle of beads enclosed the perfect circle of the rose”) P 51.
  • See p 51/52 for details of Amber trade.
  • The beads were also there as a device for painters to indicate the virtue of their owners” p52. Can see similar green tasselled amber prayer beads in St Jerome in his study (1442, Detroit), attributed to van Eyck’s workshop. It was a device that could link the everyday world to that of the bible.
  • The bush is made from the softest of twigs band together at the top by coarse pink thread to form a handle. Its presence in the formal reception room was another artistic device rather than reality. (A brush, a basin & a towel represented the Virgin’s Industry & humility – in the Ghent Altarpiece, there is a brass basin & a towel in the background of the Annunciation Virgin. “Such a brush would have functionally kept clothes clean but also represented the virtue of Christ’s Mother.” p 54

The Furniture

  • They are as informative & specific about the AF status as the clothes they wear, yet the particular ensemble selected places them simultaneously in a material world and a symbolic one” p 66″
  • like clothes & accessories, furniture was an aspect of self-display that was entirely controlled by states & rank. In the etiquette obsessed courts of 15th C Burgundy & France, there were protocols that were “ignored at your peril“. Alienor de Poitiers, daughter of one of the ladies who came to Flanders in 1429 in the train of Isabel of Portugal, the dukes 3rd wife wrote down the rules (in the 1480s) in a manual of conduct les Aonneurs de la Cour. There were specifications on the different bed hangings & carers permitted for green, princess, duchess or mere countess. p 67.
  • The AP shows this couple welcoming guests (the two tiny topics in the mirror). This means this is the reception room. Alienor’s list of furniture in a grand receiving chamber include a bed, a chair & a carpet. These are present in the picture along with a draped, cushioned settle beside the chair, and a chest under the windows. She specifies there should be a low couch with hanging & fine cushions, a buffet, or sideboard on which to show off gold & silver plate. The number of shelves in the buffet indicate rank, a “mere duchess should be content with four”. p 68.
  • Chests were a way of showing people that you owned things. Could be furniture or luggage. Also represents the stability of marriage & another conventional bridal gift. This chest is of standard type, probably made of oak. Stands off the grand to protect the contents from damp, the flat top & legs suggest this not used for travelling as they tended to be rounded top & flat bottom. There is a similar one in the ‘Inca Hall Madonna’ (1433, Melbourne), attributed to VE workshop. Making the Virgin seem accessibly human by placing her in a secular setting while flattening the Arnolfinis by attributing to them an item in common with Christ’s Mother, like other pieces in the room. p 69.
  • The settle was sort of like a church pew, like a bench with back & arms, wings the same height as the back. A projecting footboard at the base is another status indictor. Also “embellished with a striking piece of decoration, a curious finial of two grotesque little figures seated back to back on the one visible arm. Squatter than a lion, though both have manes, the creature facing the room has a malevolent, half human face. The pair give a bizarre touch to the otherwise serene scene.” p 69/70
    Rather than making some kind of satirical statement, van Eyck was perhaps recalling or reproducing something he’d actually seen, one craftsman celebrating another’s fantastical flourish; at the same time he was providing a humorous version of the more conventional lion finials like the one on the adjacent chair.” P 70.
  • The drapery on this settle is so lavish it spills onto the floor. Also associated with the virgin, Robert Campin’s ‘Annunciation’, which probably pre-dates the Ghent
    altarpiece, the Virgins settle has similar drapes & cushions, and his Virgin & child before a fire screen (c 1440, National Gallery, London) has a settle with carved figures and red cushions (although the drape is green).
  • The high backed chair next to the settle is another status symbol. It represents the head of the households office. “Alienor de Poitiers stressed that there must be a tall chair beside the bed in a reception chamber, on which a host might invite a distinguished visitor to sit as a mark of honour and respect, van Eyck again relating the Arnolfini’s to Burgundian etiquette.” p 70. Contemporary sources refer to chairs upholstered with down or leather so it may have been quite comfortable, the wooden back is decorated by neat carving like low-relief architecture ornament p 71.
  • The very top is a row of spiky fleur-de-lys like a battlement, below them is a band of little flowers in the centre then a cusped arch with a triquetra (3 pointed knot that symbolises the Trinity) at the side, worked in shallow yet sharply faceted carvings whose angles van Eyck exploited to the full to stress the highlights & shadows. It looks like a layer of brown wooden lace draped over the back to match the fluted edges of the women’s headdress.
  • The front the arm has a ‘proud little lion’ carved on it. It has pricked ears, a well-defined face and fine mane which flows in rows of curls half way down its forelegs. P71.
  • 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.
  • It’s possible that the chair didn’t actually exit outside of the painting. van Eyck excelled in recreating detailed ornament and minutely armed capitals; arches, window openings and niches which he must have copied from buildings that he knew. p 72.
  • The main features are present in the Ghent altarpiece, together with wooden furniture adorned with statuettes of animals & people. There are similar figures on Virgins chair in Madonna with canon van de Paele (1436, Groening museum, Bruges). The lion is identical to those on the chair in Madonna in an Interior (1437-38, Stadel Museum frankfurt). When associated with such images of the virgin in a domestic setting, lions take on a definite Christian symbolism. According to the Book of kings, Solomans throne had lions on its handrests, while Robert Campins settle in his Annunciation has 4 lions on the back & arms and the panel between the legs has the architectural motif of cusped arch & bunches of berries which van Eyck seems to have borrowed for the Arnolfini chair. p72.
  • The focal point designed to impress the most is the richly hung bed. The room was not used for sleeping, it implied the master of the household was of a sufficient status to exhibit such a possession of adornment in his reception room. “As part of the wedding ceremonies of Duke of Burgundy & Isabel of Portugal, in 1429, a bed of ostentatious dimensions was installed in the great hall of the ducal palace in Bruges; the some etiquette was observed with placing of a bed in the state room at the marriage of Philips son to Margaret of York in 1468. Displaying such a bed to select visitors rubbed in the superiority of the host, not only for owning one, but especially for being able to afford the hangings. According to Alienor, the fabric and colour of the textiles rather than the beds size or construction (which remained fairly standard) showed off the social position of the owner, she refers quite specifically to the rich curtains, canopy and coverlet of the bed that was not intended for sleep but had to be present in an elite reception room” p72/73.

