Jan van Eyck

For many years, this painting was thought to be a wedding portrait, of a couple taking vows.  No one knows for sure who the couple are but the best guess is that it is Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini a merchant from Bruges and his bride Constanza Trenta who he married in 1426. By the time this portrait was painted however, in 1434, Constanza had died one year before. What’s more, the couple was childless, it is thought that Constanza may have died during childbirth. So the idea that this is a commemoration of Constanza seems to be valid. 

The one lit candle has has most often been read as the all seeing eye of God. It has also been suggested that if indeed this is a memorial portrait, the lit candle represents the living man while the burnt out stub to the right is a metaphor for the deceased Constanza. Look at how beautifully Van Eyck has painted the gleam of the chandelier, changing between where it’s hit by light and where it remains in shadow. (see the National Gallery for high quality close-ups)

The Arnolfini Portrait  (1434)
Close up of the back wall in the above painting. What do you think is the significance of the painter incorporating this?

Then there’s the convex mirror surrounded by a wood frame showing scenes from the Passion of Christ. In the mirror are not only reflected the couple but also two other people. One is thought to be the painter himself, the other is unknown. One of the reasons one of the figures is believed to be Van Eyck is the inscription on the wall above the mirror which reads, “Jan Van Eyck was here 1434”. This painting is often brushed over as a ‘double portraiture’ with hardly anything else added, concluding that the two people in the reflection are simply members of the family. However, I think this is way too simplistic, and I daresay lazy, of an explanation. I think it is a good hypothesis that one of the people in the reflection is the painter himself and I think the other person is, well, yourself. That is, your reflection is shown to you as you are looking at this intimate scene. This is hardly a rare concept, and was done often by painters such as Rembrandt and Velasquez. (see Velasquez’s painting on ‘Las Meninas’)

Jan Van Eyck was painting a type of linear perspective around the time it was being formulated. Although the discovery of perspective is attributed to the architect Filippo Brunelleschi(1377-1446), it was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) who in 1435, a year after Van Eyck’s painting was created, wrote about the theory of what we now call linear perspective in his book, Della Pittura (On Painting).

The lines don’t seem to quite meet at a vanishing point but Van Eyck was moving in that direction.

partly credited to gailsibley.com