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Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait

Jerry Brotton delves into the intriguing history of an iconic 15th-century painting

Published: November 10, 2011 at 9:40 am
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Reviewed by: Jerry Brotton
Author: Carola Hicks
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Price (RRP): £16.99


In her previous books, The Bayeux Tapestry (2006) and The King’s Glass (2007), a study of the stained-glass windows of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, the late Carola Hicks almost single-handedly invented writing about artworks as if they were historical figures by tracing their biographical ‘life’. Girl in a Green Gown follows in the same vein, offering a deft history of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434).

Like all famous paintings, it exudes an air of mystery. Why are the couple holding hands? Is the woman pregnant? Why has Van Eyck painted his reflection in the mirror on the far wall?

And why, as Hicks notes, does the man bear an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin?

The ownership of the picture can be traced back to its subject, the figure on the left, who Hicks presumes was a member of the wealthy Italian Arnolfini clan, who were firmly established in the commercial community of Bruges – ‘the Venice of the West’ – by the 15th century.

Hicks alternates between short chapters on the objects in the painting – clothes, furniture, furnishings, even the oranges and the dog in the foreground (a Brussels griffon) – and longer ones on how the painting changed hands down the centuries. The material is fascinating: the man is the height of fashion, but his lady is a few seasons behind the trends, perhaps to avoid charges of conspicuous consumption.

Nevertheless, Hicks estimates that her sumptuous green gown – a statement of design, rather than pregnancy – would have required 35 metres of the finest wool. The bed is there to show off the fact that you could afford to put one in your front room.

The painting’s history is no less intriguing. Passed down through female members of the 16th-century Habsburg dynasty, by the late 18th century it was to be found in one of the lavatories of Madrid’s Palacio Real, before being acquired by one of Wellington’s soldiers, Lt-Colonel James Hay, following the battle of Vitoria in 1813.

Hay sold the painting for 600 guineas to the trustees of London’s fledgling National Gallery in 1842 (a relatively cheap price considering they spent over £8,000 on Correggio’s Holy Family). From there, its fame was assured, as the Pre-Raphaelites delighted in it, and it soon passed into the wider artistic consciousness.

Hicks writes effortlessly, with a vast amount of information at her fingertips, but overall the book feels rather formulaic. It traces the facts as they are known, but offers no revelations or new interpretations.

The book’s greatest mystery is that there is never any explanation of why she chose this painting, what it means to her and what made it so iconic. 

Jerry Brotton is professor of Renaissance studies, Queen Mary, University of London

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