Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Short films inspired by the exhibition
Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait

Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait

This close look at van Eyck’s jewel-like masterpiece of 1434 considers the intrigue and wonder it sparked when it first went on show at the National Gallery in 1843.

Acquired by the National Gallery in 1842, The Arnolfini Portrait informed the Pre-Raphaelites’ belief in empirical observation, their ideas about draughtsmanship, colour and technique, and the ways in which objects in a picture could carry symbolic meaning.

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.

More from Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites (4 videos)

3:59
Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait
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This close look at van Eyck’s jewel-like masterpiece of 1434 considers the intrigue and wonder it sparked when it first went on show at the National Gallery in 1843.

Acquired by the National Gallery in 1842, The Arnolfini Portrait informed the Pre-Raphaelites’ belief in empirical observation, their ideas about draughtsmanship, colour and technique, and the ways in which objects in a picture could carry symbolic meaning.

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.

3:51
Mirrors in Pre-Raphaelite paintings
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The convex mirror at the heart of van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait intrigued the Pre-Raphaelites; this film explores its link with the recent invention of daguerreotypes, and Victorian trends in interior design.

The Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by the convex mirror at the heart of ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’. They were interested in it as an object in its own right and, indeed, similar mirrors appear in several of their paintings. But it also stood as a metaphor for their own artistic practice, in that they were trying to capture a truth, which went beyond truth to external appearances; they wanted to convey a deeper, psychological, spiritual realism or truth. The pinpoint sharpness of the mirror, the way it could actually capture the external world in such precision and clarity was compared at the time to the camera, and what photography could achieve in capturing reality with sharpness, focus, and precision. In the exhibition, we’re including this small group of daguerreotypes, really to make the point how, at the time, comparisons were drawn between early daguerreotypes and the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings which were shown in public. You look at an image like this, I think you can see the connection; not just the smooth, polished surface, but the miniaturist approach to detail.

These were also things that were so interesting to the general public. By the mid-1840s people would have seen daguerreotypes in the windows of portrait studios, and they noticed things like the extraordinary detail. They also noticed the polished surface. These are highly polished silver surfaces, and they were called ‘a mirror with a memory’. So they were something that was absolutely fascinating to people, whether they could've afforded to have a daguerreotype made of themselves or not.

It's interesting because this is a very recent, modern innovation but the visual effect is similar to ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’. This daguerreotype, for example, where you have the couple, a married couple, as in ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’, looking out towards the spectator with these blank, deadpan expressions. There is this emotional legibility about the whole composition, which makes ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ appear surprisingly modern. One unexpected spin-off of ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ is that the convex mirror became a staple of the middle-class interior. There became a fashion for these mirrors from the 1860s onwards. I think it's because they helped create an ambiguous, mysterious space. An interesting example of this, of course, is Rossetti's house at Cheyne Row in Chelsea, Tudor House. Rossetti apparently had 25 mirrors, nine of which were convex. Two of these have ended up at Kelmscott Manor and one you can see on the staircase. ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ is extraordinary in that it inspired different generations of artists to really question the limitations of vision and to explore different notions of realism. In this exhibition we show how one generation really hands the baton onto the next in using the mirror to open up the pictorial space, bring other dimensions into it, and to intrigue the spectator.

4:20
The Lady of Shalott
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What attracted the Pre-Raphaelites to Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’? And how did the convex mirror from van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait come to play an essential role in their depictions of the mysterious weaver and her deadly curse?

On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye / That clothe the wold and meet the sky / And thro’ the field the road runs by / To many-tower’d Camelot …

Alfred Tennyson's poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ is first published in 1832. It's revised in 1842 which is the year when van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait was acquired by the National Gallery.

… There she weaves by night and day / A magic web with colours gay / She has heard a whisper say / A curse is on her if she stay / To look down to Camelot.

