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date: 23 April 2024

Eyck, Jan van or Jeanfree

Eyck, Jan van or Jeanfree

Flemish School, 15th century, male.

Born c. 1390; died 9 July 1441, in Bruges.

Painter, miniaturist. Religious subjects, portraits.

Any discussion of Van Eyck is inevitably problematic, for the artist and his work have always been surrounded by controversy. Jan seems to have had a brother who was a painter and who is mentioned in one or two documents as having the name of Hubert. However, the documents concerned spell the name in several different ways and, while it has been established that Jan did indeed have a brother, his name was in fact Lambert. Hubert's existence was discovered in 1822 when Waagen had the paint covering the frame of the Ghent Altarpiece removed, revealing the famous quatrain that mentions the painter Hubert van Eyck. Since no works had hitherto come to light signed with that name, ingenious attempts were made to find some trace of them. All those works hitherto attributed to Jan van Eyck, but not signed or dated, became objects of suspicion. Even among those paintings clearly signed and dated by Jan there appeared to be reasons for doubt, since Jan appears not to have started signing his works until 1432. Returning to earlier works, he added dates, but not always correctly. As a result it is difficult both to determine which are early works by Jan and to compare them with paintings that could be attributed to Hubert. The numerous inscriptions on Van Eyck's paintings, instead of providing valuable information, have given rise to endless debate since they are incomplete, imprecise or very worn, and consequently hard to read. Interpretations have varied, therefore, sometimes lacking in objectivity as they are enrolled to support one theory or another. In an attempt to prove the existence of Hubert, scholars have also sought documentary and other types of evidence which can be briefly summarised here. A damaged tile was discovered, believed to have come from Hubert's tomb, bearing the date of his death, 1426. The inscription was subsequently shown to be a 16th-century copy, although that is not to say that it was not an accurate one. Those scholars who support the idea of Hubert's existence have generally based their arguments on somewhat flimsy evidence: in 1424 a 'meester Luberecht' supplied two sketches to the Ghent town council; in 1424 and 1426, a Lubrecht van Heycke is mentioned; in 1426, the heirs of a Hubrecht den Scildere are recorded as having paid dues to remove some inherited property. Unfortunately, these documents neither prove that they refer to the Hubert who was the brother of Jan, nor show that he was a painter. The main proof remains the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece mentioned above. It consists of a Latin inscription in hexameters, and is now so worn as to be almost illegible. Depending on how some of the letters are interpreted, it may read: Hubertus... Eyck. major quo nemo repertus incepit. pondusque. Johannes arte secundus... ecit. Judoci Vijd prece fretus VersV SeXta MaI Vos CoLLacat aCta tUerI. This would mean something like: 'Hubert, than whom none was greater, began it; Jan finished it at the request of the donor Josse Vydt and asks you by this verse on 6 May to contemplate what has been done.' The last line is a chronostich containing the date 1432. There is some doubt about the quatrain's authenticity, however. A microchemical examination carried out in 1951 revealed that the inscription is painted onto a piece of silver leaf that had been substituted for the gold leaf present everywhere else on the frame of the retable. The style of the letters of the quatrain is clumsier than the elegant lettering used by Jan elsewhere, while the use of a chronogram at this period is unusual, whereas it is quite common in the 16th century. This evidence would suggest that the inscription was repainted in the 16th century. The second debatable feature of the inscription is the qualification of Hubert as the greatest painter. If the inscription is genuine, it would seem logical that it was written by Jan and consequently, as Hulin de Loo has written, a formula expressing the modesty of a younger brother towards his elder. If someone else wrote the words, conveying the true renown of this painter, one wonders - as R. Genaille has pointed out - why, if Hubert was such a great painter, he was not chosen by the dukes John of Bavaria and Philip the Good to be their court painter rather than Jan, who was apparently less esteemed. Some scholars have concluded, in view of these contradictions, that the quatrain must be a fake. But this leads one to speculate about the possible motive for falsifying such an inscription. Some writers have suggested that it was the idea of some learned inhabitants of Ghent who, in the sixteenth century, wished for patriotic reasons to increase the fame of their town by inventing an elder and more skilled brother for Jan. The response of art historian E. Renders to this theory is to deny that Hubert ever existed. While it seems reasonable enough to espouse Panofsky's view that Hubert did exist, and that he collaborated in the painting of the Ghent Altarpiece, to do so is to initiate endless debates over which parts were painted by Hubert. This question is rendered the more difficult because the piece been restored several times. It is entirely probable that Master Hubert existed, but it is unfortunate that we have no other works by him. A number of scholars, including Durant Gréville, have re-attributed to Hubert a considerable number of paintings that were originally attributed to Jan. The quality of these works is so similar to works signed and dated by Jan that it is difficult to follow the arguments of these writers. The problem still remains, however, and particularly in the case of the Ghent Altarpiece. Other paintings that have been more convincingly attributed to Hubert include The Three Marys at the Tomb in the Boymans Museum, and the Friedsam Annunciation (New York). The first of these is generally accepted as Hubert's (by Hulin de Loo, according to Panofsky, Beenken and Baldass), while Tolnay considers it to be a copy of a painting by Hubert. The archaic character of the work, its rather confused landscape, and its clumsy perspective lead Chatelet to conclude that it is indeed by Hubert. The Friedsam Annunciation, attributed by Panofsky to Hubert, in the view of Beeken is a copy of a work by Petrus Christus. The composition is still miniaturist in style with a somewhat stylised notion of space. In general, those works that reveal elements of archaism in comparison with the works known to be by Jan are either attributed to Hubert or to Jan's early period. Alternatively, they are either considered to be later copies of paintings by one or other of the Van Eyck brothers or attributed to another unknown artist. It is not at all surprising that so much controversy surrounds the name of Van Eyck when we realise that the first work signed and dated by the Van Eycks is the Ghent Altarpeice, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece. There is no doubt that it must have been the product of several or many years' experience, perhaps that of Hubert, but also that of Jan. But, before 1432, no work can be attributed with any certainty to Jan.

