The characteristic of his art

According to many scholars, the history of Netherlandish panel painting began with the brothers van Eyck. Jan van Eyck is probably the most famous name in the history of Netherlandish painting. The characteristics of his art are his realism, the directness of his vision and his technique. In spite all the research that has been devoted to Jan van Eyck, knowledge of his life is limited. We know nothing about what he did before he was first recorded in 1420's, when he was already a painter of some recognition, employed by the Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, who presided over one of the most eminent courts of Europe. An outstanding artist, Van Eyck was also a skilful diplomat and undertook many ambassadorial journeys for the Duke. Although from then on his life is well documented, little of the information refers to his surviving work. A large part of his work has disappeared, and all his dated paintings belong to the last ten years of his life.

The Painter-Diplomat

Jan Van Eyck was probably born around 1390 in the small town of Maaseyck from which he took his name. The strict guild system of the day would have demanded he learnt his craft thoroughly, for several years, in the workshop of a master, before he could be admitted to the painter's Guild of St Luke. The existing documents us that Jan was active in service of two sovereigns: Count John of Holland and, immediately after his death, of Philip of Burgundy. In those days royals, no matter where in Low Countries they ruled and to what dynasty they belonged, were all related in bonds of kingship and distinguished by a type of living that gave a special quality to their taste in art, which differed much from the established lives of bourgeois.[1] The war and splendour-loving rulers limited their extravagance and their love of art to easily portable things: rich fabrics, precious stones and books. They wanted maximum of art in a minimum of bulk and weight. The art of Jan van Eyck aimed to satisfy their needs.[2]

In January 1425 John of Bavaria died, but Van Eyck soon found a new post working for Philip the Good, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, to whom he was appointed as painter in May 1425. Philip travelled excessively in the administration of his states and had various residences, including ones in Bruges, Ghent, Hesdin and Lille. Immediately after his new appointment, Van Eyck was summoned to the court, then in Lille. As painter to the Duke, Van Eyck would probably have been occupied with the decoration of the restorations to the Binnenhof, the ducal residence, but nothing of his work survives. Court documents relate that Jan was employed because of its excellence in the art of painting about which the Duke had heard from people in his service, and which he himself recognized in the person of Van Eyck. Jan clearly must have had a status, which brought him now to one of the most sumptuous and cultivated courts of Europe. Relying on his loyalty and honesty, the Duke appointed him to honours, privileges, rights and remunerations relevant to the office. Initially the contract was for a year only, renewable annually, thereafter, but Van Eyck was to stay there for many years. Van Eyck married a woman named Margaret and acquired a house in the northern area of Bruges, the district of the Court and of important buildings belonging to foreign powers. At least two children were born to the Van Eycks, and Philip of Burgundy displayed his respect for Jan by agreeing to become a godfather to one of them. Even when financial re-organization caused Philip to reduce his household in December 1426, Van Eyck's service retained.

The duties of a court painter were far more wide-ranging that is implied by the modern term 'fine art'. Jan was expected to turn his hand to whatever the Duke demanded. Besides the painting of portraits and decoration of princely residences, he would have designed court costumes and ornamentation for tournaments, ceremonies and festivities. Painting shields, staining banners, colouring statues, and even designing surprises such as the fantastically fashioned food for banquets would have been among his tasks.

Van Eyck's duties extended beyond those of an artist, as he had great diplomatic skills. As early as 1426, he was entrusted with the confidential duties of a secret pilgrimage. Eyck was employed on several such secret missions. His travels brought him into contact with painters of other towns, especially in Flanders, where there were several major art centres within short distances of each other. On 18 October 1427, he celebrated the feast-day of St Luke with members of the painters' guild at Tournai, and was awarded a gift of wine. On this occasion he might have met Robert Campin, the leading painter of Tournai, who was breaking away from medieval conventions with a bold, realistic, sculptural style.[3]

Van Eyck's presence in the bourgeois town of Tournai may have been due to the matrimonial plans of Philip the Good. Although married twice, Philip had no heir, and was looking to Spain and to Portugal for a new bride. The unsuccessful embassy sent to negotiate terms in Spain returned by way of Tournai, and Van Eyck was perhaps among the envoys. In October the following year, he was certainly one of the ambassadors sent to King John I of Portugal to negotiate for the hand of his eldest daughter, Isabella. The sea voyages were long and difficult, unfavourable weather imposed long stopovers in England. This mission gave Philip the chance to see the face of his proposed bride. The portrait is now lost.

