Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution
By John Dunkelgrün.
Throughout 2020 the city of Ghent in Flanders will celebrate its connection to one of the world’s greatest painters, Jan van Eyck. The most important part of this celebration will be in the Museum of Fine Arts (Museum Voor Schone Kunsten or MSK).
It is the largest Van Eyck exhibition ever held with more than half of the works by him that still exist worldwide. The works are contrasted with works from his atelier, works by important contemporaries and works done jointly with his brother Hubert. The core of the exhibition, the altarpiece known as Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is not in the museum itself, but in the St. Bavo Cathedral in the old centre of Ghent. However, eight side panels, meticulously restored, are on view and one may admire them up close and at eye level.
What makes Jan van Eyck so special and revolutionary? He lived from ca. 1390 to 1441 and was the Court painter to Philip the Good, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, his trusted chamberlain, sometime diplomat and spy. He was a very original painter, scholar, and scientist. In many ways, he changed the way people paint forever. In contrast to previous painters, his landscapes and cities were painted after the reality. They could, and often still can be identified in place and time.
Central above the Mystic Lamb, for example, is the Dom Tower of Utrecht. He painted the Madonna and Child as a real mother lovingly holding and looking at her baby rather than the ubiquitous stilted devotional images. His observation was as sharp as that of an eagle and he painted full size works with the minute details of a miniaturist. I
n some of these paintings he “wrote” text his subjects were supposed to have spoken in elegant Latin above their heads. If the speech were a payer or otherwise directed to God, he painted the words upside down, to make it easier to read from Heaven.
He used a technique to make oil paint dry faster, so he could work more rapidly. Though the technique was developed earlier, Van Eyck was the first major painter to use it. He was also first in grinding his pigments extremely fine, so he could put a layer over quickly dried layer giving his work a remarkable luminescence. But where his scientific knowledge comes out most vividly, is in his understanding of light, shadow, and optics.
The light in his Adoration of the Mystic Lamb appears to come from the windows in the church where it was intended to hang. The light on jewels or water in his paintings is just right. For the “Madonna at the Fountain”, he must have studied the way waterdrops fall on water meticulously. It makes his subjects three dimensional, living figures.
Philippe the Good trusted him with private diplomatic missions and with some spying on the side, like reporting on the defenses in the strongholds of rivals, perhaps even drawing them. His most important mission was to Portugal, where he had to paint a portrait of Princess Isabella, whom Philippe intended to marry … if she was beautiful enough.
Van Eyck made two portraits, one to be sent overland and one by sea. Both made it, but regrettably, both later got lost. Philippe must have liked what he saw, for Isabella became his (3rd) wife. If one needed proof that the classification of 14th century Flemish painters as “Flemish Primitives” is a misnomer one doesn’t need to look further than Van Eyck and his contemporaries. The new label of “Flemish Masters” is far more appropriate.
This is one of the “Must-See”, “Once-in-a-lifetime”, expositions that make a visit to Ghent almost imperative. It is a beautiful city in which much Medieval and Renaissance architecture survives and worth a special trip anyway. But this year with the van Eyck festivities and especially the exhibition at the MSK (until April 30th) it would be a shame not to go.
Photography by the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Gen.
Jan van Eyck (Maaseik?, c. 1390 – Bruges, 1441)
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1440 Oil on vellum on panel
12,7 x 14,6 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.