It is known that Jan was born sometime around 1390, but there is no certainty as to where. 16th-century sources say that he was born in Maaseik, in Limburg or Gelderland. Between 1390 and 1418, he seems to have been living in Liège where he is thought to have entered the service of John of Bavaria, who was then in the city. Three documents dating between 24 October 1422 and 11 September 1424 confirm the presence of the artist in The Hague, where he was probably still working for John of Bavaria, who had moved his court there. On 19 May 1425, Jan was in Bruges in the service of Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, who had engaged him as painter and valet de chambre, granting him an annual salary of 100 livres parisis (pound coins struck in Paris). Such an elevated position can only be explained if Jan was already by that date well known and esteemed as the author of paintings that we now have great difficulty in identifying, but which include the panels in New York, the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John (Berlin) and the Virgin in a Church (Berlin). But both the dating of between 1420 and 1425, and the attribution of the latter works, are generally dependent on the dating and attribution of the Turin Hours, about which in turn there is considerable debate. To understand the problems surrounding the Turin Hours, it is necessary to say something about the history of this manuscript. In 1524, Summonte mentions in a letter to M.A. Michiel the great Johannes who 'first exercised the art of illumination, or art of the miniature as we call it today'. This clue suggests that, before achieving the level of his later works, Jan had very naturally turned his hand to try a style of painting that was very widespread at that time. In 1902, P. Durrieu published a series of illuminated pages from the national library in Turin - whence the name Turin Hours- some of which are very reminiscent of the Eyck style. The pages were taken from a book of hours which belonged to Jean duc de Berry around 1400, and was finished at a later date. In 1904, the miniatures were destroyed in a fire. In 1911, Hulin de Loo discovered some more miniatures in Milan that had belonged to the same book - giving the name Milan-Turin Hours- also in some cases Eyckian in style. Scholars studying the miniatures came up with a variety of different dates and attributions. Hulin de Loo, Beeken and Winkler put their dates at 1415 and 1417, attributing them to Hubert. Dvorak, followed by Baldass and Tolnay, proposed a date some twenty years later, about 1435-1437, and Dvorak attributed them to a Dutch painter, possibly Ouwater. Panofsky sees the miniatures as early works by Jan. One of them depicts Prayer on the Shore. Among the horsemen in the scene is the Duke of Bavaria, although it is unclear whether it is William, who died in 1417, or John, who died in 1425 and for whom Jan van Eyck is thought to have worked in The Hague between 1422 and 1424. The inclusion of this figure makes it possible that Jan executed some of the illuminations in the Turin Hours at that time. These differing attributions can be explained by the difference in styles between the miniatures that are unlikely to be all by the same hand. Taking the two publications together (the Milan collection and the Turin collection), it is possible to detect, as Chatelet did, four groups of miniatures: those in an earlier pre-Eyckian style; those by one or other or both of the Van Eycks; those showing an Eyckian influence; those that are of a later date. Of the miniatures generally attributed to the Van Eycks, Chatelet attributes five to Jan and two to a Master H, a close follower of Jan. It would appear that the miniatures that can be attributed to Jan are St Julian and St Martha Ferrying Christ over the Mouth of a River, The Prayer on the Shore, The Birth of St John and The Mass for the Dead. The stylistic features supporting this argument include the confident painting of the landscape in the first two and the successful rendering of space in the last two, which are both interiors. Nevertheless, it can be said that, overall, the details are still strongly influenced by the ideals of the International Gothic style. A similar stylistic assessment can be made of the Berlin Virgin in a Church, the New York panels and the Berlin Crucifixion. This is one of the reasons why these works are linked to the Turin Hours, with the solution adopted for the attribution of the Hours being applied almost automatically to the three paintings.

