Portrait of the Arnolfini couple by Jan van Eyck. Who are the two protagonists of this famous painting? Why are they holding hands? Is the girl pregnant or does she just want to show us the dress? The details of this masterpiece by Jan van Eyck and the precision with which it was made leave anyone who has the chance to see it in the National Gallery in London speechless. But there are many questions that arise spontaneously and are part of the mystery linked to this famous double portrait. I am Clelia and today we discover the Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses of 1434 by Jan van Eyck.
Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses. Who are the protagonists?
In a beautifully furnished room, a wealthy couple affectionately shake hands. The reflections of their backs can be seen in the mirror behind them exactly in the center of the picture. There has been much speculation about the identities of the man and woman in the double portrait.
It has long been thought that they were the Italian merchant Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife, who lived in Bruges at the time. And for this reason the painting has become famous as The Marriage of the Arnolfini. Until at a certain point more in-depth studies raised some suspicions. What was thought to be the representation of the marriage of the two, it turns out that it is not at all. It is established that the couple married some years before 1434, the date of the painting written on the wall behind them.
It is now thought that the picture always depicts an Arnolfini, but the cousin of Giovanni and his wife. And in the center of the composition and beautifully illuminated by the light from the window, their hands touch in a show of mutual affection and solidarity. The detail for which I always stop almost captured by the work every time I have the opportunity to return to the National Gallery, here in London.
The social status of the Arnolfini
Probably the main purpose of this work is to underline the wealth and social status of the couple in 15th century Flanders. The interior of the elegant Flemish house is in fact furnished with particular details and both protagonists are dressed in refined clothes. It is thought that many of the details used by the artist would have been understood by the educated public of the time, they underline their strong moral principles and beliefs. What’s more, the proportions of both figures also underline their position in society. Indeed, their bodies are elongated and emphasize the volume of their clothes and reinforce the impression of wealth and status.
Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses. Who is the man?
On the left in the center of the work the protagonist really looks like a modern day portrait of Putin, but obviously it is not. It will probably be the fault of his expression. Crowned by a huge hat, his eyes look down and his expression is very serious indeed. The sobering thing is that actually this way of doing is in complete contrast to the welcoming gesture of his right hand.
Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses. Who is the woman?
Next to him, the woman is identified as his wife. And she too wears a hat but this time lighter. A sort of linen veil that illuminates her face very much. Both the faces of the husband and wife are shown in three-quarter view. Van Eyck in fact has the habit of using this pose because it gives the work a greater feeling of depth and realism and therefore the figures appear to be more human.
Most people who see the painting for the first time wonder if Arnolfini’s wife is pregnant. And I for one have always been convinced of it! But apparently it is not certain that this is the case. This round belly was in fact considered a key feature for women of the period and is present in other portraits of the time. To be honest, there are other small details that could suggest pregnancy that we are now discovering together.
However, it’s possible that she’s simply pulling the dress up to show the folds in the rich fabric. In fact, the folds of this dress suggest that it was a very heavy emerald green velvet dress and extremely expensive at the time. But we have to say about an incredible elegance, the pleats of the sleeves and the decorations are indeed spectacular and increase the overall impression of luxury and wealth.
The details of the work
The little dog
But returning to the characters and symbols. At the couple’s feet is a small dog. Because of its association with loyalty and its reputation for being a faithful companion to man, the dog is widely used as a symbol. In this case, it stands between the feet of its owners, in a certain sense uniting them and reinforcing the concept of fidelity between the two.
detail that makes the most talk in the history of art of this painting is certainly the mirror on the back. And it is famous for two main reasons. The first of course is the fact that it reflects four figures, two of which are the Arnolfini spouses from behind obviously and two of which are unknown. It is believed that they are the artist Van Eyck and his assistant or someone otherwise authorized to be present in the bedroom during the work.
The second reason why this mirror is so talked about is due to the fact that it is a work within a work. Around the central mirror, there are 10 small roundels with the representation of the passages of the Via Crucis, including the Crucifixion. One of those carved objects which at the time was a symbol of great wealth and which at the same time gives the artist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
The Arnolfini shoes
At the bottom of the mirror there are other objects in the room that cannot go unnoticed: Arnolfini’s shoes. They are left lying around on the floor to give a sense of hospitality and familiarity to the environment. And they match his shoes on the left in the foreground. It really looks like he just took off his clogs and left them there just long enough to get a portrait. And if you look closely, you can see the details of the wood grain and even the small dark spots on the sole.
