The portraits of Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck was one of the greatest portraitists humanity has ever had. His portraits sometimes outperformed those of the Italian painters of the first Renaissance. Perhaps he didn’t get the “halo” of the person portrayed, like Velázquez did, but by their meticulous details and atmosphere the portraits Jan van Eyck painted had more realism.

Alongside the series of Holy portraits who impress us with their facial immutability as they don’t suffer the physical decay imposed by the passage of time or the effects of passions, Van Eyck painted a multitude of faces worked by age, by diseases and by anxiety and worries. Jan’s penetrating gaze perceived all the details of a face and knew how to transmit them to us with incredible emotional tension. In several of his works, on wood panel or on the frame itself, he traced the inscription Als ich Kan (As I [Eyck] can), a pun on his name, with a strange mixture of Latin and Greek letters. This is the phrase of a humanist who strives to be not only exact, but perfect.

In the last two religious works we mentioned are the wonderful portraits of the donors: the Canon Van der Paele and the chancellor Rolin. In the first, veins and wrinkles summarize almost a clinical picture of this senile face in which a fixed look shines and the tight lips surprised in a gesture of obstinacy and pride. Chancellor Rolin instead appears as a man impregnated with seriousness and lordship for whom the adoration of the Virgin is almost a duty, a product of his high social rank.

In Jan’s individual portraits nothing comes to distract the viewers from the mystery that surrounds every human face. In “Portrait of a Man with Carnation” (ca. 1436, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) we notice the character’s foolishly presumptuous air and notice the painter’s finely ironic accent. Here, the sitter wears a large grey fur lined hat and grey clothes, fur lined at the neck, while holding a small bunch of carnations, symbols of marriage. He has not been identified, but wears the medal of the Order of Saint Anthony, established by Albert I, Duke of Bavaria. This man is older, probably in his early 50s, and has a coarse, rough look.

Portrait of a Man with Carnation, ca. 1436, oil on oakwood, by Jan van Eyck (Gemaldegalerie, Berlin).

But who is the so-called “Timotheus” (1432, National Gallery, London) on which Jan wrote the words Leal souvenir on the faux parapet? This inscription makes even more intriguing the incomprehensible personality of this stranger whose spiritual wealth manages to cross the barrier imposed by a face where certain features produce the impression of an obvious ugliness. This painting is one of the earliest surviving examples of secular portraiture in medieval European art. The sitter has not been identified, but his highly individual features suggest a historical person rather than a hypothetical one. The man is positioned within an undefined narrow space and set against a flat black background. Typically for van Eyck, the head is large in relation to the torso. He is dressed in typically Burgundian fashion, with a red robe and a green wool chaperon with a bourrelet and cornette hanging forward. The headdress is trimmed with fur, fastened with two buttons, and extends to the parapet. His right hand might be holding the end of the cornette. The man holds a scroll that might be a legal document, letter, or pamphlet. Light falls from the left, leaving traces of shadow on the side of the man’s face, a device commonly found in van Eyck’s early portraits. The man sits before an imitation parapet with three sets of painted inscriptions, each rendered to look as if chiseled in stone. The decayed parapet shows the influence of classical Roman funerary art, particularly stone memorials. The first inscription is in Greek and seems to spell “TYΜ.ωΘΕΟϹ”, which has led some to title the work Timotheus. The middle reads in French “Leal Souvenir” (“Loyal Memory”) and indicates that the portrait is a posthumous commemoration. The third records van Eyck’s signature and the date of execution.


Leal Souvenir (also known as Timotheus), 1432, oil on oak, by Jan van Eyck (National Gallery, London).

It has been said and written many times that the “Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban” (dated 1433, National Gallery, London) is a self-portrait of Jan van Eyck. The penetrating force of his gaze leads to believe so, but others think that his physiognomic characteristics give him an air of kinship with the portrait of Jan’s wife, and argue that it is the painter’s father-in-law. The inscription at the top of the panel, Als Ich Can (a common autograph for van Eyck) is here unusually large and prominent. This fact, along with the man’s unusually direct and confrontational gaze, have been taken as an indication that the work is a self-portrait. The original frame survives and has the painted inscription JOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT ANO MCCCC.33. 21. OCTOBRIS (“Jan van Eyck Made Me on October 21, 1433”) at the bottom and at the top the motto AlC IXH XAN. The sitter is sitting in three-quarters profile, his stubbed face is heavily lined with the onset of middle age, and his eyes are semi-bloodshot, he looks outwards with a piercing gaze, looking directly at the viewer. Here again, typically for van Eyck, the head is a little large in relation to the torso.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, 1433, oil painting by Jan van Eyck (National Gallery, London).
Detail of Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban by Jan van Eyck.

