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Jan van Eyck: giant of the Northern Early Renaissance

Portrait of a Man (assumed to be a self portrait), 1433. National Gallery London


Jan van Eyck was born in Maaseik, a town in east Belgium, around 1390. He painted for John III the Pitiless, then-ruler of Holland and Hainaut in The Hague, and moved to Lille to work at the court of  Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He then moved to Bruges where he worked until his death in 1441 (Wikipedia). Bruges especially was an economically important and rich region in the 15th century due to its strategic location, patronages and trade; I particularly love seeing the clothing of fashionable 15th century Bruges in Jan van Eyck’s paintings – this is a portrait of his wife:

Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, 1439. Groeningemuseum, Bruges

Brugge (Bruges). Not much has changed

Jan the 15th century giant

Jan van Eyck painted during the Early Renaissance. He was a true innovator and pioneer, making his mark using the new medium of oil paint, and basically kicking off the Northern Renaissance with a new style: objects and figures were painted to look more realistic and three-dimensional and were set within a more convincing space than was seen before this time. His work is of such importance that it has influenced painters throughout the centuries that followed.Jan van Eyk’s paintings are known for their incredible detail and use of colour. The paintings have a remarkable freshness, even today, which is mind-blowing given these pieces are 600 years old. His painting, in my view, has never been surpassed. The use of colour, bright and at the same time subdued, and the expression of texture, naturalism and realism are nothing short of miraculous.



Also remarkable for the 15th century, was that he painted not only religious paintings but also secular portraits – most painters still exclusively painted for the Church. He was able to do this as his patrons made sure he was financially secure.


Around twenty paintings attributed to Jan van Eyck have survived. Among these masterpieces are The Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery, London and the Ghent Altarpiece (or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb; Wikipedia). All are incredible when seen close-up. The restoration of the altarpiece was completed in 2019 and the focal point, the face of the Lamb, turned out quite different: it appears that its face had been overpainted in the 16th century. Now the painting has been brought back to its original state, the face of the lamb has an intense gaze and looks fairly ridiculous: see below.


The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. National Gallery, London



Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent


Ghent Altarpiece, detail. Left: before the restoration


Jan van Eyck died in 1441; a statue of him and his brother (who painted as well) can be seen in Maaseik’s tree-lined marketplace. I must say that there are a few lovely cafes around that square.If you’d like to learn more about the Portrait of a Man and the Arnolfini Portrait, have a look at these great short videos by the National Gallery:
Portrait of a Man: https://youtu.be/VMJK1EDG2X8 (8 minutes)
Arnolfini Portrait: https://youtu.be/wM6d9BOj4Ww (4 minutes)

References and further reading:
National Gallery, London
The Met Museum
Van Eyck’s techniques: underdrawing, and  use of red paint