The speaking image

Jan van Eyck: 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, detail
Jan van Eyck, 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, detail 

In the inscription on the frame, it is Margaret herself who announces: ‘My husband Jan completed me on 15 June 1439’. She was 33 years old.

Although no beauty by modern tastes, Margaret comes across as a forceful personality. Her maiden name is not known, but she seems to have had a relatively high social status, probably coming from a similar rank as Jan. Her clothes are expensive, and certainly not those of the wife of a craftsman painter. 

Margaret had several children and outlived her husband by 15 years or more, probably continuing to run his workshop after his death.1

Creation of the speaking image

Van Eyck used a number of devices to create the impression of a living, speaking woman. As with many of his portraits, the head is given emphasis by making it overlarge in proportion to the body.

Although his masterly understanding of the planes of Margaret’s face is demonstrated by the shading of her left temple, cheek, and jaw, and above all in the placing and depiction of her ear, her nose is presented slightly too far in profile for the rest of her face.2 Van Eyck did this in other portraits as well, drawing attention to an easily recognisable feature. It perhaps also gives an impression of mobility in the sitter as the viewer unconsciously accommodates the shifting viewpoint.

Margaret's eyes

Much of the sense of Margaret's character comes from her watchful blue-grey eyes. The graduation to hazel towards the pupil has been precisely observed.

Jan van Eyck, 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of her left eye
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of her left eye 
Jan van Eyck: 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of her right eye
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of her right eye 

 

When Margaret's eyes are examined separately it becomes apparent her right iris has been painted larger than her left. This is not a defect of hers or of her husband’s brush control. Rather, it is an indication of Van Eyck’s readiness to distort literal observation to enhance the sense of a living being.

Jan van Eyck, 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of her hair
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of her plait and hairnet 
Jan van Eyck: 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of her left eyebrow
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of her left eyebrow 

 

One small imperfection that Van Eyck did faithfully record is in Margaret's left eyebrow. At first glance it might appear that the interruption in the eyebrow is the result of damage to the paint surface. Under magnification, however, we can see that Van Eyck has deliberately left a break in the painting of fine red-brown hairs.

Margaret must have had a small scar or perhaps she had the somewhat patchy eyebrows typical of a redhead. The gingery hair coiled around the horns may well have been false, but presumably matched her real hair colour.

Jan van Eyck: 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of the side of her nose
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of the side of her nose 

Margaret's complexion

Now that the painting is free of its discoloured yellow varnish, Margaret's cool pink and typically Northern complexion is evident. The area of pink skin on the side of her imposing nose is painted with hatched brushstrokes that define its shape.

The slight flush around the right side of her chin, on the other hand, is added with small pointilliste flecks of colour.

When magnified, her thin-lipped mouth becomes almost sensuous as a result of the streak of deep pink where her lips meet.  

 

Jan van Eyck: 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of her lips
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of her lips 
Jan van Eyck: 'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', 1439, photomicrograph of her chin
'Margaret, the Artist's Wife', photomicrograph of her chin 

 

Next: The inscriptions and frame mouldings

 

1. See the catalogue entry in L. Campbell, M. Falomir, J. Fletcher and L. Syson, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian', Exh. Cat., National Gallery, London 2008, p. 180 and also p. 43.

2. For distortion to emphasise likeness in Renaissance portraiture see L. Campbell, 'Renaissance Portraits', New Haven and London 1990, pp. 9–12. 

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