“Portrait of Margaret van Eyck” (1439, Groeningemuseum, Bruges), a portrait of Jan’s wife, represents well the Flemish feminine spirit: good taste, sense of order, active and not so dreamy personality. This is one of the two latest of Jan’s surviving paintings, and one of the earliest European artworks to depict a painter’s spouse. The painting was probably created to mark an occasion; maybe to commemorate the couple’s anniversary, or her birthday, or as a gift to her. Margaret is shown in three-quarter view. She is set against a flat black and featureless background, wearing an elegant red woolen gown with grey fur lining in the neck and cuffs. Her horned wimple is decorated with fine lace. In this portrait, Jan took a number of liberties with representation to accentuate the features of his wife. Her head is out of proportion to her body, and her forehead unusually and fashionably high, a device which allows the artist to concentrate on the facial features of his wife. In addition, the geometric pattern formed by her head-dress, arms and the V of her neck-line allows her face to dominate the image.

Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, 1439, oil on wood, by Jan van Eyck (Groeningemuseum, Bruges).

Finally, there’s the famous painting of “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434, National Gallery, London). This painting is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art, because of its beauty, complex iconography, geometric orthogonal perspective, and expansion of the pictorial space with the use of a mirror. Van Eyck used the technique of applying several layers of thin translucent glazes to create a painting with an intensity of both tone and color and took advantage of the longer drying time of oil paint, compared to tempera, to blend colors by painting wet-in-wet to achieve subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three-dimensionality. The medium of oil paint also permitted van Eyck to capture surface appearance and distinguish textures precisely while he also rendered the effects of both direct and diffuse light by showing the light from the window on the left reflected by various surfaces. This famous work was in Spain in the 16th century and still appears in a 1789 inventory of the Royal Palace of Madrid. Stolen by a general of Napoleon, it was bought in Brussels in 1815 by the English Colonel James Hay, who sold it again in 1842 to the National Gallery of London (where it is today) for the modest amount of 600 pounds; by then the painting’s shutters had gone, along with the original frame. This portrait represents the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, who had settled in Bruges in 1420, taking the hand of his fiancée Giovanna Cenami at the moment when he raises his right hand while solemnly pronounces his marriage promise. The scene takes place in the privacy of an upstairs room with a chest and a bed in it during early summer as indicated by the fruit on the cherry tree outside the window. The room probably functioned as a reception room, as it was the fashion in France and Burgundy where beds in reception rooms were used as seating. The window has six interior wooden shutters, but only the top opening has glass, with clear bulls-eye pieces set in blue, red and green stained glass.The couple is very richly dressed, with their garments trimmed and fully lined with fur. The interior of the room is also a display of the Arnolfini’s wealth: the brass chandelier is large and elaborate by contemporary standards, the convex mirror at the back wall, in a wooden frame with scenes of The Passion painted behind glass, is shown larger than such mirrors could actually be made at the time. Even the oranges casually placed to the left are a sign of wealth; they were very expensive in Burgundy at the time. Further signs of luxury are the elaborate bed-hangings and the carvings on the chair and bench against the back wall, and also the small Oriental carpet on the floor by the bed. A dim light enters through the open window and reflects on the room’s various objects. The view in the convex mirror on the back wall shows two figures implying that they were just inside the door and facing the couple. The second figure, wearing red, is presumably the artist although, unlike Velázquez in Las Meninas, he does not seem to be painting. Scholars have made this assumption based on the appearance of figures wearing red head-dresses in some other van Eyck works (e.g., the already mentioned Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self Portrait?) and the figure in the background of the Madonna with Chancellor Rolin). The wooden (foreground) and red (in the background next to the furniture) shoes on the floor and the dog at the feet of the couple suggest home tranquility. The dog is an early form of the breed now known as the Brussels griffon. On the back wall, the painter wrote in Latin on the wall above the mirror: “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” (“Jan van Eyck was here 1434”). This inscription looks as if it was painted in large letters on the wall, as was the custom with proverbs and other phrases at this period. Jan is a Gothic painter, but in all his work he manifests himself impregnated with humanism.

