Arnolfini Wedding Portrait By Jan Van Eyck

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Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck

Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan Van Eyck


The Arnolfini portrait by Jan van Eyck is one of the most popular masterpieces in London's National Gallery. Painted in 1434 in Bruges, this small oil masterpiece on an oak panel has influenced painters from Velázquez to David Hockney. It has become a symbol of marriage, yet the identity of the couple and the meaning of the scene is still uncertain.

One of the great panel paintings of the Netherlands' Renaissance filled with fascinating detail and complex symbolism, the Arnolfini Portrait (sometimes called the Arnolfini Marriage/Wedding) is a formal picture of a wealthy couple holding hands in the bedchamber of their Flemish home. It was painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441), who - together with Robert Campin (1380-1444) and Roger van der Weyden (1400-64) - was a key pioneer of Flemish oil painting. The location was Bruges, at the time perhaps the most important trading centre in the powerful Duchy of Burgundy, but the picture gives no indication of the identity of the couple. It was only a century later that an entry in an inventory suggested the double portrait as possibly being that of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a prosperous merchant from Lucca, who had an office in Bruges, and his wife Giovanna Cenami, daughter of an Italian banker. This possibility is now considered unlikely. Along with the masterpiece of religious art, the huge polyptych Ghent Altarpiece (1432, Bavo Cathedral), and the self-portrait known as Man in a Red Turban (1433, National Gallery, London), the Arnolfini Portrait exemplifies the contribution of Van Eyck to the naturalism of the Northern Renaissance School, and demonstrates the School's extraordinary mastery of the medium of oil painting.

Critical Analysis

Social Status

The Arnolfini Portrait provides a clear pictorial record of the rank and social status of the subjects. The woman's robe is trimmed with ermine fur and consists of an inordinate amount of fabric. A personal maid would have been needed to accompany the woman, to hold the garment off the ground. The man is dressed in a plaited straw cap and a velvet cloak, lined with fur. These clothes place the couple among the wealthy citizens of Bruges, though not yet in the top rank. The somewhat restricted size of the chamber, the wooden clogs on the floor worn to protect against street dirt, and the absence of ostentatious gold jewelers, all indicate bourgeois rather than noble status. Nonetheless, the stained glass window, chandelier, ornate mirror and oriental carpet, as well as the groom's well-manicured hands and the expensive oranges on the side dresser, are visible indicators of significant wealth.

Marriage Contract

The convex mirror on the centre of the rear wall, which is exquisitely decorated with miniature medallions illustrating the Crucifixion and other stories from the Passion of Christ, reveals more details of the room. Two visitors standing in the open doorway are visible behind the viewer, as is another window along with the wooden beams of the ...
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