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Reflections: How Van Eyck inspired the romantics

Reflections: Van Eyck & the Pre-Raphaelites, a new exhibition at the National Gallery, London, explores the influences of Van Eyck on later generations of painters

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife and ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, 1434. Oil on oak, National Gallery, London, © The National Gallery, London

This aptly named exhibition explores the influence of Van Eyck’s painting of The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) on two generations of artists of the nineteenth century, beginning with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) founded in 1848 and later painters of the nineteenth century – and in this it succeeds admirably.

The founder members of the PRB – William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti – attended the Royal Academy School of Art, which was situated in the East wing of the National Gallery. They reacted against what they saw as the ‘decadence’ of High Renaissance art, which was taught at the Academy, with its exaggerated gestures, contorted bodies and complex compositions. Instead they espoused what they saw as the more profound and emotionally restrained, more ‘authentic’ form of expression that could be found in Medieval and Early Renaissance art, i.e. art that came before Raphael. Thus, when the National Gallery acquired The Arnolfini Portrait in 1842 – the first early Netherlandish painting on public display – it had a profound effect on the PRB, who admired the precision, real symbolism and naturalism, and saw it as a vehicle for the ‘new’ style of British painting, which they espoused.

This famous and controversial painting was executed by Jan van Eyck in 1434, and, in its own way, was new and revolutionary in its own time. Although much has been written about this painting, it is not known for certain the identity of the people represented or the purpose of the work. It would appear to depict a married couple and is thought to be Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, perhaps on the occasion of their marriage or betrothal. This theory is predicated on him remarrying between the death of his wife in 1433 and the painting of this double portrait in 1434 - not impossible, but not proven either. Recent opinion is that it does not represent their marriage, though its real meaning remains obscure.

Mystery and myth also surround the artist, Jan van Eyck. Although there are many works dated and signed by him, little or nothing is known about him before 1422. We do know that he completed the celebrated Ghent altarpiece in 1432, which is thought to have been started by his brother Hubert, who died in 1426. This is the same decade that the great works of Masaccio and Donatello were completed. Unlike the Florentines who applied the rules of perspective and foreshortening, and created their figures from a profound understanding of anatomy in order to achieve realistic representation, van Eyck did not effectively engage with these scientific theories of optics. Instead he adopted for a different approach, achieving the illusion of nature by close observation and the analysis of surface textures and minute details; in this way he was able to reach an understanding of form and space. His particular style and methodology were enhanced by his development of the techniques of oil-painting and varnishes, creating jewel-like colours and a hard finish. Van Eyck’s slow, methodical, meticulous approach resulted in works of startling realism but lacking somewhat in drama or emotion. This vastly appealed to the PRB.

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt. Oil on canvas © Tate, London (T02075)

This enigmatic painting fascinates even today but how much more so for the young art students seeing it for the first time in 1842. Not only because of its meticulous realistic detail but because of its intriguing iconographic content much of which we are unable to decode.

Here we have a prosperous couple, whose figures loom large in the foreground of what is a restricted and confined space. The woman’s figure is particularly ‘opulent’ and although she appears to be pregnant, it is now thought that she is merely fashionably dressed. Despite this, the artist has managed to cram in an impressive range of objects and symbols. Between the couple are a convex mirror on the rear wall and a brass candelabrum on the ceiling above, while on the floor between them is a dog, symbol of marital fidelity.

The convex mirror acts like an eye looking back at us - thus it reflects ‘us’ the two persons seen entering the room, one of which is the painter. The mirror visually transgresses the surface of the picture, opening up the space both forward and backwards - Arnolfini gestures a welcome to the viewer in front of the painting, while the mirror behind him reflects ‘our’ space; thus through the mirror we see beyond the room to ‘ourselves’ in front of the painting.

Sir Edward Burne-Jone, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, 1862, Pencil on paper

Victoria and Albert Museum, London (E.2857-1927), © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Perhaps not surprisingly, this motif of the convex mirror became hugely popular – and not just with the PRB, who used it repeatedly in their own works to explore different versions of realism. The convex mirror became an object de rigour to the Victorians for their homes (Rosetti apparently had 24 convex mirrors in his house). An imaginative touch on the part of the curators is to hang convex mirrors on the walls, which reflect groups of paintings – thus they are related symbolically as well as visually. Furthermore, these mirrors are not just an effective conceit but historic objects in their own right – one belonged to Rossetti and the other to William Orpen.

An early example of using a mirror to enhance the viewing experience and to explore more deeply the psychology of emotional meaning is The Awakening Conscience (1853) by Holman Hunt. A young courtesan is shown trying to rise from her lover’s lap with an expression of enlightened comprehension. Here light is used as a metaphor amplified by the mirror. She is gazing into a bright and lovely garden through a window behind the viewer, but reflected to us by a mirror behind her. She appears caught in her lover’s arms but is attempting to escape like the bird caught by a cat nearby (the cat’s expression, rather uncannily, mirrors that of the man!), her dilemma akin to the skein of tangled wool at her feet. Heavy-handed morality perhaps but the ideas are clearly derived from The Arnolfini Portrait, reinterpreted through the lens of the aims and ambitions of the PRB.

William Orpen, A Bloomsbury Family, 1907, Oil on canvas. Scottish National Gallery (GMA 881), © National Galleries of Scotland

Later the mirror is used to introduce other worlds of dream and fantasy, often darker in tone. Thus in (1862) the convex mirror is surrounded by portraits of different aspects of Eleanor’s profile, as she is about to murder Rosamund. This is a direct (though much less accomplished) appropriation of the mirror in The Arnolfini Portrait, which is surrounded by tiny, exquisitely rendered scenes of the passion of Christ.

Much later still, the convex mirror is again employed as the ‘artist’s eye’ (cf. The Arnolfini Portrait) in The Bloomsbury Family (1907) by William Orpen, where it appears prominently in the middle of the back wall, like a porthole.

John Everett Millais, Mrs James Wyatt Jr and her daughter Sarah, about 1850. Oil paint on mahogany Tate: Purchased 1984, © Tate, London

Significantly, the acquisition of The Arnolfini Portrait coincided with the invention of photography with its emphasis on sharp focus and attention to detail, but with rather stiff poses of the sitters. Thus to the Victorians, The Arnolfini Portrait, somewhat ironically, appeared ‘modern’. This is explored in one section of the exhibition and is illustrated by the inclusion of Mrs James Wyatt Jr and Her Daughter Sarah (c.1850) by John Everett Millais.

The strength of the exhibition lies in establishing the context and providing clear examples to support the argument proposed by the curators. The display is imaginatively designed with The Arnolfini Portrait rightly placed centre stage. It has been hung at a level that allows the viewer to look directly into the mirror and it is possible to approach much more closely than usual, thus the fine details of the painting can be appreciated.

The exhibition is a collaborative effort between the National Gallery and the Tate, and includes key works on loan from the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite collection.


Reflections: Van Eyck & the Pre-Raphaelites

The National Gallery, London

Showing from: 2 October 2017 - 2 April 2018

For more information CLICK HERE


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