The fabrics

  • The perspective of the bed gives a distorted shape. It stands on a low platform and its canopy is separately hung from cords from the ceiling. “This was an independent mark of estate: a canopy (celour) was frequently suspended over the chairs of kings & dukes, and also of van Eyck’s Madonnas. Another separate length of cloth, the tester (dossier),hung behind the seat. A canopied bed had the further refinement of curtains around the other three sides as well” p86. Sets of bed accessories included 3 running curtains, valance / feather mattress (straw for humbler people), blanket, coverlet, & pillows. These could be made of extremity expense materials. Gold, green or red were the colours favoured by the nobility and were often highly embroidered.
  • The curtain by the head of the bed presumably hangs straight down, the other side is looped up in the manner described by Alienor. This is often depicted in the illustrations to Netherlandish printed bibles showing biblical characters in familiar settings. Similar but more elaborate versions of the bed are in paintings of the virgin. Red dyed fabric was one of the most expensive of the day so that feeds into the display of wealth and which Arnolfini may have been a trader of.

The Rug

  • The Rug by the bed is mostly obscured behind the woman, although she’s not actually standing on it, but you can see the edge of it running up the centre of the composition leading your eye to the chair which does seem to be on it. It has dual function in both art & etiquette. It’s often associated with images of the Virgin (eg on the steps of three of his seated Madonna paintings). In secular terms de Poitiers specified there must be a carpet next to the bed in the reception room or birthing chamber. It’s of very detailed design in 3 zones of decoration, the first row with tiny 5-petaled rosettes in light green and red & blue against a dark background, the next has larger geometric forms of light green alternating with 6-petaled rosettes in white with red centres set against a dark background, the innermost visible row repeats this sequence offset by one unit. Its possible this was not an actual rug but from a set of patterns which he alternated throughout his paintings. Rugs were a rare commodity in 15th C Europe and usually meant for display rather than standing, hung from the walls. They were imported from the Islamic world by Italian traders such as the Arnolfini family.
  • Desire for their distinctive products outweighed contemporary hatred of the Turks or suspicions of Islam, nor did the fact that many rugs were specifically designed for praying to Allah arouse anxiety.” p98
  • “Only rich people had rugs, and in court circles displayed them beside beds” p98