In 1425, Jan moved from Bruges to Lille. The following year he embarked on the first of the secret missions he was to make for the Duke of Burgundy. He left for Aragon, where he was to attempt to pave the way for his master's marriage. On St Luke's Day, 18 October 1427, however, Jan was in Tournai, where he is thought to have met Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle). From this supposed meeting, Tolnay develops a tortuous argument showing how a number of pictorial innovations until then attributed to Van Eyck were in fact invented by Campin. Nevertheless, at a later date, the Master of Flémalle was ready to show his admiration for Van Eyck by introducing motifs such as the convex mirror imitated from Jan's work. In 1428, Jan was sent on a new mission to the king of Portugal to seek the hand of his daughter Isabelle for the Duke of Burgundy. He went there ostensibly to paint the princess, who was married on 7 January 1430. Unfortunately the two portraits he executed have both been lost. During the year he was in Portugal, Jan must have done some other painting, as mention is made of a St George, which may have been in Spain, and a Portuguese Girl. He returned to Bruges in 1430, was summoned to Hesdin by Duke Philip, and returned again to Bruges where he probably made the acquaintance of Cardinal Nicola Albergati, of whom there is a portrait painting (in Berlin) and a drawing. Of the two, both of which are probably by Jan, the drawing more successfully captures the vigour and truth of the man.

