The Arnolfini Portrait: Theories, Interpretations, and Analysis

Known also as the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, Arnolfini Double Portrait, or Arnolfini Marriage, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait has undergone extensive debate and study. Read on for its complicated history.

Dec 6, 2020By Adrienne Howell, BA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel Design
arnolfini portrait
Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck with a detail view of the convex mirror, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the most recognizable paintings from the Northern Renaissance. Attached to this 15th-century piece of art are multiple theories, interpretations, and analyses of two Flemish people painted by the artist Jan van Eyck. With its original intent unknown, we have only the accounts and speculations of theorists to give insight into this piece. In this article, we will be delving into the most prevalent and common theories of the portrait as well as the techniques of the painter that have made this painting so successful and intriguing over the centuries.


A Tale Of Two Cousins: The Identities Of The Arnolfini Portrait

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Detail of Arnolfini’s face in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434; with Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck, 1435, via Gemäldegalerie, Berlin


The name Arnolfini became attached to this painting from the records of its previous owners. Originally owned by Don Diego De Guevara, an important collector, he gave the painting to Margaret of Austria in 1516. In two separate inventories of her collection, this is where the name “Arnolfini” first comes up. The Arnolfini family built their wealth on the trade of luxury fabrics and were originally from the city of Luca, Italy. Two cousins from the same Arnolfini family are thought to be the people pictured in the Arnolfini Portrait. They were part of the Italian merchant business trading goods, and both lived in Bruges.


Originally, the painting was thought to be a portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Jeanne de Cename (Cenami). However, documents discovered during the 1990s of ducal accounts show that Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and Jeanne de Cename did not wed until 1447, which was 13 years after the portrait was completed.


Now it is believed that the Arnolfini Portrait depicts the former’s cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Costanza Trenta. Trenta, however, died in 1433 from childbirth. Since this was a year prior to the date signed on the painting this has led many to speculate as to the identity of the female. Another clue as to why this could be Nicolao Arnolfini is because of another portrait created by the artist titled Portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini from around 1435. Because of the facial similarities of the two and the fact that it was another piece commissioned by Arnolfini it shows that Jan van Eyck did know him.


Marriage Or Memorial? The Portrait’s Previous And Present Theories 

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Handholding detail comparison between Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Roman Sarcophagus Relief Wedding, in the Massimo Museum, Rome, via feminaeromanae

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Erwin Panofsky’s article, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait’’  was one of the first analyses of the painting that became widely accepted. It became so accepted that it is one of the main reasons why the portrait is still referred to as the “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.” Panofsky made the claim that the image is of a wedding ceremony between Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and Jeanne de Cename. However, in her essay titled “The Arnolfini double portrait: a simple solution,” art historian Margaret Koster suggests that it is instead a memoriam portrait for the wife of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who had died a year prior to the painting’s signature.


Panofsky’s article was published in March 1934, while the newest evidence of the possible new identities of the couple is from the 1990s. It is still worth discussing his ideas in contrast to contemporary theories, as it gives insight into past speculations of the Arnolfini Portrait that were held as the norm for decades.


One of Panofsky’s main analyses is of the positioning of the hands between the couple. The joining of hands, or dextrarum iunctio, is a gesture seen particularly in ancient Roman reliefs in which a man and women hold their right hands together in union. Marriage during the Renaissance was not conducted the same way it is today. There did not necessarily need to be a priest present to officiate the marriage, or even witnesses as long as there was a mutual agreement between the two persons. Instead, Koster suggests that the hand-holding signifies the husband still clinging onto his deceased wife’s hand as her life slips away. The gargoyle next to her hand also signifies the couple’s doom.


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Detailed images of the convex mirror and signature from the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London 


The dog also raises debate as to the meaning behind the Arnolfini Portrait. To Panofsky, the dog represents the fidelity and loyalty of the married couple. Koster suggests that dogs are seen on female tombs from ancient Roman times, as they were believed to guard and guide them to the afterlife. This would explain why the dog stands closest to the female, representing her death.


