Jan van Eyck
- LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0022
- LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
- LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0022
Jan van Eyck (b. c. 1380–d. 1441) is universally recognized as the legendary inventor of oil painting and is widely acknowledged to be the earliest master of independent panel painting for use outside of the church. Immediate predecessors in northern Europe, such as Melchior Broederlam in Burgundy and Master Theodoric in Prague, had combined oil with tempera on wooden surfaces in ecclesiastical furnishings, but none approached Jan’s skill in the handling of oil for glazing and the binding of pigments, or achieved his degree of refinement and creativity in the understanding of optical effects and the rendering of luminosity in self-sufficient pictures. The date and place of Jan’s birth are not known. It is generally accepted that he was born in Maaseyck, not far from Maastricht in the Meuse (Maas) Valley, in the decade between 1380 and 1390, making him a man in his thirties when he entered historical record as “meyster jan den Maelre” or “Johannes die scilder” (master John the painter) in the employ of the Count of Holland, John of Bavaria. His name recurs in documents of the Count’s household between 1422 and 1424 without specification as to the sorts of work he did. Speculation about his work during these years has sought to connect it with book illumination, the medium in which the most refined and sophisticated painting of the time could be found. A few months after John of Bavaria’s death in January of 1425, “Jehan de Heick,” known for the excellence of his work, entered the employ of Philip the Good, the powerful Duke of Burgundy. He lived initially at the Court in Lille, painting tableaux and other things, none of which was ever described. From that moment on, he became the most frequently documented artist of his time, traveling on a diplomatic mission for the Duke to the Iberian Peninsula before taking up residence near the Ducal court in Bruges around 1430. Account records detail gifts and personal visits made to him by the Duke. Ledgers enumerate payments of Jan’s salary as the Duke’s varlet de chambre (chamberlain) and indicate supplemental remuneration for travel to places unknown, made on the Duke’s behalf. All of Jan’s surviving work can be dated to this decade. He completed a huge polyptych in Ghent, which his brother Hubert is believed to have begun, and painted about a dozen portraits of individuals, all of whom, as far as is known, had close ties to the Court. Several panels with narrative Biblical scenes also appear to date from this decade. When Jan died, he was buried where the Counts of Flanders had traditionally been interred, as was his prerogative as a member of the Duke’s inner circle.
The claim that Jan was the founder of oil painting had particular appeal in the 19th century when artists were celebrated for the special, often secret, skills they were believed to bring to their work as discussed in Gotlieb 2002. Graham 2007 shows that as Jan’s panels emerged from churches and private collections and entered European museums, widespread appreciation of their luminous surfaces made his name synonymous with early Flemish or Netherlandish painting. Conway 1979 made the first attempt to combine consideration of the artist’s life with his art. Friedländer 1967 praised Jan as the founder of a distinctly Northern school of painting with roots in miniature painting. The remarkable lifelikeness of Jan’s portraits encouraged Erwin Panofsky’s investigation into the identity of one of Jan’s subjects along with the examination of the possible documentary value of the representation (Panofsky 1934). Harbison 1991 examined the social and material aspects of Jan’s production and explored the role courtly patrons played as viewers of his precious panels. Rothstein 2005 explored the way in which the visions that some of Jan’s subjects are shown as having intersect with how viewers would have engaged the panels. Online resources, such as Jan van Eyck: The Complete Works, provide excellent, if uneven, visual references with some works garnering more attention than others.
Conway, Sir William Martin. The van Eycks and Their Followers. New York: AMS Press, 1979.
Conway, Slade Professor at Cambridge between 1901 and 1904, introduced a discussion of Jan and Hubert’s courtly milieu into an anecdotal account of their work originally published in 1921. He saw their art as part of a larger development and recognized the absorption of symbols into their natural view of the world.
Friedländer, Max J. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 1, The van Eycks, Petrus Christus. Translated by Heinz Norden. Leyden, The Netherlands: A. W. Sijthoff, 1967.
Original volume set published in German between 1924 and 1937 as Die altniederländische Malerei. In the first volume of the series, the author reviews theories distinguishing Jan from Hubert, concluding that Jan began as a miniaturist before developing his new conception of the world in the Ghent Altarpiece. Preface by Erwin Panofsky. Comments and notes by Nicole Veronee-Verhaegen.
Gotlieb, Marc. “The Painter’s Secret: Invention and Rivalry from Vasari to Balzac.” Art Bulletin 84.3 (2002): 469–490.
The story of Jan’s invention of oil painting as an ideal of artistic breakthrough survived as a cultural myth about painters’ personalities and practices; it became the subject of numerous historical paintings in the 19th century.
Graham, Jenny. Inventing van Eyck: The Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2007.
The recovery of interest in Jan’s painting from the late 18th century on occurred in the context of a variety of issues, including the enhanced accessibility of his works, pre-Raphaelite attention to his art, and issues of nationalism.
Harbison, Craig. Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism. London: Reaktion, 1991.
Harbison provides an alternative to the reading of Jan’s paintings as representations of theological commentary, inquiring instead into their human dimension and considering them in relation to a wide range of popular practices. Reprinted in 1995 in paperback with corrections.
All of Jan’s works are illustrated here and on the Web Gallery of Art in color and in detail, although dates are not up to date and information is not always accurate.
Panofsky, Erwin. “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.” Burlington Magazine 64.372 (1934): 117–127.
Panofsky, seeking to settle the identity of the male subject of one of Jan’s undisputed paintings, articulated a theory regarding the concealed symbolic value of various domestic objects in order to demonstrate the panel’s function as the record of an individual’s solemn marriage ceremony.
Rothstein, Bret L. Sight and Spirituality in Early Netherlandish Painting. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
This study examines the complex and contradictory role that vision and viewing practices played in treatises and devotional images. It demonstrates the centrality of vision as a narrative as well as thematic concern in the art of Jan and his contemporaries.
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