The Renaissance period was a revolutionary phenomenon that changed the medieval worldview and opened a new chapter in history. The development of urban environments enabled the formation of an entirely new class of artisans who operated in guilds and were commissioned by the wealthy patrons, whether the nobleman or the clergy. The environments that were blooming rapidly in economic and social terms, such as the Flemish countries, nurtured a generation of skillful and well-educated craftsmen who eventually became the leading artists of their time recognized on an international scale.
One of the most important figures in art history, Jan van Eyck was an incredibly talented individual who gradually came to fame as a court painter operating in the circle of Jan of Bavaria, the Dutch count, and later Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, who had a special admiration for the artist. This matter of privilege influenced Van Eyck profoundly, due to the presence of libraries and intellectuals at the court. Therefore, it is not unusual that his practice was both technically and conceptually rich; it was infused with the broader knowledge coming from various sciences.
To thoroughly present the full scale of talent and skillfulness of this unprecedented master, The Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent decided to organize an extensive survey titled Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution that will include his best-known artworks such as the Ghent Altarpiece. On view there will also be other memorable paintings, drawings, and memorabilia, as well as a selection of works made by van Eyck’s contemporaries and various artisans.
At the center of the Ghent presentation will be eight exterior panels of the closed Ghent Altarpiece made by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in 1432. The panels were exposed to restoration between 2012 and 2016 managed by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage and the museum. Before the restoration, the Ghent Altarpiece was perceived as an independent production within Jan van Eyck’s iconic oeuvre.
Nowadays it is apparent that the restored panels are similar to his other works when it comes to style and color. However, the original frames of the polyptych state that the Ghent Altarpiece was started by Hubert van Eyck, but his contribution to the outer panels of the work remained undetermined. Nevertheless, the restoration was a success, and the removal of old layers of varnish and overpainted portions revealed the full glory of the original masterpiece.
The vast installment will spread through thirteen museum rooms starting with a sketch of the luxurious Burgundian court life to make visitors fully aware of the historic context and the fact van Eyck emerged as a court painter of Philip the Good (1396-1467), the Burgundian Duke and patron of arts. Furthermore, this exhibition chapter will underline the fruitful artisan exchange between the cities such as Ghent and Bruges, and the empowering climate for van Eyck's revolution.
Further into the installment, the visitors will have a chance to plunge deeper into his creative development and understand better his optical revolution with a selection of one hundred and forty-panel paintings, miniatures, drawings, and sculptures. Three levels of his engagement will be accentuated - his oil-painting technique, his observation of the world and his painting of optical effects.
To point out the significance of the Master’s optical revolution in a broader context, van Eyck's works will be joined by a selection of important loans from international collections by his contemporaries, most of them Italians: Paolo Uccello, Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Masaccio and Pisanello. Unlike van Eyck who worked with oils, the Italians worked with egg-based tempera, and while he successfully conducted his innovations, they experimented with space and mathematical perspective.
The development in both Flemish and Italian context influenced the shift in the painterly paradigm, so the fact they will be presented together provides an incredible opportunity for a better understanding of their historical significance.
This exhibition of van Eyck paintings in Ghent will underline the evolution of the artist's painterly practice and the immense focus on details that led his style practically to perfection. Such an extraordinary hand and eye coordination made him one of the most popular painters at the time, an intellectual of a kind, and an innovator whose domains are still after so many centuries looked with admiration.
It is important to mention that this extensive survey is part of the Flemish Masters program organized by Tourism Flanders which supported the project, and couldn’t be possible without the help of The City of Ghent in the organizational and infrastructural sense. The exhibition also announces the start of the city festival, OMG! Van Eyck that will honor its best-known Master throughout 2020.
Below you can read brief descriptions of five prime Jan van Eyck paintings that will be displayed at this unique retrospective.
Featured images: Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution - Installation view with Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (St John the baptist and the evangelist), 1432 (St-Bavo_s Cathedral Ghent). All images @ MSK Ghent, photography by David Levene.