The polyptych entitled the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, often simply known as the Ghent Altarpiece, was presented to the church of St Bavo on 6 May 1432. It was an immense work, not least in its dimensions. It consists of 20 panels that must have taken several years not only to paint but also to prepare in the earlier stages. It represents a kind of synthesis or summary with an overarching theme of the redemption of sinners through Christ's sacrifice. The main problem for a work of this kind can be a lack of unity, particularly if it combines the work of more than one artist. Here the work is remarkable for its unity. With the wings closed, we can see the most homogenous of the compositions: corresponding to the Erythrean Sibyl is the Cumean Sibyl, while the figure of Zaccharias corresponds to that of Michah, each framed by a semi-circular arch. An Annunciation takes up the four panels below this with the Angel and the Virgin on the outer panels. The inner two panels show a landscape viewed through the windows of a twin bay and a trompe-l'oeil still-life that already demonstrates the artist's virtuosity. Below this, two figures painted in grisaille to simulate statues depict St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist standing in niches with trilobed arches. On the outer side of each are represented the Donor and Wife who kneel facing inwards. Despite one or two mistakes of continuity in the representation of the room where the Annunciation is taking place, the outer wings present a composition of perfect homogeneity. The modelling, the rendering of the different materials, the weight and folds of the draperies, the skill of the still-life, the details of the landscape, the realism of the portraits of the donors, the vividness of the colours alongside the grisaille, all give the viewer the impression of standing before something quite new in art. The ornamental and flat preciousness of earlier painting has been left behind, making way for volume, colour and a sense of depth. All these innovations are startlingly present in the figures of Adam and Eve painted on the interior face of the wings of the altarpiece. Here the realism takes on a fantastic and almost surreal appearance which is characteristic of Jan van Eyck's painting. The lower portion of the central panel of the retable is taken up with the representation of the much discussed Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This is an extraordinary and theatrical scene, in which the landscape not only plays a unifying role but also defines a new and airy space that also incorporates minute details: towns, trees and flowers of every kind. It is likely that not all of the altarpiece is by the same hand. The hieratic character of the Christ in Glory, presented as God on the upper level of the central panel, flanked by The Virgin and St John, could incline one to an attribution to Hubert. More difficult to determine is the artist of the Musical Angels, whose costly brocade garments are so skilfully painted. One thing is certain, the lower left wing depicting the Righteous Judges is a copy of the original stolen in 1934. Even if the work is of more than one artist, the altarpiece as a whole has a creative force that points the way to a new understanding of painting. Despite the large size of this masterpiece of religious art, Jan van Eyck appears to have preferred painting smaller works. On 10 October 1432, he dated and signed a portrait believed to be of Gilles Binchois (London), adding an inscription in Greek, 'Thymoteos'. Suggestions as to the significance of this inscription have led to much debate among scholars, including Panofsky and Münzel. A finer portrait from the following year is the Portrait of a Man, signed by Jan and dated 21 October 1433. This work too poses a number of iconographical questions. In the view of E. Durand Gréville, the picture is a self-portrait, even though Van Eyck would have been 47 at the time but looks older in the picture. Panofsky is of the same opinion, pointing out that the subject appears to be looking towards the viewer, the result of posing in front of a mirror. Panofsky also maintains that the absence of hands is another indication of a self-portrait. These arguments seem rather flimsy, and it could be objected that the portrait of Jan de Leeuw similarly looks towards the viewer. The question of the identity of the Portrait of a Man fades into insignificance before the quality of the painting. The artist has employed all his skills to bring to life the face of this man, whose pale complexion is rendered by the use of translucent glazes. Dark and solid colours in the background, the brown cloak and the red turban allow the light-bathed features to stand out from the surface of the painting. Van Eyck seems to have painted not only the surface but also the inner life of his subject, in a way that is almost surreal. Thus we begin to understand what it is that Van Eyck has introduced into his painting: volume, intensity, light and space, all accentuated by his use of rich and saturated colours. The painting of The Arnolfini Portrait dates from 1434, its subject innovative in its intimacy. The couple stand together in their bedroom, seeming to promise themselves one to the other for life. Their faces show all the gravity appropriate to the solemnity of the occasion. All the elements of the scene - the calm stillness of the composition, the iconographic symbols, the choice of colours and the light that is at once diffused and intense - combine to give it a serious intensity that still manages to be full of movement. The composition is based on verticals counterbalanced by opposing obliques that mirror one another. The symbolism of the painting, with its wealth of minute details that demonstrate so well Jan's technique, has given rise to numerous studies and a variety of interpretations, some rather more far-fetched than others. Yet it is clear that nothing in this picture is there by chance, and details such as the single lighted candle burning in the chandelier in the Arnolfinis' bedroom is no decorative whim but a symbol of the faith that the couple have promised to one another. Marriage, fidelity and faith are all symbolised in the many objects carefully arranged by the artist within this interior. Many have commented on the great virtuosity with which Van Eyck has shown the scene reflected in the mirror, thereby opening up the painting to the exterior world, and revealing the presence of two other people, perhaps the witnesses (one of whom may be the artist himself), outside the frame of the composition. Van Eyck demonstrates his ability to conquer a third dimension that he so skilfully suggests here. To speak of such a creation, so perfect in its way, as realist is clearly not enough. Through his use of light to suggest volume, Jan's painting creates space, and offers a reality that is more ideal than concrete, defining a spiritual world of great depth even when treating subjects that would otherwise be genre scenes. The artist puts the viewer in touch with something that exists outside perceptible reality, particularly in his religious subjects which often take the form of scenes of intimate family life as in his many versions of the Sacra Conversazione including the Virgin and Child with the Chancellor Rolin and the Madonna of Canon George van der Paele. The dating of the first of these two paintings presents more problems. Scholars have suggested dates of 1422-1425 or 1435-1436. There is equally some disagreement about the identity of the figure kneeling before the Virgin traditionally thought to be Rolin. Whatever the case, the important thing about this work is the quality of the painting. Once again, Van Eyck has surrounded his figures with light, showing all the richness of the brocade garment worn by the chancellor and skilfully rendering the feeling of weight in the Virgin's heavy red cloak. An almost supernatural serenity reigns, accentuated by the view of a landscape extending away into infinity through the window. Everything in the picture leads to this vanishing point, which starts from the floor tiles in the room where the two figures face one another, and continues along the river that winds through the town and vanishes far away in the mountains. Jan depicts in minute detail every aspect of the architecture of the room and then of the unknown, and probably imaginary, town beyond, where tiny figures can be seen moving about its streets.

