When ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ went on public display first at the British Institution in 1841, and then at the National Gallery before a broader audience in 1843, it immediately began to command attention. A couple in this interior: What was their relationship? Were they greeting the spectator, r was it a marriage scene? Given the Victorian mindset and its emphasis on sexual morality, some people thought the woman might be pregnant and this hasty ceremony had taken place, so the child would be legitimate when it was born.
But we know from other 15th-century representations that it was quite normal for women to hold these bulky gowns up in exactly this way.
Then in the 1860s, with new research, it was argued that actually it was a representation of this merchant from Lucca, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife.
So in the room they’re standing in we can see on the right-hand side, a bed with red curtains. It was quite normal to have beds in your living room. They were expensive items and you might want to show them off. On the left-hand side, we can see that there’s an open window. We can just see a tiny little bit of a cherry tree. And on the windowsill and below, there are some oranges just catching the light. Oranges would have been very expensive items at this time in 15th-century Bruges, and you would be showing off in a painting that you were rich enough to have oranges at this period in Northern Europe.
The mirror is placed like an eye in the centre of the composition, which really adds to the mystery and the strangeness. Who are the two people seen entering the room? The mirror has the effect of compressing the space but expanding it at the same time, and bringing the world outside the picture frame into the heart of the composition.
Above the mirror, as though written on the wall, is this extraordinary inscription in very elaborate writing and it’s in Latin but it says, ‘Jan van Eyck has been here, 1434;’ the date of the painting. So it’s both a signature and perhaps an indication not just that Jan van Eyck painted every inch of this picture but that he’s shown here, just below, coming into the room.
This adds a narrative dimension. Who are these strangers? Why are they here? Is it an important occasion? Is there some spiritual or religious significance? So it's a painting which poses more questions than it can actually address, or answer.
Van Eyck shows off the way in which he can render different contrasting textures brilliantly. So we see the light glancing off the brass chandelier and off the glass beads of the rosary hanging below.
The carpet, the hairs on the dog, the wooden heels of the pattens, the glass panes in the window.
And we can almost feel the texture of the fur lining the robes of the man on the left and his wife on the right.
You almost feel you can touch every single surface. So it allows a wonderful, sensory appreciation of the painting and the environment he’s conjuring up with this incredible technique.