JAN VAN EYCK: Making Portraits Lifelike

Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck - photo by Web Gallery of Art

Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was born between 1380-1390, probably in Maaseyck (now Maaseick) in Belgium. His name was not taken from his birthplace but from nearby Bergeijk. A coat-of-arms suggests that he may have been descended from the Sint-Oedenrode (the Lords of the Rode). 

Portrait of a Man in a Turban (Self Portrait?), 1433, Jan van Eyck – photo by The Yorck Project | Wikipedia

Little is known about his family, however, he had at least two brothers, Hubert and Lambert. Both were also painters, and Jan and Hubert may have served their apprenticeship together; they certainly worked together.  

The earliest records of his work are dated to 1422-1424 when the court records of Duke John III the Pitiless of Bavaria-Straubing at the Hague reflect payments to Meyster Jan den malre (Master Jan the painter). At the time, he was a painter at court, holding the position of valet de chambre. This appointment generally resulted in the incumbent receiving a salary, livery clothes, meals, and sometimes a lifelong pension. These valets would usually be quartered at the royal residence, sometimes only for the duration of a project, but they would often be permanently housed. The title reinforced their prestigious status and distinguished them from craftsmen. At the time, van Eyck worked firstly with one assistant, and then a second. 

When the Duke died in 1425, van Eyck moved to Bruges where he was appointed as court painter to the Duke of Burgundy, Philip III (the Good). Van Eyck had received a level of classical education, as his paintings included Latin, Greek and Hebrew inscriptions. It was rare for painters of the period to be so well-schooled, and this would have appealed to the educated Duke.  

The Three Marys at the Tomb, 1425-1435, Jan van Eyck – photo by Museum Boijmans

Between 1426-1429, van Eyck undertook a number of ‘secret’ missions for the Duke, as a court envoy. In 1426, he probably undertook a trip to the Holy Land; this is lent credence by a painting completed by his assistants c. 1440, The Three Marys at the Tomb in Jerusalem, in which the landscape is depicted with great accuracy.  

His association with the Duke resulted in numerous commissions; he was appointed as a senior member of the artists’ Guild of St Luke. It is documented that on 18th October 1427, the Feast of St Luke, van Eyck attended a banquet in Tournai in his honour, which fellow well-regarded artists Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden also attended. Van Eyck received a good salary from the Duke, who also ensured that his protégé had ‘artistic freedom to paint whenever he pleases’. 

Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, 1439, Jan Van Eyck – photo by Web Gallery of Art

Van Eyck was appointed to many other diplomatic missions on behalf of the Duke. One of the most important was in 1428, to explore the possibility of marriage between the Duke and Isabella of Portugal. The artist travelled to Lisbon, where he spent nine months, and where he painted a portrait of the bride-to-be. Philip and Isabella married on Christmas Day, 1429. The portrait, since lost, probably depicted a true to life version of Isabella, who may not have been physically attractive. Van Eyck was known to paint portraits that did not disguise his subjects’ blemishes. 

Jan married a young woman named Margareta, or Margeurite in 1431. Her maiden name is unknown, but she may have been of inconsequential nobility; she is recorded as being referred to as Damoiselle. Reports vary as to the number of children they had, from two to ten. Their first child, Philip or Philippina, was born in 1434. The Duke was the child’s godfather and not only increased Jan’s salary but presented him with six silver goblets at the baptism, in honour of the occasion. On Jan’s death, Margeurite continued to receive a small pension from the city of Bruges, as the widow of a prominent court artist.   

The Ghent Altarpiece: John the Baptist, 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck – photo by Wikipedia

Hubert van Eyck is believed to have begun work on the Ghent Altarpiece, credited to Jan as his most important work. Hubert took on the task in 1420, as commissioned by the mayor of Ghent, a rich merchant named Jodocus Vijdt, and his wife Lysbette Borluut. Vijdt was also warden of St John the Baptist Church. On Jan’s return from Portugal, he continued the work which was consecrated in the St Bavo Cathedral in Ghent on 6th May 1432. It is still to be seen in the location it was designed for. 