Critics and painters, and particularly the Italians, have long been fascinated by Jan van Eyck's ability to depict details with such minute care. Vasari concluded that Van Eyck had invented oil painting, a medium that allowed him to give such transparency and warmth to his colours and to paint with such precise detail. Alexandre Ziloty in his work The Discovery of Jan van Eyck and the Development of Oil Painting ( La découverte de Jan van Eyck et l'évolution des procédés de la peinture à l'huile) (1947) has shown that oil paint was being used well before Van Eyck. His original discovery was how to dilute these oil colours with essential oils in order to make them less sticky and easier to use in the depiction of details. The result was, both in Jan's work and in that of other contemporaries, an outbreak of accumulated detail. By using the normal preparation for oil painting on wood panels of a white base made of plaster and animal glue, the colour of the oil paints appeared brighter, absorbing the light without diminishing it, and then reflecting it back in all its clarity and brightness. All the qualities typically found in Van Eyck's work - beauty of tone, confidence in treatment, rendering of space and transparency - can be found in his painting of 1436, the Madonna of Canon George van der Paele. The sumptuous brocaded garments of St Donatian, the skilfully rendered reflections on the armour worn by St George, and the faces of the saints and the canon are depicted with the hand of a master. Van Eyck had reached the peak of his powers, with full mastery of his medium. It was at this period, 1434-1436, that Jan married Margaret, whose portrait he painted in 1439. When his first son was born, the Duke of Burgundy acted as the child's godfather while Jan's salary was increased from 100 to 360 livres, despite the misgivings of the exchequer in Lille. Duke Philip also sent him off again on a secret mission. His painting, the Antwerp St Barbara, signed and dated 1437, had been supposed by some scholars to be unfinished since it is merely sketched in brown with a fine brush on an oak panel covered with a layer of plaster. The technique used and the very precise details of the exterior of the church visible behind the Virgin, providing such a complete example of the architecture of the 15th century, makes the work seem finished. A work that was definitely unfinished, however, was his Virgin of the Provost van Maelbeke, the completion of which was interrupted by his death. The colours were added at a later date. In 1441, Jan was buried in the churchyard of St Donatian. On 21 March 1442, his brother Lambert asked to be allowed to exhume Jan's body and have it buried within the church itself, his request being granted in view of the artist's fame.