The Oranges

  • More evidence of money and virtue, oranges were another luxury item, imported from far south eg from Castile or Andalucía, originally from West of India
  • Oranges cost 6 times as much as apples in 1412 p109
  • Lively patch of colour in a dull corner of the painting p108
  • Orange on the sill contributes to the 3-D illusion because it casts a shadow and is reflected on the window frame behind it
  • Show of skills in painting
  • Reference to the Virgin again, ref to the legend that she picked oranges on the Flight into Egypt to quench her Sons thirst, ref’d in two of his Madonna paintings p110
  • images of Eve sometimes have an orange rather than an apple, ‘golden apples’ eg in Ghent Altarpiece eve has a citron
  • single orange on the sill also in his secular Woman at her Toilette
  • also the fruit and its blossom could be a reference to their relationship and symbolise love and marriage.

The Window

  • Window glass was another luxury, most people at the time used shutters to keep out the cold p123
  • The pattern of the window glazing is reminiscent of the Ca d’Oro, ‘the most ostentatious building of early 15th c Venice’ p123
  • Van Eyck inserted crown glass windows into paintings over and over, including all his Madonna paintings. Also glass is Christian symbolism eg Light of God stained glass windows in churches and clear glass the Immaculate Conception and for virginity.
  • The shutters are purely secular, no shutters in any of the Madonna paintings but there are in the Woman at her Toilette, whose room echoes that of the Arnolfinis down to the orange on the sill and the storage chest below the window. P125
  • Beyond the window in barely 5mm of space is a barely discernible cherry tree, suggesting early summer p134

The Mirror

  • Similar to the cherry tree, the mirror challenges the viewers eyes, making them refocus on items in the distance, changing perspective. Van Eyck included mirrors in many of his works eg the titillating bath scenes to see a different perspective. P134
  • You see two little figures entering the room from the viewers vantage point in this mirror creating confusing sense of 3-dimensionality revealing more in the mirror than the real painting does.
  • Another status symbol, more rare than glass windows, ordinary people could never see their reflection but the elite could.
  • Circular and convex was the only available shape for mirrors made of glass. Highly polished metal could provide a flat surface but was not as reflective.
  • The centre of mirror making was Nuremberg, also clocks, scientific instruments and armour made for export. Mirror makers were regarded as alchemists. p136
  • Early 17th C theorist Roger de Piles insisted that artists must use convex mirrors in order to achieve harmony. P136
  • In the Madonna with Canon van der Paele, St George’s gleaming shield reflects adjacent pillar but also tiny figure, presumably the artist, wearing a red hat, dark blue gown and red those, with arm raised estimated proportions. The large figure in this mirror is wearing the same, the second figure smaller and in a red outfit might be van Eyck’s servant. P136
  • 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
  • The same two little figures appear in The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin (c 1435, Louvre) p137
  • The mirror is surrounded by an elaborate frame with ten lobes of enamelled roundels, the ten scenes of Christ’s Passion and resurrection: The Agony in the Garden, Arrest of Christ, Christ before Pilate, Flagellation, Christ carrying the Cross, Crucifixion, decent from the Cross, Entombment, Harrowing of Hell and Resurrection.
  • Mirrors could stand for good or evil. On the bad side, it was an attribute of Vanity, and sometimes even symbolised the power of Satan, who was believed to lurk within the glass to lure and deceive; the Devil was sometimes represented in art by the image of a monkey holding a mirror.” P137
  • Durer and Hans Blading Grien both illustrated this theme .
  • The virtuous figure of Prudence might also carry a looking glass, and the Virgin herself was compared to an unblemished mirror. He included the words speculum sin macula (mirror without a blemish) on the trades of two of his Madonna paintings and on the Annunciation panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. So this mirror here may be yet another virgin reference P138

