Arnolfini Portrait


Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (1434) Oil on oak, 82 x 62 cm. National Gallery, London

Where the enigma of this painting arose

Van Eyck’s masterpiece has various names, but is listed as the Arnolfini Portrait in London.

A double portrait, van Eyck represents Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, probably alongside his wife in their Flemish home in Bruges.

This painting is famous for the iconography, the perspective, and the mirror reflecting the space; thus, it acts like the first ever record of a marriage document in pictorial format!

The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the finest pieces in the National Gallery because it is the very first oil painting in history!

Previous artwork predating this van Eyck piece-of-work would use tempera and the Arnolfini Portrait was hailed as ‘revolutionary’ by Ernst Gombrich in the ‘same way that Donatello’ was.

The painting has been in the National Gallery in London since 1842, thus the intensity of tone and colour was done by mixing and then applying layers of thin glaze.

Glowing colors preempt realism which was to come much later, and Arnolfini was clearly a very materialistic man for his time.

Oil paint takes longer to dry than tempera, and the colours blend better, meaning his light and shade work improve the three-dimensional forms. For example, light from the window is carefully reflected on various things, and a magnifying glass was probably used to highlight the amber beads near the mirror!

This painting is extremely old and in fantastic condition. The illusion-ism for the time was remarkable; thought to be the very first genre painting of everyday life where the people are involved in some sort of action in a contemporary interior, it has needed virtually no restoration, though infrared reflectograms show how bits have been altered near the mirror.

It is early summer season because there is a cherry tree outside with fruit on it and the pair are in an upstairs bedroom. Both richly dressed for the season: he is wearing a summer hat. Their outfits would have been very expensive, plus the big chandelier is also a sign of wealth.

You can see the artist’s reflection in the mirror – wearing red – however he is not painting anything. He signed and dated above the mirror using a colloquial proverb of that time, thus the mirror is hugely important to the painting.

Art historian, Erwin Panofsky argued that the elaborate signature thought to be a marriage certificate in pictorial form didn’t have any real legal weight but was something to be admired and something the artist played upon.

Arnolfini traded in cloth, thus fashion and wealth were heavily related. There are small medallions in the frame of the mirror and they show scenes from the Passion of Christ, plus the mirror reflects van Eyck himself as well as two other figures in the doorway.

In summary, there is a dog in the painting, which is a symbol of loyalty – looking out at the viewer – thus, it was common for wealthy women to have a companion.

Where the Pazzi conspiracy arose