Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck (c.1395-1441) was a Flemish painter and one of the most respected Northern European artists of the 15th century. A common misconception about van Eyck attributes to him the founding of oil painting, but documentation on oil painting from centuries before his birth discredit this belief. However, van Eyck was among one of the first Early Netherlandish painters to use oils and achieved remarkable new effects and mastered the technique, leading to him being called the “father of oil painting”.
Little is known of van Eyck’s early life, the first record is from John of Bavaria’s court at The Hague, where from 1422 to 1424 payments were made to van Eyck as court painter, suggesting a birth date of 1395 at the latest. After John of Bavaria’s death in 1425, van Eyck joined the court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. After living in Lille for a year, van Eyck moved to Bruges where he stayed for the remainder of his life. Van Eyck served as a painter and “valet de chambre” for the Duke, and as such he travelled on several missions on his behalf, some of which probably entailed more than just painting. Van Eyck was very well paid in the Duke’s service, with his salary doubling twice and supplemented by bonuses. Both his extraordinary talent and salary set him apart from his contemporaries and there are many indications of the high regard in which van Eyck was held. The Duke served as godfather to one of van Eyck’s children and took great pains to ensure his family was provided for after van Eyck’s death.
Van Eyck painted for a private clientele in addition to his court work, in doing this he created one of his best known paintings; the Ghent Altarpiece is seen as “the final conquest of reality in the North”. Jan van Eyck was one of the few artists who signed and dated his work in that era. In what is perhaps his most celebrated work, the Arnolfini Portrait, he inscribed above the mirror at the back wall “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan van Eyck was here, 1434). Arnolfini Portrait continues to be one of the most frequently studied paintings by art historians. The illusionism, rendering of detail and use of light were remarkable for the time and clearly the work of a master. One of the most interesting elements of the painting is the convex mirror set on the far wall that reflects the backs of the central figures to the viewer as well as two additional characters, one of whom might be van Eyck in a self-portrait. Many scholars have analyzed the interpretation and symbolism of this painting. In a 1454 biography, Bartolomeo Facio named van Eyck “the leading painter” of the time. Facio called van Eyck a learned man, one who was well-versed in the classics. His extraordinary talent and penchant for using realism and symbolism transcended the division between religious and secular works of art.