The long negotiations in the end proved successful. Isabella was brought safely to Sluis in Zeeland by Christmas Day 1429, and the wedding guests arrived at Bruges on 8 January 1430. Van Eyck was still in the service, and at the call of the Duke. His salary had been changed to annual pension for life, and Philip valued his work highly. In 1435, Philip himself intervened with the bureaucrats in the accounting office at Lille, who were obstructing Van Eyck's pension. Philip feared that their action might cause Van Eyck to leave his service.

Apart from interruption in 1436, when he was employed on yet another secret journey to foreign countries, Van Eyck continued his life in Bruges. After sixteen years of working for Philip the Good, he died in June 1441. His high position at court entitled him to burial place of the counts. Philip paid tribute to his life and work by granting his widow a gratuity in consideration of his husband's services and in commiseration with their children's loss.


With Philip married to Isabella, Van Eyck's life may have been a little quieter, providing the time for him to complete his greatest work, the huge altarpiece for the Cathedral of St Bavon in Ghent. This had had been begun by his brother Hubert and left unfinished at his death in 1426. For such a large, private task, Van Eyck would require the Duke's permission.

The commissioner of the altarpiece, of the Joos Vijdt, Lord of Pamel, and his wife were both rich and became even wealthier 1425 to 1433, when Joos became Mayor of the City of Ghent. They had no children and could afford princely gestures. Even though their family chapel in St Baron Cathedral was small, they ordered for it a work of art equal to their vast fortune.

The medieval altarpiece was a liturgical object, a piece of ecclesiastical furniture, worked into the structure of the building. Its task was to exemplify the divine, arouse and enhance worship[4]. The famous four lines Inscribed on the lower edge of the Ghents Altarpiece two outer shutters translate as follows:

The painter Hubert Van Eyck, greater whom there is none to be found, commenced (this picture); this major work was, at the request and expense of Jodoc Vydt, completed by his brother John, who in art comes next after him. Today May 6 (1432), he invites you with this verse do admire the finished work" [5]

This text, which is not fully integral, poses as many problems, as it answers. It is surprising to find the famous court painter of the Duchy of Burgundy admitting that he is inferior to his brother. Max Friedlander wonders if it should it be regarded as a pious lie or a modest piece of self deception on the part of the younger brother, who was responsible for the inscription.[6] The authenticity of the inscription is not clear. The last line of verse is a chronogram (if the Roman numeral letters in it were added, they would give a date 1432) on which the altarpiece was placed inside the chapel. The Adoration of the Sacred Lamb is the chef d'uvre of Jan Van Eyck. For the first time ha was able to show the full measure of his outstanding qualities. The enormous size of the altarpiece is the exception of the whole of fifteenth century. For this reason the assembly of no less than twenty panels was believed to have been commissioned by some great lord for the high altar of a cathedral (the name of Philip the Good was never mentioned in connection with the altarpiece).

As with most problems concerning Jan Van Eyck's artistic production, there have been arguments about the exact meaning of the Adoration subject. Certainly, the subject of such a work was meant to be understood by all religious people, and for this reason it is generally believed that the theme of the painting was the Redemption. To some extant Van Eyck might have drowned his inspiration from the Apocalypse, but he also recalled the introduction to Christ Redemption and the most substantial effects of that event. In the choice of theme for the external part of shutters, Van Eyck showed himself a brave innovator, establishing a close and logical relationship between outer and inner figures of the polyptych.[7]

During the 1430s, Van Eyck had time and opportunity to paint for other patrons. Being famous home and abroad, he begun to sign his paintings. Nine of his panels, completed between 1432 and 1439, bear his name and a date - an exceptional practice for northern Europe at the time. For Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, infamous for his greed and pride, he painted a devotional piece and in 1434-35 he worked for the city authorities, colouring and gilding six statues for the faade of Bruges City Hall. It was perhaps with the view to this commission that the Mayor of Bruges had visited Jan's workshop in July 1432 and left behind him gratuities for the master's apprentices.

