Eyck, Hubert Van and Jan Van Flemish Painters

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Eyck, Hubert van and
Jan van
Flemish painters

The brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck came from a family of prominent Flemish* artists. Jan, the more successful painter, is often considered the founder of the northern Renaissance artistic tradition. His work influenced artists throughout Europe.

Hubert van Eyck (ca. 1370–1426). Little is known about Hubert van Eyck. Some experts identify him with an artist known as Master Hubert, who completed a number of works in the early 1400s. Sources confirm that Hubert van Eyck lived and worked in the Flemish city of Ghent between 1422 and 1426. He designed a painting for the city and began work on a monumental altarpiece for the church of St. Bavo. Hubert died before completing this work, the Adoration of the Lamb, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Ghent Altarpiece has been praised for its beauty, realism, and technical mastery. The most famous Flemish painting from the Renaissance, it consists of 24 panels that show Christ, the Virgin Mary, Adam and Eve, saints, angels, prophets, and other biblical figures. Experts disagree about Hubert's contribution to the work. Some believe that Hubert designed the altarpiece and began the painting and that Jan completed it. Others, however, credit the masterpiece entirely to Jan.

Jan van Eyck (before 1395–1441). Jan van Eyck probably studied art with his brother Hubert and began his career doing manuscript illumination*. By 1423 he had become an independent artist serving as court painter to John III, the count of Holland. Although Jan established an excellent reputation as an artist during this time, none of his works from the period survive.

After the death of John III, Jan went to the city of Bruges. In 1425 Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy, appointed Jan as court painter and as varlet de chambre, a position that made Jan an official member of the duke's household. The duke valued Jan and provided generously for him, and the duke's prestige brought Jan great respect.

The artistic services that Jan provided to his patron* included decorating Philip's residences and helping to stage lavish festivities for special occasions. In addition, Jan acted as Philip's agent in buying works of art and hiring other artists. The artist also carried out diplomatic missions for Philip both within Burgundy and abroad. Between 1428 and 1429, he went to the Iberian Peninsula* to negotiate a marriage between the duke and Isabella of Portugal. During this trip, Jan painted a portrait of Isabella for Philip's approval, a standard practice for royal marriages.

Works of Jan van Eyck. Jan's paintings range from portraits and religious pictures to scenes of women bathing or merchants reviewing their accounts. He painted a map of the world, probably after consulting a mapmaker in Philip's court. Although many of these works have been lost, most of the surviving ones contain Jan's signature. In fact, the artist usually signed his works in Latin and often included his personal motto, Als Ich Can (As I was able).

Jan van Eyck's work is notable for its images of the rich textures and details of the physical world. His paintings are so precise that the viewer can see single strands of hair, the shimmer of silk, and highlights on jewels. Although his scenes incorporate a wide variety of human activities, his emphasis on lavish display reflects the values of his many upper-class patrons.

Jan created some of his best-known works for patrons associated with the Burgundian court. The Arnolfini Betrothal, for example, was painted for an Italian merchant who supplied Philip with fine textiles. This portrait of a bride and groom includes a remarkable reflected image in a mirror on the wall, showing the young couple as well as two other figures entering the room.

Jan van Eyck's fame as an artist spread well beyond Burgundy to Italy and other regions. Influential Italian humanists* and nobles from the Medici, Este, and other ruling families eagerly collected the artist's paintings. In the 1500s, the Italian painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari identified Jan van Eyck as the inventor of oil painting. Although artists had been working with oils since the Middle Ages, Jan took the technique to new heights. By using multiple layers of oil glazes, he was able to create enamellike surfaces that gave his paintings a feeling of great depth. The fine glazes also enabled him to blend brush strokes until they almost disappeared. The artist probably used other types of paints as well, including tempera (an egg and water mixture) and watercolors.

(See alsoArt in the Netherlands. )

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

see color plate 11, vol. 1

* illumination

hand-painted color decorations and illustrations on the pages of a manuscript

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Iberian Peninsula

part of western Europe occupied by present-day Spain and Portugal

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)