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This work of art was long believed to be a portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami in a Flemish bedchamber, but it was recognized in the 1990's that they were married in 1447, thirteen years after the date on the work of art and six years after van Eyck's death. It is now believed that the subject is Giovanni di Arrigo's cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. This is either an undocumented second wife, or, according to a recent proposal, his first wife Costanza Trenta, who had died by February 1433. This would make the work of art partly a memorial portrait, showing one living and one dead person. Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini was an Italian merchant, originally from Lucca, but resident in Bruges since at least 1419. He is the subject of a further portrait by Van Eyck in Berlin, leading to speculation he was a friend of the artist. (Margaret 2003)


The work of art[5] is generally in very good condition, though with small losses of original paint and damages, which have mostly been retouched. Infra-red reflectograms of the work of art show many small alterations, or pentimenti, in the underdrawing: to both faces, to the mirror, and to other elements.

The couple are shown in an upstairs room in summer as indicated by the cherry tree outside the window which is in fruit. The room is in fact not a bedroom, as usually assumed, but a reception room as it was the fashion in France and Burgundy to have beds in reception rooms that were normally used just as seating except, for example, when a mother with a new baby received visitors. The window has six interior wooden shutters, but only the top opening has glass, with clear bulls-eye pieces set in blue, red and green stained glass. (Dunkerton, 2000)

The two figures are very richly dressed; despite the season both their outer garments, his tabard and her dress, are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs may be the especially expensive sable for him and ermine or miniver for her. He wears a hat of plaited straw dyed black, as often worn in the summer at the time. His tabard was once rather more purple than it appears now, as the pigments have faded; it may be intended to be silk velvet (another very expensive element). Underneath he wears a doublet of patterned material, probably silk damask. Her dress has elaborate dagging (cloth folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively) on the sleeves, and a long train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with white fur.

Although the woman's plain gold necklace and the plain rings both wear are the only jewelery visible, both outfits would have been enormously expensive, and appreciated as such by a contemporary viewer. But especially in the case of the man, there may be an element of restraint in their clothes befitting their merchant status - portraits of aristocrats tend to show gold chains and more ...
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