The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin is one of the greatest expressions not only of Van Eyck's but of the whole of Flemish art. Its dimensions are appropriate for easel painting, and its composition is a delicate balance of grandeur and detail. Van Eyck's colours achieve a degree of refinement suitable to the highest dignitary in Philip the Good court. The mighty chancellor is seen wearing a brocade cloak. Although he kneels with joined hand before the Child his rigid eyes reflect his authority. Opposite him, the monumental Madonna holding the Child appears humble, even shy. An angel holds above her head the most beautiful adorned crown (it must be the most beautiful crown ever painted by Van Eyck). In the background an elegant treble-arched arcade opens on to a garden with blossoming plants, beyond which is a terrace with peacocks and figures of men. Farther away still is a landscape recalling Burgundy, divided by a wide river. The incredible love for detail brought by Van Eyck to this work surpasses even the work he put into the Ghent altarpiece.[8]

The Madonna with Canon van der Paele was created between 1434 and 1436. The sitter was a wealthy churchman who gave this painting to St Donatian in Bruges, the church where Van Eyck was later buried. On the left of the painting is St Donation, and on the right is St George, who - with a delightfully coureous gesture - presents van der Paele to the Virgin and Child. Apparently the canon's Christian name was George which explains the choice of sponsor saint. The portrayal of the old man's bald and wrinkled head is unflinching in its realism, and is only one of many examples in the painting of Van Eyck's attention to detail. Van der Paele's spectacle lens distorts the appearance of the lines of text in the book seen through it, and St George's armourreflects other details of the scene with optical accuracy. The painting has great unity and splendour. The figures are about three-quarters life-size. It is one of the finest examples of Van Eyck's amazing ability to join monumentality of conception with absolute perfection of detail.

Van Eyck was an exceptionally gifted portrait painter. His portrait of Cardinal Albergati, he painted the sitter to the waist in three-quarter profile with the head turned to the right, as was his habit. The dark, neutral background brings out the Cardinal's head. The preparatory drawing shows a number of notes by artist, relating to the colour of each detail of the face. We are immediately struck by the craftsmanship, technical assurance and economy.

Boudouin de Lannoy portrayed in 1436-38, was, like van Eyck, a servant of Philip the Good, and he went with Jan on the diplomatic mission to Portugal in 1428-29. Among other positions, he held the governorship of Lille. The artist showed him wearing the insignia of the Golden Fleece, the order of chivalry instituted by Philip in 1430.

Jan de Leeuw was one of the leading members of the Bruges guild of goldsmiths and was elected its dean. Van Eyck painted him in 1436 holding a ring, and example of his craft. The goldsmith's expression is made memorable by his piercing gaze - the painter, a keen-eyed craftsman himself, pays tribute to one of his kind.[9]

Lucchese merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434) were courtiers of Philip the Good. In this painting Van Eyck solved a problem that no painter in fifteenth century dared to set again - that of placing two full length figures, side by side, in a richly decorated room. The figures are a little too big, but standing freely in space. The success lies in the ability to adapt the complex colour design to a single source of light, to conceive the figures and picture space as a whole, rather than a gathering of details.[10] Arnolfini himself cannot possibly have been idealised. His ill-looking face must be quite what Arnolfini looked like. This is a real face.

We can date the painting precisely, because Van Eyck painted the date above the mirror at the back of the room, with the declaration "Jan Van Eyck was here". There have been many interpretations of the subject, including an analysis by Erwin Panofsky arguing that it was painted as a legal document witnessing a marriage. This is a painting whose every detail seems to tell us something. The little dog might be an image of Christian fidelity. Is the woman wishing to become pregnant by bunching her dress? The key to the picture is the mirror on the wall. It reflects the whole room, the backs of the man and woman, and two small figures coming in through the door. The mirror, placed between the couple, is a representation of what this painting claims to be: a true reflection. The prosperous couple is pictured along with all their wealth and belonging: the dog, rich clothes, oranges. They were wealthy enough to hire Van Eyck and that purchased them immortality.[11]


