Flemish painter of the 15th century, Jan Van Eyck, is considered one of the most innovative painters of the late Middle Ages who perfected the newly developed technique of oil painting. Referred to by his compatriots as the King of Painters, his meticulous attention to detail was made evident in the incredibly accurate renderings of architectural interiors, landscapes, portraits, and religious subjects.
While no record of his birthdate can be recovered, Johannes Van Eyck is believed to have been born around 1395, and originated from Maaseyck, Limbourg (a region between the Netherlands, now known as Belgium). It is also presumed that he studied under his brother Hubert Van Eyck, and together they created late medieval works of art.
The artist earned a position of status as a court painter to John of Bavaria (count of Holland) at the Hague in 1422, where he served for the next two years. After the count’s death in 1425, Jan Van Eyck moved on to serve Duke Philip (the Good) of Burgundy, a highly cultured man and patron of the arts. As a close member of the court, he was entrusted with various diplomatic missions. It is said that Jan Van Eyck participated in the negotiations that resulted in the marriage of Philip and Isabella of Portugal in 1430.
During this time, Jan Van Eyck was receiving commissions from wealthy Italian residents in the Netherlands, including Giovanni Arnolfini, a silk merchant from Lucca in Tuscany, who is believed to have had his wedding portrait painted by the artist in 1434. Weddings at that time were documented with photographs. Signed with the phrase ‘Jan Van Eyck was present’ in Gothic calligraphy (used for legal documents) seems to indicate that he also served as a witness to the union. To this day, art historians are still debating whether or not this painting was meant to signify a union of marriage.
Because of Jan Van Eyck’s mastery of the newest oil painting techniques, he was falsely credited with its discovery. He built up layers of transparent glazes with oils that enabled him to manipulate and master the effects of light, giving his paintings a uniquely luminous quality about them. Most artists of the time were still using tempera paints which dried quickly and were difficult to use.
The Ghent Altarpiece (1432), one of the painter’s most famous works, was conceived by his brother Hubert who had died before finishing it. This piece, whose theme reflected Jesus' sacrifice, was two stories high and painted in three parts. It was created for the Church of St. Bavo, Ghent.
Jan Van Eyck was one of the first masters of portrait painting in Europe. He created such works as: Portrait of Cardinal Nicola Albergati (c.1432), Portrait of a Young Man (1432), and Man in a Red Turban (1433); the latter was thought to have been a self-portrait. His naturalistic style depicted people in a more realistic way, contrary to the portrait artists of the past who usually exaggerated the features of their subjects in an attempt to better represent them.
Although not much has been documented about the artist’s personal life, we do know that he purchased a house in Bruges, Belgium in 1432, where he brought his bride to live a year later. The couple had several children, one to whom the Duke of Burgundy was the Godfather.
Jan Van Eyck died in July, 1441 in Bruges, around the age of fifty. He was buried with high honors at the Church of Saint Donation which was destroyed during the French Revolution. As a credit to his lifetime of loyal service, Duke Philip saw to it that his wife and children were provided for after his death.