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Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck

by Deanna Minkler
& H. L. Sundstrom

December 2000

     Jan van Eyck was a Flemish Renaissance painter born somewhere between the years of 1390-1400. He died on July 9, 1441.

      I picked Jan Van Eyck for very sentimental reasons. At the tender age of 17 I was introduced to Renaissance Art at the boarding school I attended in Switzerland. All of our dormitories were created to look like Renaissance era villas or mediaeval castles. In the foyer of our dorm hung a replica of The Marriage of Arnold Fini. Which was referred to by the students as Uncle Arni. At one point someone wrote a comment underneath the painting it said, 'Uncle Arni is watching you. Sneaking out will cause you to look like this' with an arrow pointing to the pregnant looking woman in the painting.

     Until I attended this class I was unaware that the true title of the artwork was The Arnold Fini Marriage.

     When van Eyck began painting social structure was changing. The middle classes were beginning to form as the merchant class came into existence. The middle class now had the resources great enough to commission art works. Art became something that was economically attainable for others besides the aristocracy and the church.

     The Arnold Fini Marriage is a significant art work as it shows this movement of wealth. In this painting a Merchant is shown with his wife. In the forefront of the painting are his wooden puddle shoes to protect fine leather shoes are shown and a small household dog. These are things that a very well to do person would view as being common items which previously only the nobility could afford.

     There is very little known about Jan van Eyck's life although more is known about him than about any other 15th-century painter. He was probably born in Maastricht, a city in the southern Netherlands, and his two brothers Hubert and Lambert were also painters. His first know artwork is the Ghent Altarpiece dated 6 May 1432.

     John of Bavaria hired Jan van Eyck for his first employment position at the Hague to help decorate his castle in 1422. Upon the death of his patron in 1425, Jan began a 16-year career as valet de chambre to the powerful Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, and by 1430 had established a workshop in Bruges. It appears that Van Eyck was also appreciated for his powers of diplomacy at court as well as for his artistic brilliance. He made several "secret voyages," including two trips to the Iberian peninsula for the purpose of negotiating a ducal marriage.

     Jan van Eyck was a man of literary culture. Jan van Eycks started his career as a manuscript illuminator. His paintings reveal more than a common knowledge of geometry, astronomy, music, theology, medicine, and ancient history.

      In all of van Eyck's paintings he paid great attention to detail, lighting afffects, symbolism, and perspective. Jan van Eyck created a new naturalistic, illusionistic style of painting. Van Eyck's technical innovations in the oil medium produced an art that set the standard for an age and which has never been surpassed.

     For many years Jan van Eyck was wrongly credited with with rediscovering the ancient art of oil painting. In fact, oil painting was already in existence, used to paint sculptures and to glaze over tempera paintings. The van Eycks' real achievement was the development--after much experimentation--of a stable varnish that would dry at a consistent rate. This was created with linseed and nut oils, and mixed with resins. Van Eyck was the first to consistently use thin pigmented oil glazes and varnishes concocted by means of chemistry.

      The breakthrough came when Jan mixed the oil into the actual paints he was using, instead of the egg medium that was used for tempera paint. This technique created a brilliant translucent intense color as the pigment was suspended in a layer of oil that also trapped light. The previously flat, dull surface of tempera was transformed by the use of oil into a jewel-like medium. This was perfectly suited to the representation of precious metals, gems, and light. In van Eyck's paintings the colors are so luminous and clear that the passage of five hundred years has not diminished them.

      There are ten paintings signed by Jan van Eyck with dates ranging from 1433 to 1441. They include the St. Barbara that was painted in 1437, four devotional paintings of the Virgin Mary, and five portraits - Gilles Binchois painted in 1432, the Man in a Red Turban, which is considered by some to be a self-portrait of the artist painted in 1433, the Arnolfini Marriage Portrait painted in 1434, the Portrait of Cardinal Albergati, and the Portrait of Margaretha van Eyck painted in 1439.

      Even though these are the only proven works of Jan van Eycks there are many other miniature portraits and paintings which cannot be authenticated by his signature. Many great works done by Jan van Eyck which have been described by other artists of the times have yet to be found.

      Jan van Eyck's paintings affected my perception of contemporary artworks I have viewed in the past. I can see how he has influenced all artists that followed him. His use of light and symbolism helped me understand the powerful communication tool art works can be. I now understand how an artist can tell a much greater story using art than one can with just words.

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