The Chandelier

  • Seems to be made of polished brass p154
  • Exactly above the mirror to form the central axis of the painting
  • Seems too large for the space available in the room
  • 6 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), while others say that the snuffed out candle signifies a death. P154
  • The angle has been flattened to show all 6 branches
  • Each branch is decorated with architectural and animal motifs matching the chair
  • Overhead lighting was one of the greatest luxuries in the middle ages but this would have been too ornate for a domestic setting
  • Having such a chandelier in a domestic chamber was a mark of aspirational wealth, offset however, like the rest of the rooms connected, by its association with images of the Virgin.” P155 In Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation (c 1434, Louvre) there is a similar brass chandelier (although much smaller) , this painting also has a red covered bed and oranges on the chimneypiece). Other religious paintings including chandeliers are from Dieric Bouts in his Last Supper and Annunciation, the latter perhaps homage to van Eyck or van der Weyden because there is also a red settle and oranges.

The Dog

  • The little dog between the man and the woman stars directly at the viewer
  • he is a breed called the Brussels griffon (features still preserved by the Kennel club today) p169
  • another distinctly local product, descendant of a long line of Flanders terries bred to catch rats (breed reached England in the 19th C).
  • there must have been an “actual model for this essence of alert dogginess” p169
  • 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. P169/70
  • could be the lapdog of choice in the Duke’s household as the D of B’s sister was pictured with one in the Bedford book of hours
  • 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.” P170


  • van Eyck’s workshop was part of his house in St Gilles Nieuw Straat. P189
  • At any time it would contain a number of works in progress as each of his many layers of oil paint took a long time to dry
  • He employed a number of assistances who cleaned, prepared paint and perhaps also worked under supervision hi the backgrounds for their training
  • Straw mats on the floor to control the dust (as observed by the librarian to Marguerite of Austria (2nd owner of the painting), woodern easles and planks against the wall to support paintings in progress. P189
  • He would visit the sitter for a preliminary drawing using silverpoint (like a silver pencil) on paper rubbed with white chalk to prepare the surface p190
  • He made precise notes on the colours and tones required
  • Next the wooden board was made for the painting, the AP board was made of oak that Netherlandish painters favoured, Italians liked poplar, Germans limewood.
  • The wood couldn’t be used for at least ten years after felling so it was thoroughly dried out, Narrow-grained timber best as less likely to shrink
  • The board is 3 panels joined together by tiny mortice-and-tenon Van Eyck usually used the same plank for the frame too although the original frame no longer survives.
  • Then he or his assistants planed the board, rubbed it down and covered it with layers of warmed animal glue, then a ground of glue and chalk which hardened when it dried. Smoothed down, this concealed any trace of the wood grain, and became the basic surface of the painting.” P190/1
  • van Eyck would then make an underdrawing on this surface of the whole scene to lay out the composition
  • the Arnolfini infrared reflectograms revel that he modified his original underdrawings or chose to ignore it altogether p192
  • they were detailed with cross hatchings for darker areas
  • then he outlined the layout with a brush and liquid (others used dark chalk or metalpoint).
  • 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 p192
  • The mirror was originally larger with 8 lobes rather than 10. The brush was also bigger, the rug longer, the windows and shutters had different proportions and the base of the chest was a different shape.
  • The most modifications were made to the figures. The mans 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. P192
  • Her face was originally tilted and smaller, her eyes have been moved up and now look more towards the man. The her hand originally didn’t hold up her gown but pointed downwards.
  • It was not a case of altering mistakes but adapting to a fresh imaginative vision” p193
  • Vasari in his Lives started the myth that van Eyck had sound the secret recipe for oil painting.
  • van Eyck contribution was actually “to realise that some pigments became virtually transparent in oil and that by applying a series of thin layers working from opaque to translucent he could achieve an exceptionally luminous and permanent finish.”p193
  • van Eyck used his fingers as well as brushes and his fingerprints can be seen in the green gown
  • pigments were pounded and mixed with linseed oil on a slab of marble then stored in jars covered with pigs bladders to keep them moist.
  • The blue of the woman’s sleeves are lapis lazuli, her green gown from ground coper, reds made from silver and sulphur. p194.

Hidden Puzzles?

