by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, London
Portrait of a Man, probably a Self Portrait, 1433 by Jan van Eyck

The Revolution of Jan van Eyck

By Roderick Conway Morris
BRUGES, Belgium 18 May 2002


It is impossible to imagine what direction Western art would have taken but for the realist revolution wrought by Jan van Eyck and his early Netherlandish contemporaries. No aspect of painting remained untouched by it, from basic composition to portraiture, to landscape and the nude.

News of this naturalistic cloudburst of color, clarity and virtuoso technique spread across Europe with remarkable speed. And its significance was recognized at the time. In 1456, the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio named four painters as the best in the field: van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Pisanello and Gentile da Fabriano, awarding van Eyck the accolade of 'the most important painter of our age.'

Over time, however, the innovations for which van Eyck and his colleagues were responsible were so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream of Western art that their originators fell into virtual neglect. A gradual revival of appreciation of them gathered momentum in the second half of the 19th century, especially in England, the home of Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, and in Germany.

This movement culminated in the first major international exhibition devoted to their works, in Bruges in 1902: 'The Flemish Primitives,' which was seen by 35,000 visitors and described by one critic as 'the initiation of the public into art history.'

The centenary of that event is being celebrated in a second landmark show: 'Jan van Eyck, Early Netherlandish Painting and Southern Europe,' at the Groeninge Museum, curated by Till-Holger Borchert, who is also editor of the excellent book, 'The Age of van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting.' The exhibition and book not only offer a superb lineup of relevant works, but also do belated justice to the full extent of the influence these brilliant painters had on the rest of the continent.

A parallel show, 'Impact: 1902 Revisited,' curated by Eva Tahon next door at the Arenthuis, gives a lively and entertaining account of the first Bruges exhibition and the stimulus it gave to the rediscovery of the genius of this period.

The region that fostered this artistic revolution was then the heart of the Duchy of Burgundy, a dynasty with an exaggerated love of ostentatious display even by the standards of the times, which indulged in prodigal spending on the arts. Of no less importance in providing the economic environment in which the visual arts in particular flourished was the thriving Europe-wide trade conducted from the region and centered in Bruges, where van Eyck eventually settled and died in 1441. Bruges's wealthy burghers and merchants, local and foreign, were among the most dedicated patrons of the ars nova, or new art, created by van Eyck and his colleagues, and the first to export it along Europe's land and sea routes, assuring it wide diffusion. In the late 1420s, for example, van Eyck was sent on several diplomatic missions by the Duke of Burgundy, which included trips to Spain, Portugal and the Holy Land.

As the fame of the new art spread, distant courts made concerted efforts to recruit its practitioners, and sent artists from their own regions to study in the Low Countries. And as the market provided by private commissions from prosperous burghers grew, Netherlandish artists increasingly settled in foreign cities on their own account.

The quantum leap in the quality of portraiture achieved by van Eyck and his contemporaries made these works among the most sought-after and led to portraiture becoming a highly valued genre in its own right. An essential part of this development was the abandonment of the traditional profile portrait in favor of three-quarter views of the sitter's face, which have remained standard until this day.

Van Eyck was employed by the Burgundian court to paint portraits intended to be exchanged, like photographs, as a prelude to dynastic marriages, and he also recorded likenesses of, for example, prominent delegates during the peace negotiations that led to the Peace of Arras. But merchants and their wives were equally enthusiastic customers.

The ability of these artists to convincingly portray anatomy and flesh tones also launched the nude as an independent genre. Van Eyck almost certainly painted at least one nude of his wife, Margaret, but unfortunately only a copy of this survives. His 'Bathers,' which was admired not least for its artful use of a mirror allowing the artist to show a naked woman both from the front and back is, alas, now lost without trace.

Even apparently incidental features of these early works had an enormous effect on the subsequent course of painting. Their wonderfully observed and rendered background landscapes, often imbued with an element of fantasy, were adopted all over Europe and often meticulously copied down to the last detail for decades afterwards.

In her essay in 'The Age of van Eyck,' Margaret Kloster, concentrating on the case of Florence, cogently argues not only that there was massive appropriation of Netherlandish elements there, but also that subsequent rewriting of art history later obscured the nature and degree of the wholesale borrowing. And, as she persuasively proposes, even that supposedly quintessential Italian form, the 'Sacra Conversazione' (Sacred Conversation) depicting the Virgin and Child and Saints, originated in the North.

Despite debts that were evident to all earlier in the 15th century, the Italians were soon asserting the superiority of their art on the grounds that the Netherlandish painters were ignorant of geometrical, or scientific, perspective, a proposition that has been reiterated down the centuries, although the 15th-century Fazio unaffectedly marveled at the illusionistic perspective landscape of van Eyck's 'Bathers' with 'its horses, minute figures of men, mountains, groves, hamlets and castles carried out with such skill you would believe that one was fifty miles distant from another,' assuming that this must somehow have been achieved with the aid of geometry.

In fact, van Eyck and his followers were the first masters of 'aerial' or 'atmospheric' perspective, based on the optical illusion that the color of objects changes as they become more distant from the eye, and the progressive haziness of far-off prospects. Thus, in the foreground of the picture they used darker hues, lightening the colors into the middle distance, and passing into pale blues and whites on the horizon.


This not only compensated for their lack of expertise in geometrically calculated perspective -- of which, by a certain point, these often cultured and well-traveled painters must surely have had some inkling, yet seemed to have shown little interest in systematically applying -- but established a form of perspective illusionism through color that has been employed by landscape artists ever since.

The reputation of Netherlandish art was maintained by later masters for a very long time to come. Prominent among them was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who was born in the 1520s and died in 1569. By this stage, demand for Netherlandish art had reached dizzying proportions. Although Pieter Bruegel the Younger was only 5 years old at his father's death, the son's studio later produced hundreds of copies of the old master's works well into the 17th century.

What this tells us about painting techniques, the mechanics of reproduction and the art market of the era (and our own for that matter, given that these reproductions vary wildly in quality and now fetch alarmingly high prices), is the subject of an unusual and revealing study show at the Museum of Ancient Art in Brussels until June 23.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023