15th Century painter Jan van Eyck was the first great master of oil painting, though he was not, as was commonly believed, the originator of the practice of oil painting.
When oil based paint was first formulated it was used for practical or craft-like applications on objects, because it was more durable in that role than the (usually egg-based) tempera paint traditionally used by artists during the middle ages. (By durable, I mean resistant to abrasion, there are extant examples of tempera paintings that are almost 2000 years old.)
Tempera dries very quickly and is often applied in quick, thin layers, or small cross-hatch strokes. The ability of the medium to carry pigment is limited, as a result so is the saturation of color. Oil paint is fundamentally different. It dries much more slowly, and the qualities of linseed oil that allow it to hold the pigment suspended in beautiful transparent layers gave artists like van Eyck the freedom to create smooth blended tones and luxuriously layered glazes, saturated with vibrant color.
Van Eyck must have been the special effects genius of his day, dazzling anyone who encountered his work with a virtuoso display of the capabilities of this remarkable painting medium, along with the ability it gave him to create works that were painted with astonishing levels of realism and an almost insane degree of detail.
Figurative painting in some respects grew out of a tradition of decorating objects. In medieval painting in particular there is a tendency to treat the painting as both an image and a decorative object, filled with elaborate details of decorative elements. Van Eyck is a central point where this tradition meets the beginning of the more image-centric traditions of the Renaissance and the results are an uncanny mix of realism and detail.
I have often stood in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, magnifying glass in hand, marveling at the incredibly fine details in the foreground objects and background scene in van Eyck’s St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata. If you see this painting in reproductions, you assume it must be bigger than its actual size of 5 x 5¾” (12.7 x 14.6 cm).
For all his uncanny realism, van Eyck still displays (at least to my eye) some of the primitivism of medieval painting in the form of lapses in perspective and proportion. His figures’ hands, for example, often seem flattened and disproportionately small. Perspective sometimes seems off in his super-detailed backgrounds, but his display of painting virtuosity and the astonishing levels of detail make you forgive him almost anything.
Take a look at his larger work, The Virgin and Child with Nicolas Rolin, and a detail from the background of the same painting. (it was common for the powerful patrons who commissioned paintings at the time to have themselves portrayed cozying up with saints and other religious figures.) Van Eyck’s truly large works, like the famous Ghent Altarpiece, must have taken people’s breath away and seemed like miracles in and of themselves.
The painting shown here, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife is also filled with detail. Images like this were also charged with symbolism. Almost everything in the painting, from the formal arrangement of the couple, their dress, hand positions, the shoes, the carpet, the oranges on the windowsill, means something. For a more elaborate and scholarly interpretation than I can possibly go into here, see Craig Harrison’s Jan Van Eyck, The Play of Realism. (There is also a teen-novel based around this painting, The Wedding: An Encounter with Jan van Eyck by Elizabet Rees.)
There are other interesting things about this work in particular, notably in the question of who is “here” in the scene. The couple seem unaware of us as observers, but the dog at their feet is looking directly at us (perhaps imbued with an uncanny 6th sense that allows him to know he is being watched by observers from another time).
Among the fascinating details in the room is a convex mirror on the wall behind, and between, the couple. In the reflection in the mirror we can see, past the backs of the main figures, two more individuals, one in red, the other in blue, who are witnesses to the scene (and presumably the actual subject of the dog’s attention). The mystery figures are, in fact, standing where they would have our view of the scene and we, as observers of the painting, are taking their place in the room.
There is also a gargoyle, part of the furniture in the background, but positioned as if sitting on the joined hands of the couple. (There are no accidents here.)
The mirror is flanked by a whisk broom on one side and a set of glass prayer beads on the other. Above it is a date (1434) and the artist’s signature. Van Eyck was the only Northern painter of his day to sign his work, but even then the signature was usually subdued, or perhaps even part of the frame.
Here, indicating that van Eyck was somehow more personally involved in this image than others, it is painted as if inscribed on the wall itself, like some elaborately penned example of 15th Century graffiti. The inscription is Latin for “Jan van Eyck was here.”
Indeed he was.