by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Arnolfini Double Portrait is the most mysterious painting in modern art. Jan van Eyck’s oil canvas ostensibly concerned a couple trying to get pregnant. A convex mirror in the back of the room and a Bolognese dog at the couple’s feet draw attention away from the faces of the individuals involved. Two gargoyles sit in repose, representing death. Or do they?
For most of his life, Van Eyck’s patron and employer was Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. It was the Duke’s forces which would capture Joan of Arc and deliver her to be tried by the English. Philip was always doing one of three things: partying, waging war against other nations and having sex with women other than his wife. Philip was definitely good at all of these things; he even found the time to father 18 children with his many mistresses.
The Duke was significantly lacking in appreciation of painting, however. Jan van Eyck was such a prodigy that he could not fail to be recognized by Philip. Van Eyck’s aesthetic eye was put to work decorating the Duke’s various venues in Bruges, Brussels and Lille. Decorations for ceremonies and dinners were well within his sphere, like having Michelangelo design a dinner party. Artists in the Burgundy court were sometimes tasked with finding the best way for a person to jump out of a cake.
Philip was a lot more interested in what were called ‘illuminated manuscripts’; basically engraved and designed books more likely to stand the test of time due to the effort placed in their creation. As Duke he commissioned over 600 of them. This left Jan Van Eyck time to freelance his skills to other individuals or even work outside of the Duke’s immediate requests, which normally consisted of small portraits.
The search for the ghostly man in the Arnolfini double portrait has gone back and forth betwen art historians over the years. Records of the fifteenth century are hard to come by, and it is a great deal of guesswork going into the idea that the man in the portrait is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant from Lucca. Since Arnolfini was not married in 1434, critics like Craig Harvison and Margaret Koster have speculated the woman is Arnolfini’s first wife Constanza Trent, who died before the Arnolfini Double Portrait ever took shape.
A later portrait by Van Eyck of di Nicolao confirms the identity of the man but not the woman. The face’s ghastly repose is the frightening apex of the Arnolfini Double Portrait, even more so today when di Nicalao’s androgynous looks and pale features appear utterly out of place in a warmed over setting.
The two men appraising the couple in the convex mirror have been considered attendants at the Arnolfini wedding, and the painting itself has been described as a secret wedding portrait, most prominently by German art historian Edwin Panofsky.
The small gargoyles coyly mocking the couple undermine the ceremony. Appearing above and below the couple’s weirdly chaste hand-holding, their inclusion is the best indication that van Eyck is painting a scene which never existed. In fact, van Eyck never painted scenes exactly as they appeared in a model or real event. All his oil paintings are constructed versions of reality, a movement towards obfuscation that made van Eyck a man out of his own time.
Panofsky theorized that one of the men in the convex mirror was van Eyck himself. Edwin was a professor at the University of Hamburg for over a decade until he was fired for being a Jew. He moved his work to Princeton, where he became friendly with Albert Einstein. He strangely writes that the singular burning candle in the chandelier looming ominously above the couple is “the all-seeing eye of God.”
After picking apart the various religious symbolism of the Arnolfini Double Portrait, Panofsky engages in a bizarre about-face. Like any critic who has delved too deeply into signification, a part of him is seriously ashamed by what he has done. He writes, “The supreme charm of the picture — and this applies to the creations of van Eyck in general — is essentially based on the fact that the spectator is not irritated by the mass of complicated hieroglyphs, but instead is allowed to abandon himself to the quiet fascination of what may be called a transfigured reality.” After explicating the real life symbols behind the portrait, Panofsky essentially concludes it is something like a fake. Just enjoy it.
The Arnolfini dog represented “the personification of nature” for Panofsky, fidelity for older critics. The text above the mirror subverts all: Johannes de Eyck fuit hic, it reads.
Through his work for the Duke, van Eyck was able to purchase a large home in Bruges for he and his wife Margaret to live in. Material goods loom large for van Eyck; they are an alternative, equally useful way that people explain themselves to each other. The attention paid to each object in the Arnolfini Double Portrait exemplifes van Eyck’s obsession with the material world, and his drive to construct surfaces and textures as close to reality as possible. In this effort his objects achieve an otherworldliness not possible through different means.
Jan van Eyck had a personal motto: Als il kan, which means ‘As best I can’. This prosaic view of affairs could have been useful in coming to terms with his patron the Duke, who outlived van Eyck by two decades. Van Eyck was settled in a cushy place in the Duke’s court, but he may have resented trips he made as Philip’s emissary, including one to Lisbon to arrange the Duke’s marriage with Isabella of Portugal. (He also painted the bride.)
The cunning resemblance between di Nicalao and van Eyck’s patron is subtle, but why not another symbol? At times van Eyck had to beg for back pay, and in canvases like the Arnolfini Double Portrait, he took his revenge.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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