Jan van Eyck is the most famous member of a family of painters traditionally believed to have originated from the town of Maaseik, in the diocese of Liège. The work of the Van Eycks, epitomized in the Ghent Altarpiece, brought an unprecedented realism to the themes and figures of late medieval art.
Van Eyck pursued a career at two courts, working for John of Bavaria, count of Hainaut-Holland (1422–24), and then securing a prestigious appointment with Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy (1425–41). Employment at court secured him a high social standing unusual for a painter, as well as artistic independence from the painters’ guild of Bruges, where he had settled by 1431. Evidence that the Van Eycks bore a coat-of-arms, and thus belonged to the gentry, and that Jan was literate (as shown by his own handwriting on a drawing), is consistent with the probability that some of his frequent travels for the duke were diplomatic missions. Many aspects of his work were surely intended to promote his personal reputation and abilities, including his practice of signing and dating his pictures (then unusual), and his playful and quasi-erudite use of Greek transliteration in his personal motto Als ich kan (As well as I can).
His artistic prestige rests partly on his unrivaled skill in pictorial illusionism. The landscape of his Crucifixion (33.92ab), with its rocky, cracked earth, fleeting cloud formations, and endless diminution of detail toward the blue horizon, reveals his systematic and discriminating study of the natural world. Van Eyck’s ability to manipulate the properties of the oil medium played a crucial role in the realization of such effects. From the fifteenth century onward, commentators have expressed their awe and astonishment at his ability to mimic reality and, in particular, to re-create the effects of light on different surfaces, from dull reflections on opaque surfaces to luminous, shifting highlights on metal or glass. Such effects abound in the Virgin of Canon van der Paele (1434–36), as shown by the glinting gold thread of the brocaded cope of Saint Donatian, the glow of rounded pearls and dazzle of faceted jewels in the costumes of the holy figures, or the small, distorted reflections of the figures of the Virgin and Child repeated in each curve of the polished helmet of Saint George. The almost clinical detail in the face of the kneeling patron vividly illustrates Van Eyck’s acute objectivity as a portraitist. Through his understanding of the effects of light and rigorous scrutiny of detail, Van Eyck is able to construct a convincingly unified and logical pictorial world, suffusing the absolute stillness of the scene with scintillating energy.
Despite this legendary objectivity, Van Eyck’s paintings are perhaps most remarkable for their pure fictions. He frequently aimed to deceive the eye and amaze the viewer with his sheer artistry: inscriptions in his work simulate carved or applied lettering; grisaille statuettes imitate real sculpture; painted mirrors reflect unseen, imaginary events occurring outside the picture space. In The Arnolfini Portrait, the convex mirror on the rear wall reflects two tiny figures entering the room, one of them probably Van Eyck himself, as suggested by his prominent signature above, which reads “Jan van Eyck has been here. 1434.” By indicating that these figures occupy the viewer’s space, the optical device of the mirror creates an ingenious fiction that implies continuity between the pictorial and the real worlds, involves the viewer directly in the picture’s construction and meaning, and, significantly, places the artist himself in a central, if relatively discrete, role. Another reflected self-portrait, this time in the shield of Saint George in the Virgin of Canon van der Paele, functions as part of Van Eyck’s textural realism but likewise challenges our credulity by reminding us, through this minor intrusion of the artist’s image, that his ostensible realism is an artifice.
Despite his individual fame, Van Eyck’s achievement was not carried out in isolation: as was customary, he employed workshop assistants, who made exact copies, variations and pastiches of his completed paintings. Such works no doubt helped to supply a vigorous demand for his work on the open market, while contributing to the recognition of his name throughout Europe. After Jan’s death in June 1441, his brother Lambert, who was also a painter, helped to settle his estate, and perhaps oversaw the closing of his workshop in Bruges.
Van Eyck’s principal artistic successor in Bruges was Petrus Christus. In his Portrait of a Carthusian of 1446 (49.7.19), Christus not only adopted the Eyckian style, but also the motif of the parapet with illusionistic carving which curtails the portrait at the lower edge: Van Eyck had used this device earlier in his portrait Leal Souvenir (1432).