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Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait

Key facts
Full title Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife
Artist Jan van Eyck
Artist dates active 1422; died 1441
Date made 1434
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 82.2 × 60 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Dated and inscribed
Acquisition credit Bought, 1842
Inventory number NG186
Location Room 28
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck

This must be one of the most famous and intriguing paintings in the world. A richly dressed man and woman stand in a private room. They are probably Giovanni di Nicolao di Arnolfini, an Italian merchant working in Bruges, and his wife.

Although the room is totally plausible – as if Jan van Eyck had simply removed a wall – close examination reveals inconsistencies: there’s not enough space for the chandelier, and no sign of a fireplace. Moreover, every object has been carefully chosen to proclaim the couple’s wealth and social status without risking criticism for aping the aristocracy.

The man’s hand is raised, apparently in greeting. On the back wall, a large convex mirror reflects two men coming into the room, one of whom also raises his arm. Immediately above it is Van Eyck’s signature. Could the man in mirror be van Eyck himself, with his servant, coming on a visit?

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