The outstanding Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon is an exceptional bust portrait the vividly presents the features of man’s facial features in perfect light-dark contrast with the dim background.
The humble, yet the flattering atmosphere is additionally accentuated with the position of the sitter’s hands; the composition as a whole can be perceived as a well put an illustration of the class circumstances of the Belgian Renaissance society.
Featured image: Jan van Eyck - Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, c. 1428−1430. Oil on panel 22 x 17 cm. Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu (Romania).
The Annunciation diptych made in between around 1434–1436 shows Jan van Eyck's specific focus on three-dimensionality, indicating his appreciation of the latest art theories, especially the ones concerning optics. On the other hand, this painting also reflects the Master’s close observation of sculpture; van Eyck was in charge of the coloring of niches on the façade of the City Hall in Bruges. The figures of Saint John found on the exterior panels of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb are related to this diptych.
The other work bearing the same title that will be included on the exhibition a masterfully done painting depicting the announcement of the pregnancy of Mary along with the words spoken by the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin herself (the welcoming note Ave gratia plenam (Hail Mary, full of grace), and the reply Ecce ancilla domini (Behold the Handmaiden of the Lord)). The imagery is complex and related to van Eyck's other works and is saturated with theological erudition.
Featured image: Jan van Eyck - The Annunciation Diptych, c. 1433-1435. Oil on panel. Left: 38.8 x 23.2 cm. Right: 39 x 24 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Jan van Eyck - The Annunciation, c. 1434-1436. Oil on panel, transferred onto canvas, 92.7 x 36.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection.
The Master produced the Portrait of Margaret van Eyck (also titled Margaret, the Artist's Wife) in 1439.
One of the earliest European paintings to depict a painter's spouse (as it is usually considered) was completed when Margaret was around thirty-four, and it was kept in the Bruges chapel of the Guild of painters until the early 18th century. The assumption is that the painting was probably made to mark a special occasion - the couple's anniversary, Margaret's birthday, or simply as van Eyck’s gift to her.
The painting has plates at the top and bottom of the frame in Greek lettering with the words "My husband Johannes completed me in the year 1439 on 17 June, at the age of 33. As I can." This last bit is considered to be wordplay on van Eyck's surname.
Featured image: Jan van Eyck - Portrait of Margareta van Eyck, 1439. Oil on panel, 32,6 x 25,8 cm. Musea Brugge – Groeningemuseum © Musea Brugge, www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders. Photo Hugo Maertens.
Saint Barbara is a rarely depicted Christian deity mostly popular in the Eastern Orthodox church. She is often portrayed with chains set against a tower and therefore is honored as a patron saint of armorers, artillerymen, military engineers, miners as well as mathematicians.
Jan van Eyck depicted her in quick drawing on panel, and The Saint Barbara of Nicomedia, as it is usually referred to, is considered by some to be an independent work because of the thorough details. There are also scholars who perceive it as an underdrawing of an unfinished work. Nevertheless, this work exemplifies Van Eyck’s craftsmanship, and it is the only one of the very few paintings with the preserved initial frame.
Featured image: Jan van Eyck - The Saint Barbara of Nicomedia, 1437. Oil on panel, 32 × 18,2 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Antwerp © www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw. Photo Hugo Maertens.
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata is one of the two known versions that is held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (the second is located at the Galleria Sabauda in Turin). This version differing from the Turin one was painted on vellum (or parchment, prepared animal skin) instead of a wooden panel, and is smaller.
The scene features Saint Francis of Assisi as kneeling by a rock as he receives the stigmata of the crucified Christ. The figure of the saint reveals van Eyck’s optical innovation - both the realism and illusionism, as well as outstanding perspective, and the interplay of light and shadow alongside the masterful depiction of the surrounding landscape.
Featured image: Jan van Eyck - Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1440. Oil on vellum on panel, 12,7 x 14,6 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.