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Jan van Eyck: Biography, Technique & Portraits

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Jan van Eyck was an influential painter of the Early Renaissance. In this lesson, we will discuss his life, innovative techniques, world-famous portraits and impact on the art world. At the end, test your knowledge with a quiz.

Who was Jan van Eyck?

Most of us are familiar with the Italian giants of the Renaissance: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, and so forth. But northern European artists also helped make the Renaissance what is arguably the most influential period in art history. One of the first names you will encounter when searching important northern European artists is Jan van Eyck, who revolutionized portraiture, increased realism in Medieval works, and pioneered the art of oil painting.

Portrait of a Man, a possible self-portrait of Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck was born around 1395, at the end of the Middle Ages. The Black Death had swept across Europe, killing approximately a third of the population, and widespread warfare made life even more difficult. Not much is known about van Eyck's early life, but it's believed he was born in Flemish region of Belgium and grew up in the Netherlands, where he lived his adult life.

At the time, the area was under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire, headed by the Pope and his appointed emperor. Van Eyck's earliest works are traced back to the noble courts of John III, Duke of Bavaria, a noble in the area in the early half of the 15th century. Van Eyck operated a workshop that provided both secular and ecclesiastical works to the Duke's court.

After the Duke's death in 1425, Jan van Eyck moved up the ranks, providing paintings for more prominent nobles, including Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who ruled over huge areas of the Netherlands. Philip the Good was an important patron of the arts, and many of van Eyck's major works were completed during this time. Van Eyck was commissioned to paint important portraits for the duke and his cohorts, including Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck was famous even during his lifetime and was one of the few artists who actually signed his own works. Van Eyck's career was short-lived, however, as he died in 1441. His family carried on his workshop and legacy, and his influences have been lauded and written about to this day.

Van Eyck's Artistic Style

Jan van Eyck is best known for his exquisite portraiture, and he was entrusted with painting some of the world's most influential people of the time. Van Eyck's portraits brought terrific realism and emotion into the portraits of his subjects. While this might not seem that significant, paintings for nearly a thousand years prior always showed humans in idealized, emotionless forms, preferring to focus on sacred images linked to Christianity. Van Eyck's most famous religious piece, the Ghent Altarpiece, mixed his blend of realism and mastery of the human form into an 11x5-foot altarpiece made up of 12 wooden panels. When opened, the panels show the adoration of Christ and God seated as king, as well as the Virgin Mary, Adam and Eve, and John the Baptist.

Arnolfini Portrait
Arnolfini Portrait

Van Eyck's portraits showcased his secular style, where his mastery of facial expressions and knowledge of nature shines through. He also used oil paintings, relatively unknown for the time period, to get in the fine detail and colors needed in realistic portraiture. One of van Eyck's most famous portraits is the Arnolfini Portrait, which shows a wealthy Italian merchant embracing his wife. The piece shows extraordinary detail down to the quality of the hands, which became key indicators of an artist's skill during the Renaissance. The Arnolfini Portrait is also famous for its usage of symbolism, showing elements such as love, loyalty, marriage, and faith. The painting is historically significant because it shows Arnolfini's wife in equal stature to him, as opposed to the common view of women as subordinate to men.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin
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