While not the first to use oil paints, Jan van Eyck made use of its advantages more than anyone before him. Combined with his masterful draftsmanship, the details and accuracy possible made him one of the most sought after and highly paid artists of the early 15th Century.
The most recognizable to modern viewers is The Arnolfini Portrait, also known as The Arnolfini Wedding, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, and a slew of other titles. Mrs. Arnolfini is not pregnant, but merely showing off her fashionably voluminous skirt. St. Catherine, a virgin, can be seen wearing a similarly styled dress on the right side of a triptych by van Eyck.
Nor is this double portrait likely a record of a new marriage. The painting is full of meaning and symbols: the convex mirror is surrounded by images of the Passion of Christ, the cast aside shoes on the floor, the carving of St. Margaret (patron saint of childbirth) on the finial of the bedpost, the single burning candle, and a host of other details have particular meaning and have been speculated upon for centuries. The identity of which Arnolfini the painting depicts is up for debate as well as the state of his wife (first wife? Second wife? Posthumous portrait of the wife who died in childbirth? The list continues.). Paul Johnson, in Art: A New History, picks through the details to portray a larger picture,
“But the painter’s main points about marriage—that it is a big step in life as well as a risky one, that the man may command but the woman often gets the last laugh, relished under her modestly downcast eyes, that the bed must never be left out of the picture, that a child (enigmatic in this case) is the true bond of union, and that in the end God’s help is urgently needed to make any marriage a success—all these insinuations come across, if one looks at the painting carefully. Like all great works of art, it is something to cherish and study, to return to repeatedly and to worm out its secrets over time.”
That this is more than a straight up double portrait there is no doubt, but I will leave the arguing to others. When baffled by the complexity of symbolism, consider the modern wedding ceremony with its traditions and symbols and the ease with which they are read. The white dress, rings, flowers, in some cases “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” just to name a fraction of modern symbols, rich in history, we encounter and interpret regularly. All this talk leads me to the reason for my absence from art history writing for the last few months: my own marriage. It happened all in a glorious whirlwind and I moved from Germany to Portland, Oregon to Washington DC in a matter of a few months and still feel like I am just settling in. I am unbelievably happy.