Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck (1434)

Van Eyck was a trailblazer, one of the first painters to paint with depth, whose knack for representation led contemporaries to call him “the conqueror of reality”. For a long time this was thought to be a wedding picture but the history books hint at something more mysterious – the likely couple weren’t married until years after the artist’s death, so this may be the painting of a wish or a contract rather than a real event. The betrothed couple (he’s a reptilian ringer for Vladimir Putin) are enshrined in stillness, hands touching but distant in body and expression, and surrounded by an array of significant possessions: exotic, expensive oranges, her pattens kicked off (perhaps ready for the lavish red bed behind her), and a freshly blow-dried dog (connoting fidelity). She is further into the room, highlighting her domestic existence, while Arnolfini’s proximity to the window hints at a life of worldly business (he was a wealthy merchant). Their bearing gives them more nobility and status than they’d have ever had in reality: art as powerful wish fulfilment. There’s more, too – underneath the artist’s signature on the wall, the mirror looks like an eye, and throws a fresh angle on the scene as well as on the capacity of art itself. It’s as if we are ‘in the room’, seeing the couple from the back as well as the front. It affords us two new characters, and introduces an alternative perspective with a view of exterior life beyond the room. Van Eyck seems to be saying he can paint the couple and simultaneously show you the world (not now, Aladdin) and their place in it. He had such a feel for surfaces – the contour of the mirror most eye-catchingly, as well as the fur we can almost feel on their clothes, the flecks of life in their eyes, the metallic gleam of the light fitting. Just as importantly, though, with so much physical and narrative material crammed into the frame, he’s richly aware of what else – beneath the surface – painting has the power to do and be.