Virtuosso Jan van Eyck Paints the Epitome of Beauty

'Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution' at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent in Belgium
April 2, 2020 Updated: April 6, 2020

Fifteenth-century Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s art is simply astounding. Somehow van Eyck managed to paint so true to life that when you’re face-to-face with one of his paintings, once you’ve caught your breath, you may inadvertently mutter: “Surely, this must be real.”  

Observe any of van Eyck’s paintings—from his altarpieces to his portraits—and it’s easy to think that you are actually in the presence of the people he painted. Van Eyck’s biographer, humanist Bartolomeo Facio went so far as to say that all his portraits were so lifelike, all that was missing were the subjects’ voices.  

‘Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution’ 

Only 2of van Eyck’s works are known to exist, and 13 of those works are on display in the exhibition “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) in Belgium. Among those exhibited are works from van Eyck’s studio and copies of van Eyck’s lost works. This in itself offers an unprecedented opportunity to see his work, but in addition, the exhibition includes Italian Renaissance artwork by his contemporaries, such as Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Pisanello, Masaccio, and Benozzo Gozzoli. 

Jan van Eyck
Panels from the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece are on display as individual artworks, in the exhibition “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, in Belgium. In the foreground, a bust of Jan van Eyck looks out onto his art. (MSK Ghent/David Levene)

A total of 140 panel paintings, miniatures, drawings, and sculptures are bought together to celebrate van Eyck’s virtuosity at a time when the Northern Renaissance and Italian Renaissance flourished.  

Jan van Eyck
Outer panels of the closed altarpiece: “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” 1432, by Jan (circa 1390–1441) and Hubrect van Eyck (circa 1366/1370–1426). Oil on panel. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. (KIK-IRPA/Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw)

Among the many highlights in the exhibition are the eight outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece that are hung at eye level as if they were individual paintings, rather than up high as the polyptych is usually hung. 

Jan van Eyck
The exhibition “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) features more than half of Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s oeuvre alongside more than 100 masterpieces, including some from the Italian Renaissance. Here, a visitor views a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece. (MSK Ghent/David Levene)

The Perfection of the Northern Renaissance Tradition            

Along with his contemporary, painter Robert Campin (known for many years by scholars only as the Master of Flémalle), van Eyck founded the Early Netherlandish tradition of art. The Netherlands along with Italy were at the forefront of European art in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to the Prado National Museum.

“It is a fair guess to say that any work which excels in the representation of the beautiful surface of things, of flowers, jewels or fabric, will be by a Northern artist, most probably by an artist from the Netherlands; while a painting with bold outlines, clear perspective and a sure mastery of the beautiful human body, will be Italian,” art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote in “The Story of Art.” 

While Italian artists were mainly painting in tempera, which used egg to bind pigments, van Eyck preferred to paint with oils. Oil paints took longer to dry, which meant that he could blend tones more readily, creating deep, rich colors; oils also gave him more time to paint the finest details.  

Jan van Eyck
A detail of the angel Gabriel’s heavenly cloak in “The Annunciation” by Jan van Eyck. (MSK Ghent/David Levene)

Although contrary to popular myth, perpetuated by 16thcentury art historian Giorgio Vasari, van Eyck did not invent oil painting. But he did perfect the medium by applying layer upon layer of translucent glazes, resulting in the exceptional blending and detailing you see on his canvases. The layering of glazes meant that he could also create solid and luminous lifelike figures. 

Van Eyck must have ardently observed light. His artwork indicates that he studied optics, which in the late Middle Ages was classified as a branch of geometry. He used light in his paintings as if he had nature’s hand, expertly adding touches of light to create solid, three-dimensional forms and figures.  

Van Eyck even used the natural light of the Vijd Chapel, where the Ghent Altarpiece originally hung, for the light source in the exterior panels of the altarpiece. 

Van Eyck’s attention to detail was remarkable. “His eye was at one and the same time a microscope and a telescope,” art historian Erwin Panofsky is quoted as saying. Van Eyck painted everyday items and the most opulent of objects meticulously. And while his Italian contemporaries generally painted idealized portraits, van Eyck painted people as they were, and with his paintbrush, he noted every little thing. His three-quarter-view portraits showed the wrinkles, laughter lines, moles, whiskers—warts and all—as attested to by the portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, the only portrait of van Eyck’s Burgundian statesmen thought to now survive.

Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, circa 1435, by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel; 10.5 inches by 7.7 inches. Berlin State Museums-Prussian Cultural Heritage, Berlin. (KIK-IRPA, Brussel)

Notice in some of van Eyck’s paintings that the proportions are not quite right: In Lannoy’s portrait, his body seems disproportionate to his head; similarly in a portrait of van Eyck’s wife, Margareta, her head is painted in a different scale to her body. Van Eyck placed people and objects into his paintings intuitively, rather than using the mathematical perspective and precision adopted by his Italian contemporaries.  

