Art Stories : The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

This is about one of my most favorite paintings. But before we talk about the painting, we need to talk about weddings. A wedding is one of the most important occasions of a person’s life. That is why we spend huge sums of money to capture the perfect wedding moments in beautiful pictures. Today, wedding photography is a fledgling industry worth millions of dollars. Couples hope to get that perfect quintessential wedding shot that they could upload as their Facebook covers and share on their Instagram feeds.

This is the 21st century. Lightning fast internet, high resolution DSLR cameras and smartphones are at our fingertips. Now imagine a time period 600 years back. It’s the 1400s. 1434 to be precise. And you are Giovanni Arnolfini. One of the richest merchants of Bruges, an European trade city. Photography isn’t even a thing yet. How do you document your marriage in a unique and special way? What you do is you bring in the best painter in the city and arguably in entire Europe. In this case, the painter was Jan Van Eyck and he immortalized the couple in one of the most famous paintings in the world – The Arnolfini Portrait.

But why is this painting famous? There is a lot of mystery attached to this painting because of how scholars differ on the interpretation of this painting. We will talk about the mysteries and various interpretations in a bit but just as is this painting is a masterpiece of the medieval and early renaissance period.

It’s an oil painting on an oak panel. A bold choice of medium because during that time period tempura was the de-facto choice. It’s approximately 32 inches by 24 inches.

This is what I see as my first impression of this piece. The painting’s main subjects are the couple – Giovanni Arnolfini on the left and his wife Costanza Trenta on the right. The husband is holding the young bride’s right hand with his left. There is an open window on the left which is lighting the room they are in. There is an expensive bed with bright red linen on the right. The background wall of the room has a beautiful round convex mirror. A chandelier hangs from the ceiling. A small dog is standing in between the couple staring straight at the viewer.

If you have seen paintings from the 1400s, it looks nothing like them. It’s three dimensional with space and depth, lot of spectacular details which is more characteristic of paintings from the 1600s. So, Jan Van Eyck created something which was two centuries ahead of his time.

If you look closely you can marvel at the immaculate details of the masterpiece. The Arnolfinis are dressed in exquisite clothing. Giovanni is in a black gown with a dark brown fur and his wife is wearing a green dress and a white head gear. The Arnolfinis were wealthy textile merchants of Europe so it made sense that they were shown wearing expensive clothing. The wife is slightly lifting her long green dress up-to her belly. This creates a bulge around her belly making us suspect that she is pregnant with a child. But As per the National Gallery of London where this painting is housed, she is not pregnant and this was a very usual way of wearing dresses during that period. As per the gallery, this is not even a wedding portrait but just a couple’s portrait.

But, there are other scholarly interpretations which questions this. Some believe this was indeed a wedding portrait document. This theory is supported by the fact that the painting has the Latin signature saying “Jan Van Eyck was here” just above the painted convex mirror on the wall. It’s dated 1434. The style of the font used for the signature is also suspect. It is what was used for notarizing documents during that time. Was this a conscious choice of the painter? If you look closely in the mirror it has the reflection of the back of the couple and two other figures. Who are these two figures?

You cannot see the details to make out who they are. Scholars believe one of them is Van Eyck himself. Who is the other person? Perhaps it is us? The viewer of the painting. The mirror on the wall is the most genius part of the painting for me. Van Eyck has managed to put us in the painting through this. He has included us to be the witness of the couple’s marriage.

There are small medallions all around the mirror which has scenes from the Passion of Christ. The supporter of the wedding portrait theory believe Van Eyck painted Christ to show the holy presence during the wedding.

But perhaps the most interesting theory is that the painting is actually a memorial painted after the death of the wife. Some believe that Giovanni Arnolfini’s wife Costanza died an year before this was painted. And Giovanni Arnolfini got his dead wife painted alongside himself later as a memorial. This theory is supported by couple of symbolisms in the painting. Firstly, the candle on the chandelier on the husband’s side is lighted but the one on the wife’s side has burnt out. The medallions on the mirror on the husband’s side has scenes showing life of Christ but the ones on the wife’s side has scenes of Christ’s death.

There are many other less popular but interesting interpretations of the painting. But, no one can say for sure what was it that Jan Van Eyck was really portraying here. It’s 6 centuries since this was painted and we are still wondering about it. That is the beauty of a true masterpiece. A lot is said in the picture but a lot is also left to the interpretation of the viewer.

This brilliant masterpiece was one of the earliest paintings bought by the newly formed National Gallery of London in 1842 for 600 pounds. If I had to put a price tag on this priceless piece it would easily be upwards of a 100 million dollars.

If you are in London do pay a visit to the Arnolfini couple.

This post is also in the form of a video podcast on youtube.