Jan van Eyck, the most famous and innovative Flemish painter of the 15th century, is thought to have come from the village of Maaseyck in Limbourg.
No record of his birthdate survives, but it is believed to have been about 1390; his career, however, is well documented. He was employed (1422-24) at the court of John of Bavaria, count of Holland, at The Hague, and in 1425 he was made court painter and valet de chambre to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. He became a close member of the duke’s court and undertook several secret missions for him, including a trip (1428-29) to Spain and Portugal in connection with negotiations that resulted in the marriage (1430) of Philip of Burgundy and Isabella of Portugal. Documents show that in 1432-33 van Eyck bought a house in Bruges. He signed and dated a number of paintings between 1432 and 1439, all of which are painted in oil and varnished.
According to documents, he was buried on July 9, 1441. Van Eyck has been credited traditionally with the invention of painting in oils, and, although this is incorrect, there is no doubt that he perfected the technique. He used the oil medium to represent a variety of subjects with striking realism in microscopic detail; for example, he infused painted jewels and precious metals with a glowing inner light by means of subtle glazes over the highlights. Like Robert Campin, van Eyck carefully selected and arranged his subject matter so that it would contribute deeper symbolic meaning to his painting, a style that Erwin Panofsky has called disguised symbolism. The meticulous attention to detail in his paintings of architectural interiors and landscapes is also evident in his portraits, painted with unrelenting, dispassionate accuracy. Van Eyck’s most famous and most controversial work is one of his first, the Ghent altarpiece (1432), a polyptych consisting of twenty panels in the Church of St.
Bavo, Ghent. On the frame is an incomplete inscription in Latin that identifies the artists of the work as Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The usual interpretation is that Hubert van Eyck (d. Sept.
18, 1426) was the brother of Jan and that he was the painter who began the altarpiece, which Jan then completed. Another interpretation is that Hubert was neither Jan’s brother nor a painter, but a sculptor who carved an elaborate frame for the altar. Because of this controversy, attribution of the panels, which vary somewhat in scale and even in style, has differed, according to the arguments of scholars who have studied the problem.
The exterior of the altar depicts Jodocus Vijdt, the donor, and his wife kneeling on either side of two grisaille (painted in gray to resemble statuary) representations of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist; above is an Annunciation. The brightly colored interior is dominated by a panel representing the Adoration of the Holy Lamb.
Equally famous is the wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434; National Gallery, London), which the artist signed “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan van Eyck was here), testimony that he witnessed the ceremony. Other important paintings are the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1433-34 Louvre, Paris) and the Madonna of Canon van der Paele (1436; Groeninge Museum, Bruges). Bibliography: