Title: The Arnolfini Portrait
Medium: oil on panel
Dimensions: Height: 82 cm (32.2 in); Width: 59.5 cm (23.4 in)
Collection: National Gallery
About this painting, via Wikipedia:
The Arnolfini Portrait (or The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, or other titles) is a 1434 oil painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. It forms a full-length double portrait, believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, presumably in their residence at the Flemish city of Bruges.
What I love about this painting:
The painting is signed, inscribed, and dated on the wall above the mirror: “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan van Eyck was here 1434). This signature, made to look as if it were an inscription explaining the mirror over which it is centered, is a shining example of the sharp wit the later Netherlandish painters frequently inserted into their pictures.
I suspect his inclusion of subtle humor in his works gave permission to those painters who followed in his footsteps, such as the great Bruegel dynasty.
The colors of the garments are deep and rich. These were expensive clothes, completely befitting a wealthy merchant and his wife. In regard to the controversy which is explained below – yes, this painting is steeped in allegory and symbolism, down to the clogs in the left hand corner placed as if they are going out of the picture. In some cultures, a pair of shoes placed like that symbolizes an imminent departure, usually death.
All van Eyck’s work was heavily symbolic. But she appears to be in the late stages of a pregnancy. To me, given the societal norms of the Netherlands in the year 1434, this means the picture shows a married couple. If they were not actually married, it seems unlikely they would have commissioned a portrait showing her in that condition. In fact, and this will probably expose my self-taught ignorance of art history, it makes me wonder why there is a controversy about their marital status at all.
And the mirror…oh my. That mirror is brilliant.
The Controversy, via Wikipedia:
In 1934 Erwin Panofsky published an article entitled Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini’ Portrait in the Burlington Magazine, arguing that the elaborate signature on the back wall, and other factors, showed that it was painted as a legal record of the occasion of the marriage of the couple, complete with witnesses and a witness signature. Panofsky also argues that the many details of domestic items in the painting each have a disguised symbolism attached to their appearance. While Panofsky’s claim that the painting formed a kind of certificate of marriage is not accepted by all art historians, his analysis of the symbolic function of the details is broadly agreed, and has been applied to many other Early Netherlandish paintings, especially a number of depictions of the Annunciation set in richly detailed interiors, a tradition for which the Arnolfini Portrait and the Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin represent the start (in terms of surviving works at least).
Since then, there has been considerable scholarly argument among art historians on the occasion represented. Edwin Hall considers that the painting depicts a betrothal, not a marriage. Margaret D. Carroll argues that the painting is a portrait of a married couple that alludes also to the husband’s grant of legal authority to his wife. Carroll also proposes that the portrait was meant to affirm Giovanni Arnolfini’s good character as a merchant and aspiring member of the Burgundian court. She argues that the painting depicts a couple, already married, now formalizing a subsequent legal arrangement, a mandate, by which the husband “hands over” to his wife the legal authority to conduct business on her own or his behalf (similar to a power of attorney). The claim is not that the painting had any legal force, but that van Eyck played upon the imagery of legal contract as a pictorial conceit. While the two figures in the mirror could be thought of as witnesses to the oath-taking, the artist himself provides (witty) authentication with his notarial signature on the wall.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Van_Eyck_-_Arnolfini_Portrait.jpg&oldid=446521642 (accessed September 4, 2020).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Arnolfini Portrait, détail (2).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Arnolfini_Portrait,_d%C3%A9tail_(2).jpg&oldid=428220496 (accessed September 4, 2020).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Arnolfini Portrait 3.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Arnolfini_Portrait_3.jpg&oldid=428554231 (accessed September 4, 2020).