Jan van Eyck – a brilliant Dutch portrait painter of the XIV-XV centuries

Jan van Eyck Ghent altarpiece
Ghent altarpiece

Jan van Eyck (born 1390 – died July 9, 1441) – one of the most famous Dutch artists of the early Northern Renaissance, XIV-XV centuries, a portrait master and author of more than a hundred works on religious subjects.

Jan van Eyck was an innovator – he was one of the first to leave signatures on his works, singled out the portrait as a separate genre, starting to depict people not to the chest, but to the waist, turning it three-quarters and adding household items. Van Eyck perfected the oil paints that had appeared only a few decades before his birth, created a new, special mixture, and began to use varnish, which gave the works durability and brilliance. In his paintings – documentary accuracy and at the same time the depth and versatility of life itself.

Jan van Eyck Prophet Zechariah and Angel Gabriel
Prophet Zechariah and Angel Gabriel

Biography of Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck was born in Maaseik, then part of the Northern Netherlands and now part of Belgium, presumably between 1385 and 1390. Little is known about his childhood, the names of his parents have not been preserved in history, unlike the name and biography of his older brother, also an artist, Hubert van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck Madonna and Child Reading
Madonna and Child Reading

More than six centuries have passed, and disputes about the relationship of the brothers and their influence on each other’s work have not subsided so far. It is believed that Hubert taught his brother the skill of the painter and was the inspiration for the future unique style of the master. However, some historians argue that some of the works of Hubert and Jan are signed in the name of the wrong brother, while others – that the creators were not related at all.

The first mention of the artist dates back to 1422, when he began work in the Hague Palace, writing several paintings for John of Bavaria (Johann III). Three years later, he went to the city of Bruges, starting to work at the court of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip III the Good (Philippe le Bon). It is known that during the years of work for Philip III, van Eyck not only wrote, but also carried out diplomatic missions, including twice went to negotiations regarding the marriage of the duke. The second trip turned out to be successful and soon after Philip the Good became engaged to Isabella of Portugal (Isabelle de Portugal).

Jan van Eyck Portrait of the Arnolfini couple
Portrait of the Arnolfini couple

The outstanding mind of the master was noted not only by the duke.

Contemporaries described him as a multi-talented person. He was fond of geometry and geography, was well versed in plants and flowers, had knowledge of chemistry, which allowed him to derive his ideal proportion of oil paints. The first works of the master were miniatures, and after that he began to try himself in portraits and works on religious themes.

Some historians claim that Yang also painted scenes of everyday life, but these paintings have not survived to this day. Whether this is true or not is impossible to know. It is known for certain that in 1430 the master settled in Bruges, having received the status of a city artist.

Jan van Eyck Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy
Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy


Two years later he completed his masterpiece, one of the greatest and most famous works – the Ghent Altarpiece.

The monumental multi-part altar was painted for one of the chapels of the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent and is still kept there. On 26 panels, the artist embodied his knowledge and his unique vision of the earthly and heavenly. The calm majesty of the light-filled chambers of the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, the majestic image of God the Father, the musical angels in luxurious clothes and the sacrificial lamb symbolizing Christ, which all living things seem to worship …

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin
Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

This work can now be considered endlessly. In the portraits of Jan van Eyck, people appear surprisingly realistic, sensual, as if alive. He was one of the first to add extraneous objects to the image of a person, putting a deep meaning into them. So, on one of the most famous works, “Portrait of the Arnolfini”, the dog, presumably, symbolizes devotion, fruit – fertility or the fall, and the curved mirror – the purity and chastity of the bride.

Madonna Lucca
Madonna Lucca
Personal life

As little is known about the personal life of the creator as about the origin. “Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, wife of Jan van Eyck”, written shortly before the death of the artist, revealed to the public the name and appearance of his wife. Historians believe that the portrait was supposed to be a gift for his wife’s birthday, but in the end it was transferred to the Guild of Artists and for many years was exhibited to the public on St. Louis’ day as an example of high skill. The couple had 10 children. The master died on July 9, 1441. His grave is located on the territory of the church, not far from the house where he lived for more than 10 years.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail)
Chancellor Rolin (detail)
Madonna and Child in the Church
Madonna and Child in the Church
Madonna and Child, Saints and a Donor
Madonna and Child, Saints and a Donor
Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck
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