Paintings You Should Know: The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck (1834)

The Arnolfini Portrait, also known as The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, or The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, is one of those paintings which changed the world of art. During the preceding Gothic period, art had been focussed almost exclusively on religious subjects, but this is a large-scale work depicting two real individuals in a realistic setting.

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Many art historians believe that the portrait was essentially a marriage contract between Giovanni Arnolfini and the woman pictured beside him, whose name is unknown, and point to various objects in the painting as symbols of marriage. The dog, for example, represents fidelity, the joined hands represent joining in marriage, and the bed… Not all scholars agree, and another popular interpretation is that this is a memorial painting for a dead wife. Again, those who hold this view invoke symbols to back their position, particularly the single lit candle over Giovanni’s head and the burnt-out candle-stub above his wife’s. Or perhaps the painting shows Giovanni, a wealthy merchant, giving his wife authority to act as his agent. We simply don’t know.

What we do know is that Jan Van Eyck, who was born around 1390 and active in Bruges in the first part of the fifteenth century, was a high-profile and innovative artist. He was court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, from 1425 until his death in 1441, and was entrusted with a number of diplomatic missions during that period. He painted both secular and religious works, and had a huge influence on the Northern Renaissance.

His innovation is obvious in the Arnolfini Portrait, which is painted in the newly-developed oil paint rather than tempera, which was more common at the time. The incredible detail of the picture suggests that he used a magnifying glass to help him complete the work, particularly the reflection of the room in the mirror.

The Arnolfini Portrait measures 82.2cm by 60cm and is painted in oils on an oak panel made up of three vertical boards. It is held in the National Gallery, London.

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