The Man in the Mirror: Jan van Eyck & The Arnolfini Portrait

Oil, light, marriage, wealth, religion, and a mystery man in a mirror. What can we make of this? Who is Jan van Eyck? Read on to find out!

Meet van Eyck!

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?), © National Gallery

Jan van Eyck (1395-1441) is a famous Netherlandish painter! We first started hearing about Jan van Eyck in 1422 when he began working for John of Bavaria in The Hague. You will find that most of van Eyck’s work is either religious-oriented or portraits of nobles, merchants, or churchmen. Part of van Eyck’s fame stems from his mastery of the oil painting technique which allowed for amazing textural variation! We’ll discuss this technique alongside The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), one of van Eyck’s most well-known paintings.

Toiling with Oil

Although untrue, Jan van Eyck was originally credited with the invention of oil painting. Still, van Eyck used this technique to its full potential. Oil painting allowed artists to achieve great detail. For instance, they could imitate varying surface textures and even realistically depict light.  

The Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Jan Eyck

If you take a look at The Arnolfini Portrait, you can appreciate the textures of the polished brass chandelier, the silvered glass on the mirror, and even the silky hairs on the dog. It’s like you can just reach out and expect them to feel like their real-life counterparts.  

Jan van Eyck worked diligently and patiently with slow-drying oils to achieve such effects. In fact, he went so far as to use his fingertips. You can find evidence of his fingerprints on the woman’s green gown! Such careful attention resulted in not just the amazing textures but also in incredible light effects. Light seems to just pour into the room from the picture’s window. The light casts shadows, flows between figures, and appears like real daylight. This technique helped van Eyck create the illusion of space throughout his painting. For instance, near the window, the man’s left shoulder appears lighter due to contact with the light but his right shoulder is presented darker. These subtle differences establish foreground and background.  

Overall, van Eyck’s oil technique has created a painting whose reality is hard to dispel. 

Bragging Rights

Technique is not the only thing interesting about Jan van Eyck’s paintings! They are often ripe with history and symbolism. The Arnolfini Portrait, for example, depicts a married couple who are believed to be Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and his wife. Many items in the painting are carefully chosen to showcase the couple’s status and wealth. For example, the furniture is ornately carved and covered in red cushions. There is an expensive oriental carpet and brass chandelier. The room even has oranges scattered around! Back then, fruit was so expensive that possessing them indicated good wealth. 

The room’s luxury extends to the married couple too. Expensive and fashionable clothing are no strangers to Arnolfini and his wife. Arnolfini’s plaited straw hat, dark silk velvet cloth, and brown fur trimmings are not cheap! Nor is his wife’s elaborate green wool dress, white fur trimmings, and intricate veil. Now, you may have noticed that the woman looks pregnant. She is not! In fact, Arnolfini’s wife is holding up her bulky dress, as was fashionable during the time.

Faithful Facts

Despite showcasing their wealth and status, Jan van Eyck’s painting contains religious undertones. If you look next to the mirror, you’ll see a nice set of rosary beads which are used in prayer. The mirror contains scenes from the Passion of Christ. Also, there is a carving on the bench that depicts Saint Margaret, a patron saint. In all, the portrait contains a prosperous, God-fearing couple. 

Mirror, Mirror

Alongside such interesting features, Jan van Eyck decided to take his painting a step further. You have probably noticed Arnolfini’s raised hand. Well, Arnolfini is actually raising his hand in greeting because two men are walking into the room! We can see them entering due to the mirror’s reflection. It has been speculated that these men are van Eyck and his servant. Van Eyck didn’t just insert himself into the painting, he left his signature as well. Right above the mirror, you’ll see his flamboyant signature saying ‘Jan van Eyck was here. 1434’. He sure likes to take authorship of his works! 

Wow that’s a lot of information! No wonder Jan van Eyck is such an interesting painter. Did you notice anything else? Let us know in the comments! You can check out van Eyck’s work at the National Gallery in London. We’re currently working on adding a treasure hunt to the National Gallery so keep in touch. 

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