If you’re at all like me, the name van Eyck doesn’t ring any bells. Perhaps even his most famous painting, The Arnolfini Portrait, doesn’t look familiar to you, though it did to me. I think the first time I saw it I thought, “Is she pregnant?”. Sounds like a dumb question, but apparently I’m not the only one who’s asked it.
So let me say this. I’m not a huge fan of realism in art. Though I respect the heck out of anyone with the talent to draw or paint people or things realistically, from an artistic point of view, I tend to find it boring. This painting is, or should I say, was, no different. As I stated before, I recognized the painting as soon as I Googled “Jan van Eyck”, but it was never anything that blew my socks off. So, what changed for me?
Let me first ask another question. Raise your hand if you saw The Matrix in theaters when it first came out? Do you remember being blown away by the special effects? To quote Wikipedia,
The Matrix is known for popularizing a visual effect known as “bullet time”, in which the heightened perception of certain characters is represented by allowing the action within a shot to progress in slow-motion while the camera’s viewpoint appears to move through the scene at normal speed.
Translation? Folks appeared to hang in mid-air. Remember that? Remember the first time we saw Trinity jump up to take out that cop? Or Neo leaning back to dodge some bullets? So cool, right? Well, ask a twenty-something to watch The Matrix with you now. They may very well yawn and ask, “what’s the big deal?” It’s very easy to dismiss something as boring or “average” when you fail to realize it was one of the firsts, a trailblazer in its’ time. The same can be said for van Eyck.
So what was so trailblazing about a painting featuring a funny looking man and his [possibly pregnant] wife? First, it was a painting of a funny looking man and his [possibly pregnant] wife, as opposed to a religious subject, which was the predominant subject in that era.
Secondly, his use of color. He chose to use oil-based paints at a time when tempera, or egg-based paints, were standard. Consequently, his paintings had more depth and richer colors, and he was able to control the media better.
Thirdly, the realism. Light flooding through the window, the dimples of the oranges on the windowsill, the fluff of the fur on the man’s coat. Not to mention the use of shadows, light, and perspective. Light bounces off the chandelier, and a mirror on the back wall reflects our glamorous subjects.
(Artists and physicists have theorized that van Eyck was able to achieve such incredible realism through the use of curved mirrors and small lenses, something that he would have viewed as a trade secret and hence, not advertised, though some say the mirror in the painting serves as evidence that van Eyck “cheated”. This is not a universally accepted belief, and debate continues on the subject.)
Lastly, and, most importantly (to me, anyway) is something the casual observer might miss. Take a good look at that mirror. Or, more importantly, look above it. Note the lettering present. It translates, “Jan van Eyck was here 1434”. It is a signature, one of the first artist’s signatures in history. Usually, painters painted their [religious] subjects for the glory of god and, consequently, their paintings went unsigned. But not van Eyck. He owned it. Accordingly, while many of his predecessor’s (and contemporaries’) works have been appreciated over the centuries, they cannot be attributed to anyone in particular, while van Eyck’s reputation has been solidified.
For the sake of contrast, I again give you the (unattributable) religious painting included previously, and The Arnolfini Portrait. The first is non-secular, muted, flat, and without signature. Now, does The Arnolfini Portrait seem different to you?
I no longer look at this painting as some boring portrait of an old fart and his mate. When I look upon it now, I see a revolutionary painter, one who obviously believed in his importance as an artist, which, in an odd way, helps me take more pride in MY work.
I see The Matrix. I see the Wachowskis. Sans the loud pink hair, of course.
Next up Leonardo da Vinci.
Footnote: Where do I get my information? The Secret Lives of Great Artists, by Elizabeth Lunday, Tortured Artists, From Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the Twisted Secretes of the World’s Most Creative Minds, by Christopher Zara, and Google (often leading to Wikipedia), naturally.