The huge work, oil on wood, measures 3.4 x 4.6m when all twelve interior panels are open, and 3.75 x 2.6m when the shutters are closed. The support comprises oak panels laminated with layers of a combination of chalk and animal glue. 

The folding panels are arranged in two tiers, with the upper consisting of seven pieces each approximately 1.8m in height. The central panel depicts Christ, with the panel on its left depicting the Virgin Mary, and St John the Baptist on the right. This Deësis or Deisis composition was traditional in Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox art. The four lines of text surrounding the Christ figure read as follows: 

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Virgin Mary, 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck – photo by Wikipedia
  • upper left: Vita sine morte in capite (Life without death on his head) 
  • upper right: Juventus sine senectute in fronte (Youth without age on his forehead) 
  • left hand side: Gaudium sine merore a dextris (Joy without sorrow on his right side) 
  • right hand side: Securitas sine timore a sinistris (Safety without fear on his left side) 

These three central figures are flanked by two depictions of a Choir of Angels, each 161 cm x 69.3 cm, and the two outer panels depict Adam on the left and Eve on the right. Both the latter figures were originally depicted naked, which caused the offended Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) to demand their removal. This prurience was reinforced in the 19th century when they were considered to be so unacceptable in a church that reproductions were made which had the figures covered up. These can still be seen in the St Bavo Cathedral. 

The lower row depicts a panorama painted across five panels as a mise en scène, literally ‘placing on stage’,  but which means to ‘tell a story’. Two panels depict St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, and two comprise the figures of Jocodus Vijdt and his wife Lysbette. These four pieces flank the larger central panel, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (134.3 x 237.5 cm). 

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Lamb, 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck – photo by Art and the Bible

The panels were only opened on feast days, allowing the sumptuousness of the interior paintings to be viewed, in contrast to the relative sobriety of the outer panels. The original ornate frame, which may have included a clockwork mechanism for opening and closing the shutters, as well as playing music, was destroyed during the Reformation. 

Two silver strips mounted on the rear of the Jocodus and Lysbette panels, only discovered in 1823, include the inscription “The painter Hubert van Eyck, maior quo nemo repertus (than whom none was greater), began this work. Jan [his brother], arte secundus (second in art), completed it at the request of Joos [Jodocus] Vijd on the sixth of May [1432]. He begs you by means of this verse to take care of what came into being”. 

The Ghent Altarpiece: Singing Angels, 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck – photo by Web Gallery of Art

Hubert may have been responsible for the carpentry, and Jan the actual artwork. As Hubert died six years prior to the completion of the work, it is highly likely that Jan took over and concluded the contract.  

The Ghent Altarpiece has the dubious reputation of being the world’s ‘most stolen artwork’. In 1566, the Calvinists tried to steal and burn the iconic work, but fortuitously, guards were able to hide it and thwart the attempt. Then in 1794, Napoleon’s troops looted four panels, which were exhibited in the Louvre Museum. Returned to Ghent by King Louis XVIII  in 1815 after the French were defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, the external panels, excluding those of Adam and Eve (which were later sent to a museum in Brussels), were pawned by the Diocese of Ghent for £420, but were not redeemed. There is another version that has the panels apparently being stolen by a vicar at Ghent Cathedral and sold to an art dealer, Nieuwenhuys. An English merchant, Edward Solly, bought them for £4000 in 1816. The King of Prussia, Frederick William III, bought them for the then vast sum of £16000, where they were exhibited in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin 

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Just Judges (Vanderveken), 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck – photo by Web Gallery of Art

Fire damaged the remaining panels still in Ghent, in 1822. German soldiers looted other panels during World War I but were returned under terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1920. Then on 10th April 1934, two panels, Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist were stolen, and a ransom demanded. The painting of St John the Baptist, which was the reverse of the panel, was later returned by the thieves, but the actual panel and thus Just Judges have never been recovered. In 1939, Belgian art restorer and forger Jef Van der Veken undertook to make a copy of the missing panel. He used a two-hundred-year-old closet shelf as the support and based his version on a copy created for King Philip of Spain in the mid-16th century, which was displayed at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Belgium. He completed his reproduction in 1945, having suspended work on it for the duration of World War II.  

