Born in modern-day Belgium at some point in the 1380s, Jan van Eyck sprang from obscure origins to become one of the most important artists in the Low Countries, and indeed in the whole of Europe.
His new approach to painting paved the way for the developments of the Renaissance, which would see art completely transformed over the following centuries.
10. Little can be said about van Eyck’s early life
The administrative records of the 14th century contain no information about the birth or early years of Jan van Eyck, suggesting that he was not from a particularly prominent family. Instead, he relied on his artistic talents to make his name known to posterity: the first mention of his existence is in the form of a receipt, for payments made to ‘Master Jan the painter’ when he was in his 30s.
Nor is it clear where, or by whom, van Eyck was trained in the art of painting, or whether he might in fact have been self-trained. It seems, however, that he had received something of an education, as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew script features on a number of his paintings. These inscriptions are one of the ways in which art historians and critics have ascertained the authenticity of paintings attributed to van Eyck.
9. Van Eyck made his name working for Europe’s elite
Van Eyck’s knowledge of the classical and religious languages would certainly have appealed to the elite figures whose patronage he wished to win. His first important employer was the ominously nicknamed John III the Pitiless, ruler of vast swathes of the Low Countries. During the early 15th century, the Duke provided funding for van Eyck and his assistants, who were responsible for the interior decoration of his palace.
Van Eyck then moved his workshop to the court of the more promisingly nicknamed Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, where he worked for the following decades with great success. Under Philip’s patronage, van Eyck emerged as a highly collectible painter and was even sent on diplomatic missions. There are records of a feast held in his honor in 1427, which was attended by a number of other significant artists. The salary Philip paid van Eyck gave him a huge amount of artistic freedom, as he no longer needed to take on private commissions to sustain his family and workshop.
8. His greatest masterpiece was made for another important client
While free from the necessity of earning money, van Eyck still took on new commissions for a select group of clients. It is fortunate that he did since one of these projects became his greatest masterpiece: The Ghent altarpiece.
Commissioned by a wealthy statesman, the altarpiece took six years to complete and is comprised of twelve detailed panels displaying detailed depictions of Biblical stories and figures. Van Eyck worked alongside his brother to paint the masterpiece, although it isn’t clear exactly which aspects should be attributed to which brother.
The highly realistic, and yet awe-inspiringly grand, nature of the Ghent altarpiece place it among the most important of Early Renaissance paintings. The work stands apart from its predecessors, distinguished by van Eyck’s determination to represent nature truthfully, rather than stylize his subjects and scenes.
7. Unsurprisingly, the majority of van Eyck’s work has a similar religious focus
The wealth and predominance of the church in almost all areas of 15th century life made it almost inevitable that much of the period’s expensive artwork would center around Christianity. Van Eyck’s paintings are no exception: whether commissioned by religious or private individuals, there are spiritual elements in almost all of his masterpieces.
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One of the most prevalent motifs in van Eyck’s oeuvre is that of the Virgin Mary. The cult of Mary was a common feature of European worship throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, and still persists today, particularly within the Catholic church. This is reflected in van Eyck’s work, in which she plays a central role, appearing in a range of poses and scenes. Often she is shown cradling the young Jesus, while at other times she sits in contemplation over a book. Her transcendent status is always emphasized by rich dresses and ornate crowns.
6. Van Eyck’s devotional artwork immediately stood out from the rest
During the Middle Ages, the paintings produced in Northern Europe had generally been rather stylized and two-dimensional, lacking depth and dynamism. Van Eyck opposed this approach, and instead strove to replicate reality, paying a lot of attention to light and shadow, proportions and scale. This makes his figures, objects, and buildings look natural and real, an effect most strikingly apparent in his paintings of Adam and Eve, which stood on either side of the Ghent altarpiece.
In this way, van Eyck paved the way for the Northern Renaissance, by breaking free from the traditions and inhibitions of the Middle Ages. He was also an early exponent of oil paint, which would come to be the dominant medium within a century. His use of iconography and symbolism also demonstrates that van Eyck was moving towards a new era in the history of art: his work contains numerous hints, puzzles, and suggestions that the learned viewer might spend some time pondering over. This would also come to be a common feature in later paintings.
