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Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait sparks debate among art historians. The painting features an Italian merchant couple in 15th-century Bruges, showcasing their wealth and status. Theories suggest it could be a wedding, double portrait, or memorial. Van Eyck's mastery of oil paint and attention to detail make this artwork a Northern Renaissance masterpiece. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're in the National Gallery and we're looking at Jan Van Eyck's portrait of ... well, I learned this painting as the Arnolfini wedding portrait. Dr. Harris: So did I. Dr. Zucker: But there's been a lot of scholarship subsequently and there's a lot of disagreement over what this painting actually represents. Dr. Harris: But the National Gallery, which probably represents the most authoritative view right now, or the most widely accepted says that, in fact, this is not an actual wedding taking place or being witnessed as you and I were taught, but that it's simply a double portrait of a couple who are already married. Dr. Zucker: Some scholars suggested that perhaps it's a memorial portrait and the woman on the right actually had passed away the previous year, but that's only one of a variety of theories. Dr. Harris: No. Dr. Zucker: What we do know is, is that whoever is represented here was an Italian merchant who worked in Bruges. Dr. Harris: Bruges was a thriving economic town in the early 15th Century. Dr. Zucker: His wealth is quite apparently throughout this portrait. Dr. Harris: In a way, this portrait is about his wealth. Everything from both their clothing to the furnishings of the house. Dr. Zucker: Some have suggested that perhaps this is a kind of witnessing of the male actually giving a kind of authority to the women in legal affairs. Dr. Harris: I don't think we'll ever know exactly what this represents. The thing is, that it's [unintelligible] to me that it can't simply be just a double portrait because it really looks like something important is happening. They're joining their hands, their shoes are off, Dr. Zucker: Now those all have symbolic value. This is a period when there's tremendous importance put on symbolism, so the shoes being off, for instance, as you mentioned is often a reference to a sacred event taking place. Dr. Harris: We have a single candle in the chandelier, which I was taught is a symbol of the presence of God, but again, we're just not really sure. But the way that they're joined together, the way his hand is up, perhaps he's just greeting the visitors who we see in the mirror. Dr. Zucker: There are two people who are in the doorway, actually, wonderfully situated where we would be looking at this painting. Dr. Harris: It does seem to me like something significant is going on. Dr. Zucker: That there is a kind of witnessing taking place. Dr. Harris: Yeah, I think that that's reinforced by the signature that we see above the mirror and below the chandelier that says, "Johannes van eyck fuit hic" or translated, Johannes van eyck was here. So there is that sense of the artists presences, the artist witnessing, the artist being here in this room with these figures. Dr. Zucker: Let's go about this painting and really look at the different elements because there are many things that we do agree about as our historians. The mirror in the center is really one of the most compelling elements you have, not only in a sense, the greater visual reality of this room depicted because we can actually see as if we're standing in the back of the room looking forward, Dr. Harris: Scenes from the passion of Christ. Dr. Zucker: ... painted on the back pieces of glass panels that are set into that wooden frame. Dr. Harris: I have to say that it's hard to get a sense of this when you're watching a video or looking at illustrations in a book, but those little roundels around the mirror, how big would you say those are? Dr. Zucker: They are, I would say, about half the size ... Dr. Zucker: ... half the size of my fingernail. Dr. Harris: Yeah, they're tiny. And yet we can make out what scenes from the Passion of Christ are represented there, there's that attention to detail and detail painted in enormous clarity that we associate with the Northern Renaissance. Dr. Zucker: Some of this painting seems to have been painted with a single [hair brush]. Dr. Harris: If you look at the hair of the dog, for example. Dr. Zucker: The dog is an interesting element because you wouldn't expect to see a dog in a formal portrait. How many wedding photographs have you seen with a dog in it? Dr. Harris: Actually, dogs are common symbols in paintings of couples because the dog is a symbol of fidelity or loyalty. Dr. Zucker: Of course, there's tremendous attention that's been paid to the dress of both figures and there's a kind of curious element because they're wearing fur-lined clothing and yet there is fruit on the tree outside. So, it's a war moment and yet they're wearing their finest winter wear, that's an issue that has, I think, perplexed our historians. Dr. Harris: And that fruit on the window sill may also be a symbol, or a sign I should say, of their wealth since oranges were very expensive in Flanders. Dr. Zucker: Someone suggested that that was one of the items that the Arnolfini's actually imported a reference to the source of their wealth. Dr. Harris: This is a good example of one of the ways that it's easy to misinterpret, it looks as though the scene is taking place in what we would think of as the bedroom, in a kind of private space, but in fact, bedrooms were not that in the 15th Century. They were rooms where you received visitors. Dr. Zucker: And a symbol of wealth. There are all kinds of symbols of wealth here, beyond the oranges if you look at the carpet down on the floor, that would have been an example of both taste and wealth. Dr. Harris: Look at the way that the ... you see those teeny little cuts in the green robe that she wears, those heavy ... Dr. Zucker: That's been frayed out that was ... Dr. Zucker: ... that was a very fashionable. Dr. Harris: And the crispness of the lace that she wears around her head. Dr. Zucker: Now, there's a mistake that is often made, which is people often look at the sort of bulge of her belly and suggest that she's pregnant, Dr. Harris: Right. Dr. Zucker: This was very much an expression of the fashion of the day. Dr. Harris: Right and another way that it's easy to misinterpret based on what we know in the 21st Century. Dr. Zucker: Van Ecyk is, I think, critically important not only because of the brilliance of his painting, but because he was using oil paint in a way that had never really been used. He was able to create a luminous quality, a richness of color that tempera simply couldn't achieve. Dr. Harris: Yeah, and he's doing this because he's applying thin, multiple layers, or glazes of thinned out oil painting so that each layer is translucent and layer after layer applied creates these incredibly deep rich colors. Dr. Zucker: Which allows him to then produce this rich, luminous, incredibly subtle light. Dr. Harris: I know. Dr. Zucker: ... and moves across the faces of the figures, their hands, across the furniture. Dr. Harris: On the chandelier, the little shadow cast by that bottom bar of the window. There's a real love of light here that also is very typical of the Northern Renaissance. Dr. Zucker: And the way they can sort of brilliantly pick up a color, like on the oranges, for instance, or to find an object such as Arnolfini's shoes. Dr. Harris: The figures are kind elongated. The base of the room seems very cramped, it's filled with all of these material objects. Dr. Zucker: It's certainly not [perspectogoly] correct. Dr. Harris: Right and both of those things, that lack of interest in human anatomy and the rational prospectively correct space really tells that we're not in the Italian Renaissance we're in the Northern Renaissance, that love of texture, the use of oil paint, the attention to detail. Van Eyck is a master, or 'the' master of the Northern Renaissance. (piano playing)