The influence of Van Eyck was considerable and many-faceted. He gave a new impetus to European painting in the 15th century, pointing the way forward. His influence varied depending on the degree of development of painting in different countries and on their differing preoccupations. Flemish painting was influenced both by the spirit and the technique characteristic of Van Eyck's work, although in the work of Rogier van der Weyden there is already a noticeable change. In France, easel painting was in its infancy and it was thanks to Van Eyck that it began to develop at this period. Spanish and German artists absorbed particularly the interior intensity and seriousness of Van Eyck's work, these elements turning towards the dramatic in Spain and towards the fantastic in Germany. The country that was most greatly affected, however, was Italy. Italian artists were fascinated by the magic of Van Eyck's technique and his ability to render reflections, minute detail and the richness and shine of costly fabrics. At this period, it was the Italians who made the journey north to Flanders to see this new style of painting, so different from their own and which they were to try to imitate, seizing on its characteristic details such as the transparent glass vases, shiny armour reflecting scenes from miniature townscapes, and many other virtuoso displays. More importantly, however, the principal lesson that was taken and developed by the Italians, and the Venetians in particular, was the use of light. Thus each nation sought out and took from Van Eyck those things that they were best able to understand and so best able to develop in their own particular ways.

Group Exhibitions

1981, Flemish Painters from Van Eyck to Pieter Breugel (Flämische Malerei von Jan van Eyck bis Pieter Bruegel), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

1998, Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

2002, The Age of Jan Van Eyck: the Mediterranean world of early Netherlandish painting 1430-1530 (Le Siecle de Van Eyck: le monde méditerranéen et les primitifs flamands 1430-1530), Groeningemuseum, Bruges

2006, Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (travelling exhibition)

Solo Exhibitions

1998, Recognising Van Eyck, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Antwerp (Koninklijk Mus. voor Schone Kunsten): St Barbara; Virgin by the Fountain

Berlin (Staatliche Mus.): Crucifixion with Virgin and St John; Virgin in the Church; Portrait of Badouin de Lannoy

Bruges (Groeningemus.): Virgin of Canon Van der Paele; Margaret van Eyck

Dresden: triptych

Frankfurt am Main: Lucca Virgin

Ghent (St-Baafskathedraal): polyptych

London (NG): Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir) (1432, oil/wood, formerly identified as 'Portrait thought to be of Gilles Binchois'); Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433, oil/wood); Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and his Wife (The Arnolfini Portrait) (1434, oil/wood)

Lugano: Thyssen Annunciation

Melbourne (Nat. Gal. of Victoria): Virign and Child; Ince Hall Virgin

New York (Metropolitan Mus. of Art): The Crucifixion (c. 1430); Annunciation; The Last Judgement (c. 1430)

Paris (Louvre): Autun Virgin; Virgin of Chanceller Rolin

Paris (Mus. des Arts décoratifs): Fragment of Architecture

Philadelphia (MA): St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (c. 1428-1430)

Rotterdam (Mus. Boijmans Van Beuningen): The Three Marys at the Tomb

Turin: Book of Hours

Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Mus.): Cardinal Niccolò Albergati; Portrait of Jan de Keeuw

Warwick (Castle): Virgin of Provost van Maelbeke (Ypres Virgin)

Washington DC (NGA): The Annunciation (c. 1434-1436, oil/canvas/panel)

Auction Records

Paris, 25 June 1892: Wing of a Triptych, FRF 88,400

London, 2 July 1958: Christ Blessing, GBP 2,800

London, 16 March 1966: St George Slaying the Dragon (attibuted to Hubert van Eyck) GBP 220,000


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