Jan van Eyck painted what has become known as the Arnolfini Portrait in 1434. The facts are well enough known. As are the scholarly debates and interpretations surrounding this beautiful piece of art.
I went to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square today to try to understand why I like the painting so much. I think I caught some glimpses.
I was wondering on my way there whether my liking was more apparent than real; whether perhaps because the painting is so very well known I had simply assumed I liked it because it appears everyone else does.
I first saw it face to face a few years back in another visit to the National Gallery and out of all the paintings I saw that day this one stuck firmly in my mind as a favourite. Why?
The sheer luminosity of the colours struck me particularly today, part of the artist’s technique I gather. The colours literally shone out at me 600 years after the painting’s creation.
And then the richness and beauty and realism of the scene. I could have been one of the figures reflected in the mirror above the Arnolfinis, so perfectly does this couple come alive.
By richness I have in mind quality and beauty rather than monetary worth. While it is clear that the couple were well healed, I find money itself (particularly the love of it) a grotesque and vulgar distraction.
Excess reminds me of the smiling face of beloved entreprenoooooors like the delightful Philip Green, whose pensioners fared so well in the collapse of British Home stores. Or those cuddly Russian oligarchs and oil sheiks. Gold Rolls Royces, zebra skin wall coverings, women with brittle hair, whitened teeth and embarrassing false breasts.
Which is not to say that I can not get a warm glow from time to time out of what money can buy.
The fur on the lined cloak is literally strokable when you stand in front of the portrait – even with my nose close to the painting it seemed more animal fur than oil (however politically incorrect that may now sound). And the wife’s gown – difficult indeed to appreciate the texture on this web page re-production but to the naked eye, standing in that noble gallery, this feat of art is a wonder to behold. Every fold and crevice is so real and vibrant you can lean in and touch it. Figuratively speaking of course – I am sure I would have ended up in the local nick had I leant in much further.
Just look at that brass chandelier. What a magnificent ornament.
And yet there is more. To me the couple themselves are far from glamorous – they certainly do not seem to have been airbrushed in the time honoured fashion of today’s actresses and pop divas. Mr Anolfini may be a rich merchant but he is certainly not a handsome one – it struck me today that he is more like Gollum from Lord of The Rings than I am comfortable with. I had to take a step back at that point, half expecting him to put on the One Ring To Rule Them all.
And the pregnant wife is no oil painting. Well she is of course…but you know what I mean. Not a classic beauty by the standards of any age. The hubby’s headgear is not a shtreimel, surely?
But cheap jokes aside, my love of the painting stands. Increased if anything by a greater familiarity with the detail after today’s close inspection.
From the strange wooden pixie-clogs to the apples, cherry blossom and beautifully lit furnishings, this painting transports me in time to a room in medieval Bruges 600 years ago. A beautiful and exquisitely constructed time machine.