Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding is undoubtedly one of the most iconic paintings ever housed in the National Gallery, London. It is an oil painting dating back to 1434 at the peak of van Eyck’s remarkable career as a master Flemish painter. Van Eyck was a native of Maaseik, Belgium, and eager to make his contribution to the Early Netherlandish painting scene. He was popular among influential political figures in 15th-century Flanders such as John III the Pitiless and Phillip the Good, eager to commission paintings. The Arnolfini Wedding is a floor-length double portrait measuring 82.2 cm × 60 cm (32.4 in × 23.6 in) purported to portray Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a wealthy Italian merchant, and his wife at their home in Bruges (Huntsman and Association of Art Historians ).
Its intricate iconography is a typical van Eyck signature trademark and further complemented by a novel expansion technique using a convex mirror. Van Eyck applies successive layers on his luminous coating creating concentrated color intensity and tone, which, inadvertently, expresses the painting’s realism. His artifice of three-dimensional forms was a first during his time and achieved by painting using a wet-in-wet method to capture the distinguishable textures of his subjects.
The subjects in the Arnolfini Wedding portrait are generally speculated to be Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a wealthy Italian merchant, and his wife, Jeanne Cenami. Art historians such as James Wealle, Joseph A. Crowe, and Giovanni Battista Cavalcasell are in unanimous agreement on this notion (Rudolph 252). The painting depicts a couple in a room with a bed and chest. It is highly likely that the portrait was panted in early summer since a cheery tree can be seen through the window on close inspection.
The couple is splendidly dressed; with the gentleman’s tabard and the lady’s decorative garb entirely lined in fur. In addition to this, they also don rings and a golden necklace while holding hands. A brass chandelier and convex mirror are behind the subjects as a sign of their status. Oranges have also been left laying casually on the table, elegant bed hangings, an oriental rug, Passion of Christ painting through the convex mirror, and crystal prayer beads. Both subjects are without their shoes and are portrayed standing next to their grey Brussels griffon dog.
Analysis of Arnolfini Wedding
The primary purpose of van Eyck’s painting was to introduce viewers to Flemish culture through rich iconography. A wide range of variations in the painting’s composition indicates the use of under-drawings during the portrait’s initial planning stages. In addition to this, van Eyck uses a bright color palette to highlight the couple’s opulence. He uses rich tones on the room’s drapery and green color for the lady’s garb, a color commonly reserved for wealthy individuals dabbling in banking. The painter also uses direct and indirect exposure of light to capture the subjects and objects in the painting in their true glory.
Furthermore, the painter pays particular attention to the canvas; even adding a replicated scene through the convex mirror. Van Eyck meticulously shaded his images, layering them to remove demarcations and combine colors. The painter also endeavored to depict beauty in chaos by combining symbols and pictures. Giovanni and the lady who appears to be his bride are standing in confident gait, suggesting their position and excitement when approaching this new phase in their lives (Rees 23). The deep colors are as a result of successive layers of deep glaze, toning the portrait to his liking.
It is apparent to any viewer that the artist was a gifted individual and an expert ahead of his time. The combination of different elements creates a type of illusionism, which was particularly rare during this period in history. Light is expertly harnessed to reveal the objects in the room, and the couple holding hands and succeeds in convincing the audience that people inhabit that particular space in the past. Although the meaning behind this Northern panel 15th-century Flemish painting is still debated, it still stands as a depiction of everyday life during a transformative period in history.