What great paintings say: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434
Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century masterpiece The Arnolfini Portrait has intrigued art historians for centuries, but what secrets does it contain?
At a modest 86cm by 60cm, The Arnolfini Portrait – as it is commonly known – is far from the National Gallery’s largest painting, but it is certainly one of its most intriguing. Not for nothing has it been described as one of the greatest examples of Early Northern Renaissance art.
On first glance, the painting – oil on wood – appears to depict a wealthy couple in a domestic setting, the bed perhaps indicating that they are in a bedchamber. End of story? Far from it, says Dr Emma Capron, associate curator of Renaissance painting at the National Gallery, London.
Watch: Secrets of The Arnolfini Portrait
“The Arnolfini Portrait is completely unique,” says Capron. “There is nothing else like it that has survived in 15th-century art. For a long time, it was thought to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini. But more recently, art historian Lorne Campbell has argued that the figures are more likely to be his merchant cousin, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his second wife, whose identity is unknown. They all resided in Bruges.”
The pose of the woman as she deliberately clutches her voluminous green gown to her stomach has led many to conclude that she is pregnant, while the couple’s joined hands could indicate that this is, in fact, a wedding portrait. Indeed, the artist’s flourishing signature above the mirror – Johannes de eyck fuit hic (Jan van Eyck was here) – has been interpreted by some as the artist bearing witness to the nuptials.
“The pregnancy theory was popular for a long time,” comments Capron. “But her pose actually has more to do with showing off the rich fabric of her gown, and ideas of female beauty at the time. Women with prominent stomachs had a strong visual appeal in the 15th century, and these were sartorially emphasised with high belts and folds of fabric. By lifting her gown, she reveals the expensive fur lining beneath – possibly ermine or miniver (squirrel fur) – which is depicted in a white that would have been nearly impossible to achieve in real life. The focus on her stomach does relate to fertility, but it is more a demonstration of fecundity and an ability to produce an heir rather than evidence of pregnancy.”
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Historically, much has been read into the other objects carefully strewn around the room. In the 1930s, art historian Erwin Panofsky used the painting as a basis for his theory of ‘disguised symbolism’, whereby each object has a hidden meaning. Paintings, he believed, could be decoded and deciphered: the oranges on the table represented original sin, for example, while the presence of the dog at the woman’s feet could be read as a symbol of her fidelity to her husband.
“Panofsky’s theories are very seductive,” says Capron, “and he, too, also argued that the painting was a form of marriage contract. But his ideas are not always grounded in fact. Once we begin to unpick the realism of the painting, it becomes clear that what Van Eyck has done is create an illusion of reality; something to be enjoyed for its exquisite detail rather than its hidden mysteries.
“The portrait is a carefully constructed reality – a figment of Van Eyck’s imagination and a product of his incredible brush and powers of observation. His elaborate signature, ‘Jan van Eyck was here’, in this context calls us back to that fact that, as a place only he has visualised, he is the only one who has ever been in this room.”
The Arnolfini Portrait: 3 hidden secrets
The two figures depicted in the ornate mirror are unidentified, but a popular theory is that one of them is the portrait’s artist, Jan van Eyck himself.
The small dog is of a breed now known as the Brussels Griffon and, remarkably, was painted onto the portrait with no initial underdrawing.
One theory is that the painting is a posthumous portrait of Arnolfini’s wife: the candle on his side is lit, the candle on her side is not. The presence of the little dog at her feet, as is often seen on female tombs, has also been put forward to support this idea.
The Arnolfini Portrait hangs in Room 63 at the National Gallery in London. Visit the website for more information on the painting
This article was first published in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast
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