‘The Lady of Shalott’ takes place in a tower where the lady, a mysterious weaver, lives all by herself. She is living under a curse, which means she's not able to look out her window. She must only look at reflections in a mirror. In looking at these reflections, she's inspired to weave a tapestry of what she sees. The Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by the poem, 'The Lady of Shalott' for its magical realism, the fact the lady is a craftsperson working in the spirit of the Middle Ages, and also for its powerful psychology. One day she sees the knight Sir Lancelot riding past in her mirror, and she's so moved by passion for him that she actually turns and looks out the window, at which point her mirror cracks and the curse falls upon her.

Out flew the web and floated wide / The mirror crack’d from side to side / "The curse is come upon me," cried / The Lady of Shalott.

The Pre-Raphaelites loved this poem at first sight. They loved its colour, its feeling, its atmosphere, its mood, and its beautiful use of language, and they set about immediately trying to translate that into a picture. Holman Hunt is the first to do so in 1850. He draws the lady standing in the centre of a loom. Behind her is a large convex mirror surrounded by eight little convex mirrors, each one of which acts as a sort of panel that tells her story. What’s interesting about his solution is that he nicks it off the 'Arnolfini Portrait’ because van Eyck does something similar with his mirror when he surrounds it with the story of The Passion of Christ, which is told in little roundels. Holman Hunt was obsessed with this poem and he approached it and depicted it again and again. For the Pre-Raphaelites, this was a poem that was very much about an artistic dilemma. How do you live a life of beauty and freedom and imagination and somehow bring that out into the real world without, like the Lady of Shalott, expiring? So for them it was about reconciling a life of the imagination with a life of the real.

… But in her web she still delights / To weave the mirror's magic sights / For often thro’ the silent nights / A funeral, with plumes and lights / And music, went to Camelot / Or when the moon was overhead / Came two young lovers lately wed / "I am half-sick of shadows," said / The Lady of Shalott.

3:21
Under van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait
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Discover the astounding masterpiece hidden beneath van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait.

Using infrared reflectography, Rachel Billinge explains aspects of the artist’s meticulous underdrawing for the work and some of the fascinating secrets it reveals.

In the 20th century it was discovered that if you use infrared technology, so wavelengths of light slightly longer than normal light, you can see through the paint and magically reveal the drawings that are underneath.

This kind of drawing we refer to as underdrawing. It's never supposed to be seen in the final version of the painting; it will always be covered by paint. But with this technology we can see through the paint and see whether there’s an underdrawing there, and if there is what it can tell us about how the artist was working.

Infrared reflectography is particularly good at revealing things that are painted in black. This gives quite a complicated image to study, which shows you a mixture of anywhere that black is in the whole painting, from things like Arnolfini’s black hat which is painted with carbon black, so that shows in the infrared. But in places like his purple robe and almost the whole of the rest of the picture, the light has been able to go through the paint, and has revealed to us underneath the first marks that van Eyck put down in a liquid material with a brush, but a linear drawing of what he was going to paint.

Jan van Eyck always does some kind of an underdrawing under his paintings. But the level of detail in the underdrawing for the Arnolfini is extraordinary. To have done this exquisite amount of final precision with the drawing, only to cover it all up with paint, is extremely unusual.

Unexpectedly, in a picture that looks as though as it's so completely finished, we found some very significant changes where what he's drawn is completely different to what he ended up painting. Probably the most important one is the right hand of Arnolfini, which in the painting is sideways on to the viewer. But if we look here in the infrared you can see a hand drawn with its palm out, facing us.

Then there are some parts of the painting which were never underdrawn at all. The most fun one of those is if we look at the little dog; the little dog has no underdrawing at all. The only reason that we can see in the infrared that he's there is that black paint was used for his eyes and his nose. They show in the infrared. But that's not underneath the paint, and that's the surface paint showing.

When you are looking at infrareds of paintings, it can be a huge thrill that you're the first person to see something that was last seen by Jan van Eyck. And sometimes it really does make you feel as though you're getting much closer. You can understand how the artist was thinking. But no, this painting is always going to remain an enigma.