Jan van Eyck
Portrait of Margareta van Eyck, 1439, by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel; 12.6 inches by 10.2 inches. Groeningemuseum, Bruges Museums, Belgium. (Bruges Museums/Hugo Maertens/Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw)

‘As Best I Can’ 

Van Eyck’s attention to detail extended to frames. He painted the frame for “Madonna at the Fountain” as mock marble, adding his motto “ALS ICH CAN,” meaning “as best I can.” The motto is also believed to be a pun on his name: “as best ‘Eyck’ can.” He was one of the first painters to sign his works, and this painting, dated 1439, is one of the last of his signed works.

Jan van Eyck
“Madonna at the Fountain,” 1439, by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel; 7.5 inches by 4.75 inches. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. (Hugo Maertens /Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw)

Private devotional Madonna paintings such as this were in high demand in van Eyck’s day. In “Madonna at the Fountain,” Mary holds the Christ child, who contorts himself to get comfortable, as any baby would; yet with his arms outstretched, he seems to make the sign of the cross.   

Of course, we know this is no ordinary portrait of mother and child, and the painting is rich with symbology to remind us. Mary stands in a garden full of flowers such as roses, irises, violets, forget-me-knots, and lilies of the valley: symbols of beauty, refinement, and purity. Van Eyck accurately painted water flowing from the fountain, symbolizing Mary, the mother of God, as a life-giving source. In the Middle Ages, Mary represented trust and loyalty. 

‘The Annunciation’ 

In “The Annunciation,” van Eyck put Mary in the church to hear the angel Gabriel announce Christ’s immaculate conception. Van Eyck painted Mary’s words upside down to show that she’s directing her words to heaven, speaking directly to God. 

Jan van Eyck
“The Annunciation,” circa 1434–1436, by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel, transferred onto canvas; 36.5 inches by 14.4 inches. Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

The panel is filled with a kind of graceful stillness and harmony that captures the moment perfectly. The splendid Gothic church architecture is painted with such precision that even the wood grain on the paneled ceiling got van Eyck’s fastidious attention. The floor tiles reflect stories from the Old Testament. The irises in the foreground show purity. And Gabriel dressed in opulent red velvet richly covered in jewels perhaps denotes the importance of the event, and the sublime gaiety of heaven. 

Not only could van Eyck paint with fine craftsmanship, he also painted finely crafted objects and captured on canvas the fine arts of sculpture and architecture. He used grisaille, painting in pure white and gray tones, to render sculptures so real that you can almost feel the cold surface of the stone in his painting.  

Jan van Eyck
The “Annunciation Diptych,” circa 1433–1435, by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel; Left: 15.3 inches by 9.1 inches, Right: 15.3 inches by 9.4 inches. Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid. (Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid)

The exhibition notes that in the “Annunciation Diptych,” Mary and the archangel Gabriel are painted solely in white and yellow ochre, giving the appearance of alabaster statues. In the diptych, van Eyck limited himself to four colors, including red for the frame and black for the background. These four colors hark back to antiquity, when Pliny claimed that the artist Apelles’s best works used that exact palette of colors.  

Faith and Beauty

Scholars are at odds as to whether van Eyck’s “Saint Barbara of Nicomedia” is a finished grisaille work or an under-drawing of an unfinished painting. 

Jan van Eyck
“Saint Barbara of Nicomedia,” 1437, by Jan van Eyck. Oil on panel; 12.6 inches by 7.2 inches. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium. (Hugo Maertens/Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw)

Within this small work, barely an inch taller than a sheet of letter paper, van Eyck rendered Saint Barbara enormous, disproportionately so, but perhaps significantly, because she’s larger than the tower that her father once imprisoned her in. Maybe van Eyck was conveying that faith can overcome any obstacle no matter how big or impossible a situation may seem. She holds a prayer book and a palm leaf, again, perhaps indicating that any earthly imprisonment cannot contain her faith. 

Quite clearly, van Eyck fits Gombrich’s description of a Northern artist who excelled in painting the “beautiful surface of things,” but van Eyck’s astute attention to gestures and symbols could fulfill Aristotle’s belief about art: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” 

Jan van Eyck
The Turin-Milan Book of Hours, circa 1410–1440, by Jan van Eyck. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment; 11.2 inches by 8 inches. Palazzo Madama Palace, Civic Museum of Ancient Art, Turin, Italy. (Turin Museums Foundation)

Jan van Eyck’s Life

It’s believed that Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) was born into gentry and that his older brother, the painter Hubrect van Eyck, raised him. Van Eyck’s art training is unknown. He spent his career as a court painter, traveling far and wide and also among high society. In 1422, he worked at The Hague as a painter at the Court of John of Bavaria-Straubing, ruler of Holland. In 1425, he went to Bruges, Belgium, and became the court painter for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, who sent him to faraway lands on diplomatic missions. Some of those trips may have taken him to the Holy Land via Italy and also to the Ottoman empire.

The exhibition “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” is at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent until April 30; to find out more visit MSKGent.be