The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on oak panel, by Jan van Eyck (National Gallery, London).
Detail of the window from The Alnorfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.
Detail of the chandelier from The Alnorfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.
Detail of the convex mirror from The Alnorfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.
Detail of dog and wooden shoes from The Alnorfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck.

Besides all these paintings, Jan was also an skilled miniaturist and is credited with the illumination of the Turin-Milan Hours (ca. 1420). This illuminated manuscript contains several miniatures of ca. 1420 attributed to an artist known as “Hand G” who was probably either Jan van Eyck, his brother Hubert van Eyck, or an artist very closely associated with them.

Folio 93v with the Birth of John the Baptist (above) and the Baptism of Christ (below) from the  Turin-Milan Hours illuminated manuscript, illuminated by “Hand G”, probably Jan van Eyck (Turin).
Detail with man reading from the Folio 93v  with the Birth of John the Baptist (Turin-Milan Hours), probably illuminated by Jan van Eyck (Turin).
Detail showing the Birth of John the Baptist from the Folio 93v of the Turin-Milan Hours, probably illuminated by Jan van Eyck (Turin).
Detail with wooden shoes, dog and cat from the Folio 93v with the Birth of John the Baptist (Turin-Milan Hours), probably illuminated by Jan van Eyck (Turin).
Detail of capital D with the image of the Almighty from the Folio 93v with the Birth of John the Baptist (Turin-Milan Hours), probably illuminated by Jan van Eyck (Turin).
The Bas-de-page, or lower illustration, representing the Baptism of Christ, probably illuminated by Jan van Eyck from the Turin-Milan Hours Folio 93v.

Jan died in Bruges on 9 July 1441. The Dukes of Burgundy, who patronage him during his artistic career, took care of his widow and daughter, but of such an excellent painter and great man we lack a contemporary biography. Today we know about him because of official treasury account documents that mention his name, but the intimate episodes of his life (even if they were only a legend) are completely missing: the imagination of these peoples of the Lower Countries didn’t care to trace or to gather biographical data of their painters as the Italians did.

Jan van Eyck is, par excellence, the founder of the Flemish pictorial school and the Early Netherlandish Painting and Northern Renaissance art. He was the first major European artist to utilize oil painting systematically, though the use of oil paint preceded Van Eyck by many centuries. His virtuosity handling and manipulating oil paint, his mastery in the use of glazes, wet-on-wet and other pictorial techniques was of such high degree of perfection that scholars like Giorgio Vasari started the myth that was Van Eyck himself who had invented oil painting. He was also who, at the same time with Masaccio but independent of him, made the discovery of the “visible world”. That is to say, with his painter’s vision, he saw reality as nobody ever saw it before. In this sense, there is no denying in the revolutionary character of his art, which thanks to him became realistic not only for its “real” drama (which is what Masaccio discovered) , but for the reality of the atmospheric space in which it unfolds. Jan Van Eyck’s art profoundly influenced other painters. Thus, in Melchior Broederlam, another Dutchman whom we have already mentioned and who also painted for the Burgundy court, the colors showed an intensity, a natural glow that presaged some of what Jan van Eyck had portrayed.


Orthogonal perspective: (Also known as Orthographic projection). A means of representing three-dimensional objects in two dimensions.

Wet on wet: (Also known as alla prima, from the Italian meaning “at first attempt”). A painting technique in which layers of wet paint are applied to previously administered layers of wet paint. Used mostly in oil painting, the technique requires a fast way of working, because the work has to be finished before the first layers have dried.

Wimple: A medieval form of female headdress, formed of a large piece of cloth worn around the neck and chin, and covering the top of the head. Its use developed in early medieval Europe. At many stages of medieval Christian culture it was unseemly for a married woman to show her hair. Today the wimple is worn by certain nuns who retain a traditional habit.