Another clue as to why this was considered a wedding portrait is because of Jan van Eyck’s signature within the painting. The text translates to “Jan van Eyck was here.” According to Panofsky, this was seen as a literal marriage certificate as van Eyck signed the image with his name and date. It is also signed above the mirror in which the reflection shows a supposed image of van Eyck and another person/witness.


The mirror containing the supposed witnesses to this marriage is another clue to support Koster’s claims. The mirror is decorated with scenes from the Passion of Christ, and she notes that the scenes of death and resurrection are located on the side of the female while the right side contains images of Christ’s life next to the male. By observing it through this perspective, it is seen as another confirmation that the portrait was intended for a memoriam of the woman featured.


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Detailed Image of the chandelier and candle from the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London 


Instead of it representing a marriage, it has been seen as a memoriam portrait for Costanza Trenta who died a year before the Arnolfini Portrait was completed. One reason for this is the one candle that is burning in the chandelier. The candle, according to Panofsky, symbolizes the all-seeing eye of God watching over the scene. The candle also relates to the imagery of the Holy Trinity where Flemish customs of marriage included lighting a candle calling the Holy Spirit. However, Koster suggests that the burning candle represents life as it is directly above Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. On the exact opposite side, there is a place for another candle that has wax dripping from its side. She argues that this represents her death as it is placed right above her head.


Wealth And Gender Roles: Another Interpretation


Another interpretation of the Arnolfini Portrait is that it signifies the gender roles of men and women during this time. In her book Painting and Politics in Northern Europe: Van Eyck, Bruegel, Rubens, and their Contemporaries, art historian and professor Margaret Carroll suggests that the portrait represents a husband signing over control of his business dealings to his wife on his behalf. Men traveling for business or other reasons would leave the daily dealings of their business at home to their wives through a legal document/agreement.


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Detailed images of objects signifying wealth and gender roles of the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London 


A possible clue to this is the cherry tree seen just outside of the window. Arnolfini is closest to the window and therefore it represents his work duties of traveling and providing for the family. Meanwhile, his wife stands closest to a bed and therefore it represents her duties of caring for the home. Carroll sees that her placement near a brush hanging on a statue of either Saint Margaret or Saint Martha also signifies her wifely duties. Their hand-holding can be explained as fides manualis and a sign of consent of Arnolfini signing his business rights to his wife.


What is evident in the portrait is the large number of items that represent the luxury and wealth of the couple. An example is the oranges placed on the far right table. They can potentially have religious or matrimonial symbolism, yet they also provide insight into the wealth of the Arnolfinis. Oranges do not grow naturally in Burges so only wealthy individuals could afford to buy fruits that had to be imported into the country. The elaborate wood carvings of the bed, imported rug, and rich furnishings of the room indicate that its items have important significance to either the commissioner or the artist. They are placed so specifically that this leads to the vast theories of their meaning.


Importance Of Clothing In The Arnolfini Portrait

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Detailed images of the clothing/accessories of the couple from the Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck 1434, via The National Gallery, London 


Most importantly, the clothing of the Arnolfinis showcases their wealth and status within society. The woman wears a vibrant green gown that contains large folds, pleats and dagging of fabric with a blue underdress layered beneath. The trim of her gown is ermine fur, an expensive luxury saved for women of high social standing. She is also wearing jewelry including a gold necklace, ring, and bracelet. Jan van Eyck’s glazing technique helps to accomplish this realistic appearance of the clothing, giving more luminosity and texture to the piece.


The husband is also wearing luxurious fabrics in deeper tones of blacks and browns. His cape is trimmed in fur, and he wears a silver ring. His darker clothing and the use of silver likely represent his status as a merchant and not on the same high ranking as other officials in the court in Bruges. These luxurious fabrics are indicative of the Arnolfini fabric business and reflect not only the fashion popular during this time, but the legacy of the fabric trade that made this family wealthy.