5. Van Eyck also painted numerous secular pieces
His work at the court of Philip the Good won van Eyck great renown, and as a result, he was in high demand. During the 15th century, developments in navigation and technology gave rise to increasing trade across all levels of European society, allowing for a new class of wealthy merchants to arise. This emergent middle-class were determined to represent their newfound status in the same way as the aristocracy had historically done: with portraits.
Van Eyck was admired for his naturalistic representation of facial features and expressions, and so he was sought out to paint dozens of portraits throughout the 1430s. Nine of these show the sitter facing slightly away from the center, in a pose that later became known as a three-quarter view, and which was adopted by many later painters across Europe.
4. The most important of his secular works is undoubtedly The Arnolfini Wedding
Painted in 1434, the Arnolfini Wedding is widely considered one of the most important paintings in the history of the Northern Renaissance. Complex and symbolic, it serves as a status symbol for the subjects, a wealthy merchant named Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his bride. The ornate chandelier, grand bed, and even the tiny dog all proclaim the couple’s wealth.
More interesting than these decorative features, however, are the technical details that make the piece emblematic of the artistic advancements of the time. Van Eyck demonstrates an impressive understanding of perspective, with which he accurately captures the depth and breadth of the room without exaggerating its proportions.
To achieve this effect, van Eyck depicts a mirror on the furthest wall. It reflects the room, the window, and, if one looks closely, a tiny figure entering the door. This detail raises questions about who the man might be and suggests a new role for the artist and audience as participants in the scene. These types of features came to characterize Renaissance art, which constantly demanded more interaction from its viewer, and presented a new range of conceptual possibilities.
3. Van Eyck came up with a cunning way of preserving and expanding his own reputation
It was exceedingly rare at the time for an artist to sign his paintings, which is one of the reasons that critics and historians face a particular challenge in attributing artworks predating the 16th century. Van Eyck was an exception, however, and many of his pieces bear a variation on his name.
This is sometimes in the form of a pun: a few paintings show the words als ich kan (‘as best I can’), with ich pronounced much like ‘Eyck’. On others appear the words Johannes de Eyck fuit hic (‘Johannes van Eyck was here’). Both variants serve as a way of ensuring that his name survived alongside his paintings.
2. Van Eyck was immediately acknowledged as a master in his field
Van Eyck died in his 50s, leaving many of his masterpieces unfinished. Lots of these were completed by the assistants and apprentices in his workshop, which was run by his brother Lambert, and continued to fetch extraordinarily high prices. A year after his death, his body was exhumed and set up within Bruges’ main cathedral, where it attracted visitors and mourners alike, who came to pay their respects to the late master.
Van Eyck features as an important figure in many of the earliest written works concerning the history of art, including Facio’s On famous men and Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. The latter even credits him with the invention of oil painting, although this has since been proven incorrect. The fact that these Italian writers thought so highly of the Dutch painter demonstrates the influence and fame he had won across Europe.
1. Today, the work of van Eyck is still ranked among the most valuable art ever produced in the Low Countries
The majority of van Eyck’s extant body of work remains in the keeping of institutions, such as museums or churches, where they are closely guarded. As a result, pieces by van Eyck are incredibly rare on the market. To demonstrate the extraordinary value of his paintings, it is telling that a triptych from his workshop, made after his death, fetched $79,500 at Christie’s in 1994.
More notably still, the value of the Ghent altarpiece is indicated by the sheer amount of times it has been stolen! In fact, it is one of the world’s most abducted pieces of art, having been transported across the continent multiple times and coveted by a range of European powers from Napoleon to the Nazis. During the early 19th century, the side panels alone were sold to Frederick William III of Prussia for the staggering sum of £16,000 (equivalent to around $2m in today’s money). The astounding history of this masterpiece proves the importance of Jan van Eyck as an artist and helps to reaffirm his legacy as one of the Renaissance’s most important painters.