  • Art historian James Elkins had warned against turning pictures into puzzles, there may not have been a system in place to scale the perspective so it is dangerous to measure and count the orthogonal and read into the works things that perhaps were not intended, it may have all been accomplished by eye.
  • Ref to David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge (2001) about whether van Eyck used optical devices to turn a scene into a camera obscura and project the image onto the surface to copy. P208
  • Many changes to the mans face from the underdrawing disprove this theory. P208 [not necessarily true though, maybe he just moved his devices between underdrawing and painting?]
  • van Eyck was included in Bartolomeo Fazio’s book on eminent men (De Viris Illustribus, 1456). He stressed the Renaissance criterion that ‘no painter is accounted excellent who has not distinguished himself in representing the properties of his subjects as they exist in reality.’ P208/9
  • the Florentine architect Filarete referred in his treatise De Architectura, 1460s, to the van Eyck’s invention of oil painting.
  • Father of Raphael, Giovanni Santi praised van Eyck’s mastery of colour in his versified life of the Duke of Urbino (1482)

Interpretations and Transformations: the Arnolfini’s today

  • There are no da Vinci code conspiracies, we probably just living in the wrong period to unravel the symbols that would have presented no trouble to the original audience. P210
  • The national gallery just lists the painting as The Arnolfini Portraits because the identity of the sitters has only increased as more documents emerge. P210
  • 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 lined 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. P211
  • 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)? p211
  • Pliny claimed that mirrors reflected the shadows of the dead
  • Others have argued that it’s a betrothal scene (civil version of marriage before witnesses). This theory was argued by Panofsky, 1934, who thought it was a visual contract but this has been undermined recently by challenges to the concept of disguised symbols p212
  • Art historian Otto Pacht pointed to naturalism rather than a system of symbols.
  • The women can only be pregnant if it not a ceremony but just a portrait of an already married couple. Eg review in 1902 in Fortnightly Review thought it was a birth announcement painting. P212 More recently Pierre-Michel Bertrand argues that the women is the heavily pregnant painters wife Margaret van Eyck. P213
  • Recent feminist interpretation by Linda Seidel is that it demonstrated the legal moment when the man is officially giving his wife the right to act for him and run his business in his absence. P213
  • Other suggestions include that the portrait is a charm against infertility, an alchemical symbol of the union of fire and water, a morality tale on the theme of chastity etc etc
  • Richard Hamilton turned it into a pop-art screen print in the 70s Other artists have been influenced too including photographer Anne Zahalka, sculptor Gavin Turk, Oisin Roche, Alyson Shortz, Frida Kahlo, Benjamin Sullivan, Sandor Dobany, and David Hockney. p214/5
  • Advertisers have also got in on the act eg Habitat and cartoonists eg Dave Brown and Martin Rowson. Spoofs are everywhere. P217
  • The portrait has become a symbol of marriage.
Linda Seidel

I dipped into a few other books too, here are some notes from Linda Seidels book (Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon) that I got around to writing up (mostly they are still in messy handwriting though):

Poetic fictions – chapter 4 notes

  • 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 the intended recipients be the woman’s family & thus be the witnesses in the mirror?
  • Seidel seems convinced that the use of past tense in the inscription means that the two little figures cannot be the artist & his assistant.
  • Three 16th c inventories reference the painting, the closing wings and the Hernoult-le-fin eg Arnoult Fin association.
  • van Eyck’s little Dresden Triptych is behind closed doors too, perhaps the AP 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”. P176
  • Its probable that the painting remained in private hands , unseen by the masses because it wasn’t copied in those early years
  • Schabacker has argued that perhaps Arnolfini wasn’t the subject, in fact he could have been one of the original sellers?
  • It is more likely however that Arnoult Fin was written somewhere on the original frame. van Eyck’s modus operandi was to include clever little bits of text and information pertinent to the painting within the frame. Eg his wife Margaret’s portrait said (translated) “My husband Johannes completed me”, sometimes there was an inscription or verse too eg the frame on the van der Paele panel.
  • 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
  • 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
  • Craig Harbison identified the Ovid source as the Art of love, representing the couples love for each other with an element of irony or satire.
  • Ovid was known widely in 15th C court circles
  • The power of Ovid’s poetry helps to shift our appreciation of Jan’s art from delight in it as profession of a fact to engagement with it as celebration of fiction” p182
  • 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” p182
  • Having said that English merchants at the time did write their receipts on tally sticks, ie ink on wood.
  • 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



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

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


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