The international character of Philip the Good's court, with people constantly coming and going, Van Eyck's many journeys, and the fact that his works were sent to all countries in Europe, gives explanation to how his influence quickly extended abroad. In France it conditioned the activities of the "Master of the Aix Annunciation" of Simon Marmion, of Nicolas Froment; in Italy Antonello da Messina showed his respect by assimilating some of Jan's technical and formal contributions. But the strongest effect outside Flanders was felt in the Iberian Peninsula, where many painters drew great inspiration from the works of "the illustrious Jan of Bruges".[12]

Having considered Van Eyck's astounding works, we ought to admire the power with which he established the basic pattern of the whole of Flemish painting in the fifteenth century. Although only one of his pupils is known for sure, Peter Christus, the impression remains that most artists working in Bruges at the time must have drawn form him some fundamental elements. Very many followed him, even such great painters as Roger Van der Weyden, Hugo Van der Goes and Memling. The painters of the sixteenth century respected brothers Van Eyck as founders of their trade. In the North they were the first to emerge with a personal achievement from the 'dark' Middle Ages with their anonymous craftsmanship.[13]

Only a few years after his death in 1441, Jan van Eyck was being hailed on both sides of the Alps one of the greatest painters of the age. Although some of the legendary status he has been stripped away (he was long credited with being the inventor of oil painting) his fame has continued to the present day. Now, as in his lifetime, he is the most renowned painter of the Early Netherlandish School.


  1. Jan Bialostocki, Sztuka cenniejsza niz zloto, Tom 1., Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa 1991;
  2. Adam Bochnak, Historia Sztuki Nowozytnej, Tom 1., Panstwowe Wydawnictow Naukowe, Warszawa Krakow 1985;
  3. Valentin Denis, All the Paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Vol. IV in the Complete Library of World Art, Oldbourne Press, London 1961;
  4. Brian Fallon, Van Eyck, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 71. No. 284 (Winter 1982), pp. 360-377;
  5. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I, The Van Eycks - Petrus Christus, A.W. Sijthoff, Leyden 1967;
  6. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1956;
  7. August L. Mayer, A Jan Van Eyck Problem, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 48, No. 277. Pp. 200-2005;
  8. Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art, Oxford University Press Inc, New York 2008;
  9. Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting. Its Origins and Character, Vol. 1, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1953;
  10. Erwin Panofsky, Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, Burlington Magazine for Conneisseurs, Vol. 64, No. 372, (March 1934), 117-127;
  1. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I, The Van Eycks - Petrus Christus, A.W. Sijthoff, Leyden 1967, p. 20
  2. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I, The Van Eycks - Petrus Christus, A.W. Sijthoff, Leyden 1967, p.11
  3. Adam Bochnak, Historia Sztuki Nowozytnej, Tom 1., Panstwowe Wydawnictow Naukowe, Warszawa Krakow 1985, p.68
  4. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I, The Van Eycks - Petrus Christus, A.W. Sijthoff, Leyden 1967, p. 19
  5. As translated in Valentin Denis, All the Paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Vol. IV in the Complete Library of World Art, Oldbourne Press, London 1961, p. 11
  6. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1956, p.15
  7. Valentin Denis, All the Paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Vol. IV in the Complete Library of World Art, Oldbourne Press, London 1961, p.17
  8. Valentin Denis, All the Paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Vol. IV in the Complete Library of World Art, Oldbourne Press, London 1961, p. 31
  9. Adam Bochnak, Historia Sztuki Nowozytnej, Tom 1., Panstwowe Wydawnictow Naukowe, Warszawa Krakow 1985;
  10. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Phaidon Press Ltd., London 1956, p.12
  11. Jonathan Jones, Arnolfini Portrait (1434), The Guardian, 15 April 2000)
  12. Valentin Denis, All the Paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Vol. IV in the Complete Library of World Art, Oldbourne Press, London 1961, p.34
  13. Max Friedlnder, Early Netherlandish Painting, Vol. I, The Van Eycks - Petrus Christus, A.W. Sijthoff, Leyden 1967, p. 6

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