The chandelier and the symbols of devotion
Then there are a couple of other details in the work. The first is the chandelier high above the couple. The most absurd thing about this element is that there is only one candle lit in a room where everything declares wealth. Yet there could be an explanation according to some studies. Indeed, the single flame symbolizes the all-seeing eye of God.
Along with this are other signs of devotion: the rosary for prayer on the wall, the miniature paintings of Christ’s Passion around the mirror, and the sculpture of St. Margaret decorating the couple’s bed. And with this detail you have another clue that makes us believe that the woman is pregnant. Santa Margherita is in fact the patron saint of childbirth.
The signature on the wall
Finally, the last detail in the room that inevitably catches the eye is the Latin inscription on the wall with the date 1434 which can be translated as “Jan van Eyck was here”. So we can be sure that the work is a Van Eyck original and it is also not surprising that it is declared so blatantly. Indeed, Van Eyck often signed and dated his paintings in very creative ways.
Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses. The Technique
And probably the most striking aspect of this work is Van Eyck’s skill. It is indeed a genius. By perfecting the oil painting technique at a time when tempera was still the most popular medium, Van Eyck manages to build incredible detail into the work.
By overlapping layers of paint, it adds detail and texture, and creates the illusion of real objects and surfaces. For example, the fur linings of the couple’s heavy robes are carefully reproduced and feel almost soft to the touch. A perfect example of texture, which we talked about in the video on the 7 elements of a work of art. Then there are also other details rendered to perfection thanks to the technique: the patina of the wooden floor with its worn grain, the oranges on the table and on the windowsill that look good enough to eat.
Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses. The composition
A further point is also given by the composition of the work. Van Eyck uses perspective to add a sense of depth and create the illusion of space. The straight lines of the floorboards, the carpet, the tilt of the bed, and even the window frames give the sense of perspective. And each element draws our attention to the central fulcrum of the composition, the mirror on the back wall. This is the vanishing point of the painting where all lines meet.
If you’ve come this far, welcome to the #arteclub for all art enthusiasts who want to find out more about the work or artist of the day. Get ready to discover the gem of today’s post.
Van Eyck has always been considered one of the greatest Northern or Flemish Renaissance artists. It is in fact one of the first to use oil paint in his works and to exploit its capabilities to reproduce very small details.
But how to be so precise? In his early years, van Eyck probably trained as a manuscript illuminator. This may explain his immense ability to observe and depict objects and figures in detail. His earliest known works show his interest in painting people in a landscape, which was highly unusual at the time. But over time he also specialized in portraits.
The mirror copied by Velazquez
Another curiosity linked to the work is the fact that the mirror has been copied several times, in particular by another very famous artist we recently talked about on the channel. Velazquez has in fact exploited Van Eyck’s idea in his Las Meninas to represent the king and queen, who become the protagonists of the work even though they are not really part of it. And Velazquez in the middle of the seventeenth century knows van Eyck’s work because he is right in the building where he lives and works: the Alcazar of Madrid.
The history of the painting and the royal collections
The Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses arrived here from their home thanks to a series of movements. I’ll tell you about them briefly. The work remained in the Arnolfini house until 1516, until it was literally seized to be donated to the Archduchess Margarita of the Netherlands. But very little remains in his collection and it is inherited by Maria of Hungary who moves to Spain together with his masterpieces, including the Portrait of the Arnolfini spouses. And the two remain in Madrid until they are stolen by Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s older brother. But obviously the two can’t find peace poor things and the work is in turn stolen by the British, until it ends up in the hands of King George IV who, however, really can’t stand Flemish painting and sells it to the National Gallery for 600 guineas. the previous currency to our British pound.
And if you liked this post where we discover something more about one of the most fascinating portraits ever, take a look at my Youtube channel to not miss the next videos on the most interesting works of art in history. I also suggest you take a look at my post on Las Meninas by Velazquez or the one on the 7 elements of a work of art.
Thanks and see you next time!