Jan Van Eyck’s the Arnolfini Portrait, Essay Example

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Essay

Few paintings have been studied to the extent that Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait has, and there is good reason for this.  It is difficult, in fact, to sit back and attempt to take the painting in.  This is not only because of the mysterious quality of the scene, but because there is so much craftsmanship in every brush stroke.  This is art that both captures and magnifies life itself, and the effect is somewhat overpowering.  What strikes the observer first, and what actually prevents a real investigation of the painting as a painting, is the sense of living atmosphere achieved.   The scene is not bizarre in itself, no matter what the viewer knows about the background.  We see a couple in what appears to be a home, set somewhere in medieval Europe.  The era and place are made plain by the styles of dress and the décor of the room.  Then, it seems that there is affection between the couple, or certainly an intimate understanding of some kind.  In all these respects, then, this is a very ordinary scene from a specific period of time.

The feeling created, however, goes well beyond this, and immediately upon looking at the painting.  All of the elements create an impression that is both familiar and disturbing.  It has been noted that the painting offers, “an air of the paranormal” (Hall, 1997,  p. xix), and this is what the viewer senses.  Realism is everywhere, and no detail or object is unrealistic or “out of place.”  At the same time, there is an other-worldly quality to the scene.  It is as though the couple do not belong to any era or place, or even to each other.  They seem to be representations of humanity chosen almost randomly, and used to suggest the complexity and mystery within all human relationships.  In a practical sense, this effect is achieved by a contrast in postures and expressions.  As noted, the couple appears to be intimately connected, and the gentleness of this connection is reinforced by the way their hands meet; more exactly, her palm is upright, allowing him to take her hand from below, and this indicates a willing submission on her part.  Their faces, however, are both fixed on spaces elsewhere.  He is looking downward, with his eyes virtually closed, as if in deep thought.  She is looking at a point past him, and both seem to be contemplating, not each other, but the fact of their being together in this way.  It is strange to see the power of the union between a man and a woman expressed in a way that is removed from their united presence, yet this is what van Eyck achieves.  However these two are together, it is clearly a serious business.

This duality of emotion is reinforced by the perfect symmetry of the entire painting.  Positioned equally centrally, the man and woman occupy the chief spaces of the left and right.  If she is shorter, van  Eyck adjusts for this by giving her greater width, and therefore an equally full presence.  Then, to the sides of each figure are natural elements of such a room that also are given equal stature; the window to the man’s right commands the viewer’s eye just as powerfully as does the striking, crimson sofa to her right.  Giving unity and dimension to the entire scene is the succession of items providing scale, each placed in the center and retreating from the foreground.  There is the lapdog in the very front, between the feet of the two.  Behind their joined hands is a crimson, cushioned seat of some kind, and above this is the mirror on the wall.   Finally, the hanging light offers more spatial perspective as it  hangs between the couple and the back wall.  This entire effect is so precise, it creates a religious feeling about the scene.  Even as the room is within a home, the linear arrangement of these items gives the viewer the sense of a solemn procession.  Van Eyck has everything in scale and proportion to a perfect degree (Janes, 2011, p. 26), and this renders the portrait even more mysterious.

The over-all effect is greatly enhanced by van Eyck’s brushwork, which is both sumptuous and perfectly controlled.  More exactly, his attention to detail demands that he layer his brush work to produce the textures of each item.  For example, it is obvious that van Eyck gives the dog the same attention he gives to the couple.  Its fur is realistic, different than the fur trimming the man’s cloak, and it takes the light in a more “living” way.  It is also evident that the artist relies on the richness of the oils used.  This quality of fullness is then a part of the dimensional aspect of each element, because van Eyck paints in precise strokes.  In a sense, using oils this carefully is similar to sculpting, in that a perfectly realistic representation of life is crafted out of heavy materials through precise actions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the mirror, which has been the subject of intense speculation.  That a close inspection reveals other figures in this mirror is no more important than the painstaking craftsmanship of this execution.  In minute detail, the viewer can see, not only the backs of the couple, but two other men entering the room.  Then, the mirror frame is ornate, with panels depicting the life of Christ.  It is difficult to conceive of how minutely van Eyck executed this.  Also, and the importance of its contents aside, these multiple images in and outside of the mirror add even more dimension to the entire scene.  Even when what they actually represent is unclear, the viewer has the sense of seeing “worlds within worlds.”

Finally, the artist’s choices in his color palette also reflect a desire to both be true to the culture he is representing, and act as symbolic messages.  This can be felt with no turning to critical judgments of the work, although many discuss in detail the symbolic power of each color used (Gage, 1999, p. 143).  The purple of the man’s cloak, while probably indicating wealth, is a strange, muted purple, one that reveals the actual red and brown of the cloak’s making.  The green of the woman’s gown is rich and earthy, and this conveys a maternal power.  In everything can be seen van Eyck’s skill in creating natural light.  As in real light, it reveals without overpowering, and the shadows it creates, as in below the sill,  add substance and weight to the scene.  Maybe the most subtle use of light is the way it is gently reflected by the mirror, circling that object.

Taken in pieces or as a whole, Jan van Eyxk’s The Arnolfini Portrait is a hypnotic work of art, and this is because so many “pieces” go to that whole.  The detail is everything, as minute strokes and color choices create a surreal, yet real, image.  Beyond even this, the spatial relations between the room, the couple, and the objects within the room, along with the postures and expressions of the couple, offer the viewer a sense of limitless dimension.  In The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck suggests worlds of existence beyond the simple setting.

References

Gage, John.  (1999).  Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hall, Edwin. (1997).  The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s  Double Portrait.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Janes, Karen Hosack. (2011).  Great Paintings. New York: Penguin.

Van Eyck, Jan.  (Painter).  (1434).  The Arnolfini Portrait, {Painting}.  London: National Gallery.

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