At the outset of the war, it was decided to send the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. Whilst in transit, Italy declared war and the priceless piece was stored in a museum in Pau, in the French Pyrenees. Military delegates from France, Belgium and Germany signed an agreement whereby the artwork could not be moved without all three parties consenting. However, in 1942, Hitler reneged on this agreement and ordered it to be appropriated and stored in the Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, allegedly to protect it for the duration of the war; this despite strenuous objections by Belgian and French authorities. Air raids on the castle by the Allied forces persuaded the Germans to remove the masterpiece and store it in the Altaussee salt mines in Austria, but this environment caused immense damage.  

Back panel Ghent Altarpiece, 1432, Hubert and Jan van Eyck – photo by Wikipedia

It was eventually recovered by the ‘Monuments Men’, an American army task force responsible for recovering art looted by the Nazis and returned to the Belgian Royal Palace.  A major restoration work was begun by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in October 2012, which is due to be completed by October 2020. 

There are twenty extant paintings known to have been executed by Van Eyck, all between 1432-1439. Half of these, including the Ghent Altarpiece, is dated and inscribed in Greek letters with his motto Als Ik Kan (As I (Eyck) can), a pun on his name.  

Van Eyck’s work was not limited to religious paintings, he also painted secular subjects. His work encompassed portraits, single panels, as well as diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs. Philip ensured that the artist was well compensated, and ensured his annual payments were forthcoming. Wolfgang Stechow, in his book Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and Documents, recounts the incident of the exchequer not paying Van Eyck his dues. The Duke stepped in saying, “We have heard that you do not readily verify certain of our letters granting life pension to our well-beloved equerry painter, Jan van Eyck, whereby he cannot be paid said pension; and for this reason, he will find it necessary to leave our service, which would cause us great displeasure, for we would retain him for certain great works with which we intend henceforth to occupy him and we would not find his like more to our taste, one so excellent in his art and science.”  

Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, Jan Van Eyck – photo by Wikimedia Commons

Another of Jan van Eyck’s masterpieces is the Arnolfini Portrait (1434, oil on oak panel, 82.2 x 60cm, panel 84.5 x 52.5cm) which can be found in the National Gallery, London. It was originally believed to depict Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami. However, it was later discovered that the couple was married thirteen years after the portrait was painted, and six years after van Eyck had died. No record exists of Giovanni di Arrigo being married before. It is now believed that the subjects were either Giovanni di Arrigo’s cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, but his wife died prior to 1433, and there is no evidence that he married again. It has been proposed that the woman in the painting was deceased at the time. The conundrum remains unsolved. 

A manuscript known as the Turin-Milan Hours represented some of the prayers and masses from the Très Belles Heures de Notre-Dame, created between 1389-1409. It belonged to John, Duke of Berry (1340-1416) but unfinished, was detached from the main volume. Subsequent owners of the manuscript saw the work being illuminated in the latter half of the 14th century by French artists, into the first half of the 15th when Flemish artists completed the work. The latter portion was known as the Turin-Milan Hours was divided into two volumes, one housed in Turin and the other in Milan. The segment held in Turin was almost destroyed in a fire in 1904. Eleven ‘Hands’, A – K, worked on the miniatures, with varying degrees of proficiency. It is generally believed that ‘Hand G’ was Jan van Eyck, but some historians are of the opinion that the quality of the work does not live up to Van Eyck’s standards and that he was therefore not ‘Hand G’. 

Historian Giorgio Vasari credited Van Eyck as being the inventor of oil painting, a theory that lasted into the 19th century. Prior to that, fresco, whereby pigment was painted on wet plaster, and tempera, which used egg yolks a binder for pigment, were generally used. If Van Eyck was not the actual inventor of oil painting, the technique was only discovered in the 15th century. Van Eyck’s formula has still not been deciphered, even with modern-day techniques including x-radiography. His realist skill with regards to light, textures and space has not yet been eclipsed. 

Jan van Eyck died on 9th July 1441 in Bruges. He was originally buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Donatian, but in 1442, his brother Lambert had the body exhumed and interred in St Donatian’s Cathedral. The cathedral was destroyed in 1799 at the end of the French Revolution.