In This Article Jan van Eyck

  • Introduction
  • Monographic Studies
  • Studies of Jan Van Eyck within Larger Contexts
  • Bibliographies and Databases
  • Primary Sources
  • Biography and Career

Renaissance and Reformation Jan van Eyck
by
Alfred Acres
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0078

Introduction

Jan van Eyck (b. c. 1390–d. 1441), whose fame was international during his own lifetime and has never faded in the centuries since, was one of the most inventive and influential painters of all time. Born probably in the 1390s in or near Maaseik, his early years and training remain obscure. His career first comes into partial focus in the early 1420s, when he is recorded working in The Hague for John of Bavaria, Count of Holland. In 1425 he was employed by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (r. 1419–1467), one of the most powerful princes in Europe. Based mainly in Bruges, he served Philip and other prestigious patrons for rest of his life. The great esteem in which he was held by the duke and others, along with Jan’s unprecedented assertion of himself among inscriptions and images, made him an early model of the prized court artist, a role that would soon become more familiar in the Renaissance and after. Of the approximately two dozen paintings most confidently attributed to him, the earliest dated work is also the largest and most complex: the Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. Its inscription indicates that the project was begun by his brother Hubert (d. 1426), from whom no other surviving works have been confidently identified. The remaining paintings attributed to Jan van Eyck are altarpieces, smaller devotional pieces, and portraits. Lost works mentioned in early sources or echoed in variant paintings and drawings included more of the same, along with at least one genre-like image, of a woman at her bath. It has long been speculated that Jan’s early work may have included manuscript illumination, with the paintings of the Turin-Milan Hours at the center of this scholarship. In his 1550 Lives of the Artists, Vasari credited Jan van Eyck with the invention of oil painting, a claim widely repeated until it was disproven in the late 18th century. But fascination with the brilliant effects of van Eyck’s technique—and especially the novel depths of his realism—has never waned. Much of the 20th-century literature has probed symbolic and related dimensions of meaning in his realism. This interpretive scholarship on van Eyck and his Flemish contemporaries (chiefly Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden), associated especially with Panofsky’s conceptions of iconography, iconology, and “disguised symbolism,” became widely influential in 20th-century art history.

Monographic Studies

There are fewer book-length studies of van Eyck than there are for most other Renaissance masters of the first rank. Though inevitably out of date in some respects, Dhanens 1980, the work of a pioneering scholar especially dedicated to the archive, relies closely on surviving documentation. This large, abundantly illustrated book remains one of the most comprehensive and useful for study of biography, career, and individual paintings. Borchert 2008 is a reliable, concise, and affordable introduction—useful for students as well as specialists—by a leading van Eyck scholar. Harbison 2012 addresses most of the major works, but in the context of thematic essays that emphasize the author’s distinctive approach, which is sometimes imaginative and subjective. Pächt 1994, based on lectures from 1965–1966 and 1972, offers incisive formal analyses with prevailing emphasis on style and attribution. Recognizing that much of the iconographic scholarship on early Netherlandish painting had sought sources in exceedingly remote texts, Purtle 1982 considers the Marian paintings in light of liturgy, prayer, and commentary likely to have been familiar in 15th-century Flanders. Although Purtle focuses only on one portion of van Eyck’s output, the Marian paintings are so prevalent and her findings so important that the book merits inclusion among monographs on the career. The same can be said of the collected essays in Foister, et al. 2000, which is an essential and wide-ranging, but not comprehensive, contribution. Beenken 1941 is the work of a scholar who had focused especially on the Ghent Altarpiece, but this book’s findings are mostly eclipsed by later publications. Châtelet 2011, which includes vivid observations from a scholar long immersed in this material, reflects an unconventional approach characterized by numerous hypotheses that specialists will regard with caution. Simpson 2007 is of use mainly as a more recently published collection of colorplates, though these do not represent the “complete works” promised by the title.

  • Beenken, Hermann Theodor. Hubert und Jan van Eyck. Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1941.

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    In most ways superseded by subsequent approaches and findings, this is a study that will today be of interest mainly to specialists, perhaps above all in light of Beenken’s early work on questions surrounding the Ghent Altarpiece.

  • Borchert, Till-Holger. Jan van Eyck: Renaissance Realist. Cologne: Taschen, 2008.

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    An excellent concise introduction to the artist and his work. While the affordable, compact format allows for no footnotes and only a page of bibliography, the author’s clear, efficient approach and deep knowledge of the subject and scholarship make this a good resource for students and scholars alike. Illustrations are well chosen and mostly high quality, though necessarily small.

  • Châtelet, Albert. Hubert et Jan Van Eyck: Créateurs de l’Agneau mystique. Quetigny, France: Éditions Faton, 2011.

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    Aims especially to clarify genesis and meanings of the Ghent Altarpiece with regard to what little is known of the brothers’ origins and working milieu. Later chapters reach into van Eyck’s other works and toward identities of putative students and followers. The book’s far-reaching hypotheses (about attributions, travels, identities of sitters, etc.) often diverge strikingly from scholarly consensus.

  • Dhanens, Elisabeth. Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Antwerp, Belgium: Mercatorfonds, 1980.

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    Still the single most authoritative general study of Jan, Hubert, and their work—an essential resource for scholars and students. Relies closely on surviving documentation and includes focused entries on individual paintings, along with informative chapters on context. Specialists will recognize that some attributions here are questionable and that more recent scholarship must be consulted in tandem with findings of this book.

  • Foister, Susan, Sue Jones, and Delphine Cool, eds. Investigating Jan van Eyck. Museums at the Crossroads 6. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000.

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    A collection of twenty essays addressing many dimensions of research, divided among sections on key works, working methods, contemporary sources and imagery, and the legacy of the artist. While the format does not offer an overview of the career and some major works are scarcely addressed, together the individual studies—many of which are cited individually in this article—represent a core contribution to van Eyck scholarship.

  • Harbison, Craig. Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism. 2d ed. London: Reaktion, 2012.

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    Updates the 1991 first edition. Explicitly downplaying earlier emphases on iconographic interpretation, this study seeks to understand the paintings especially in light of social history. Chapters variously investigating their “human dimension” are accompanied by bibliographic commentaries rather than footnotes. Most of what is new in the second edition appears in the afterword, with a longer bibliographic commentary featuring scholarship since 1991.

  • Pächt, Otto. Van Eyck and the Founders of Early Netherlandish Painting. Translated by David Britt; edited by Maria Schmidt-Dengler; forward by Artur Rosenauer. London: Harvey Miller, 1994.

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    First published in German (1989) and based on lectures from 1965–1966 and 1972. Some of the closely argued attributions are made less relevant by more recent findings, but the book remains important work by one of the most insightful of the “Vienna School” art historians, with revealing formal observations written in pointed contrast to elaborate iconological interpretations inspired by Panofsky’s work of the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Purtle, Carol. The Marian Paintings of Jan van Eyck. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

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    Isolates and examines the works centrally focused on Mary, which constitute more than half of van Eyck’s surviving religious paintings. Provides new interpretations of individual works and a good account of key themes and texts in Marian devotion of the period. An essential iconographic study for scholars and students of this dimension of van Eyck’s art.

  • Simpson, Amanda. Van Eyck: The Complete Works. London: Chaucer, 2007.

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    A general essay on the career followed by colorplates accompanied by brief entries. While this can be of some use as a basic gathering of illustrations, the selection is not complete and texts do not cite sources to allow for further research.

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