Because of the cherry tree and oranges, the Arnolfini Portrait was likely painted during the springtime yet the garments that the couple are wearing are thick and heavy for colder months. It can be interpreted that the clothing they are wearing is not their everyday attire, but instead was used only for the painting of the portrait. Establishing wealth through imagery was commonplace for people commissioning a portrait during this time. The more clothing a person wore the more wealthy they were presumed to be as they could afford large amounts of fabric to be made for them. This is evident in the female holding up her skirts showing the overwhelming yardage of fabric that was made for her gown.


How Jan Van Eyck Created The Portrait

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Detailed images of Jan van Eyck’s technique of shadow and light of the Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, via The National Gallery, London 


The Arnolfini Portrait is most famous for Jan van Eyck’s rendering of everyday objects in spectacular detail. This is seen ranging from the extremely fine lines of the dog’s fur to the immaculate brushwork, creating realistic imagery. One way he does this is through his use of light and shadow. By establishing a light source from the window on the left van Eyck has created three-dimensionality of the subject’s clothes, the room, and objects.


For example, in the images above, the light cast from the window creates a slight shadow just under the wooden frame. This light also creates a thin white highlight on top of the hat of Arnolfini as well as deep black shadows under the brim of his hat. Van Eyck is known as the father of oil painting and was one of the first painters to successfully use this medium. His layering of paint enabled him to change and manipulate the surface to create greater accuracy.


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Detailed Image of Jan van Eyck’s signature of the Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


An artist signing their work may be commonplace nowadays, but during the Renaissance, this was a new phenomenon. Artists were considered tradesmen and the artist becoming a celebrity or person of importance started to emerge with artists such as Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci, or Jan van Eyck. Van Eyck rarely signed his signature on his paintings and the fact that this reads, “Jan van Eyck was here” instead of just his name or “created by” leads to its mysterious nature.


By attaching his name to the Arnolfini Portrait it showcases van Eyck’s self-awareness of his talent and the importance of being an artist during this time. One of the two unknown figures in the convex mirror is perhaps van Eyck himself. Artists during the Renaissance would sometimes hide self-portraits of themselves within their works and this is another possibility as to why the signature is placed above the mirror.


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Image of the use of perspective of the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


One thing that does not make sense to some viewers is Jan van Eyck’s use of perspective. Artists during the Renaissance were starting to show perspective by using horizon lines, vanishing points, and orthogonals. Flemish artists such as van Eyck used perspective based on several points rather than just one. Within the small room, there is no exact vanishing point where all the lines should meet up at the same point. The lines of the wooden floor and ceiling when stretched do not meet up at the same place.


Also note that the scaling of the people in comparison to the objects in the room also does not align. Arnolfini is near eye-level with a chandelier that is located on the ceiling. The mirror is also placed so low compared to the figures that they would have to bend down in order to use its reflection. While this does not make van Eyck’s painting any less brilliant, it is an important thing to note. This just creates more questions as to van Eyck’s unique approach to painting, why he painted them the way that he did, and what his intentions for this painting were.


Lasting Legacy Of The Arnolfini Portrait

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Individual detailed images of the Arnolfini couple in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434, via The National Gallery, London


After all of this time, people continue to add to the discussion of the possible meanings behind the Arnolfini Portrait. People are products of their time and, even though Panofsky never got to witness the same discoveries as us, it also shows that in the future there is a possibility of finding more evidence that will further change our perspectives of this portrait. Maybe no one is wrong in his or her assumptions about the meaning of this painting. Panofsky’s analysis that it represented their marriage during their brief time together can be just as possible as Koster’s idea that it represents her demise.


Perhaps it started out to represent the couple’s marriage or betrothal until the wife’s untimely death and Jan van Eyck changed the painting until its completion. It can also just as well demonstrate the lives of individuals aspiring to attain wealth and status during a time of innovation and change. What just might be Jan van Eyck’s greatest achievement is that people continue to admire, speculate, and discuss his work and legacy.


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By Adrienne HowellBA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel DesignAdrienne currently works as a photographer and visual artist in the Midwest. She earned degrees from Iowa State University with a BA in Integrated studio arts, focusing on drawing & painting, and a BS in Apparel Design with an emphasis on fashion and textiles.