Master of Realism: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait

Martin Gayford

Despite being ‘one of the towering figures in the history of art’, Jan van Eyck is a painter ‘about whom the vital facts are almost all missing.’Very little is known about the man himself, his motivations, or indeed the people he painted in his iconic work The Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Although small in size, the painting is rich in detail and is championed as one of ‘the most stunning pieces of illusionistic realism’ in Western art, that influenced generations of artists.

Join critic and writer Martin Gayford as he presents some of the mysteries that lie behind van Eyck’s masterpiece, introducing the symbols which have enticed generations of art sleuths to puzzle over the work, in search of the definitive answers.

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One of the first things I like to note about this picture is how little we know about either the person who painted it, or the people in it. Jan van Eyck, although he’s one of the towering figures in the history of art, is somebody about whom the vital facts are almost all missing.

What we don’t know; his aims, ambitions, intentions in painting. Why he did it, how he did it, no personal information at all. The picture is a series of mysteries, most of which we do not actually have the definitive answers to.

This picture has always been enormously celebrated and valued since the 16th century. When you come down to it, the Arnolfini Portrait is of a subject, about as ordinary a subject as you could possibly imagine. It’s a picture of two people in a room. It seems to be a married couple. That theory has now been abandoned.

It’s noted in an early 16th century inventory that it’s a portrait of somebody called Arnofin, and from that it’s deduced that it’s probably an Italian merchant called Arnolfini. However, inconveniently, there were at least 5 merchants from Lucca of that name in Bruges where it was painted at the relevant time and it’s impossible to work out exactly which one it was.

We also have one fantastic piece of information, virtually I think, the only thing, personal statement by Jan van Eyck which is in the middle of the picture, written on it ‘Jan van Eyck fuit hic’, ‘Jan van Eyck was here’ and that’s overwhelmingly what you find out from the picture, is what he saw when he was there.

Jan van Eyck was a quite amazing master of the depiction of texture and reflection and all the surface qualities of materials. Jan van Eyck seems to have worked out ways in which to use glazes of, that’s thin layers of paint in oil medium, sometimes on top of each other to give the impression of these different textures. He was evoking textures through paint, and paint very smoothly and minutely applied.

He observed the way the light was hitting the oranges on the window sill, the slightly dirty marks on the clogs which the male sitter has discarded, the way that the light reflected off all the different kinds of textiles in the picture, off the chandelier. A huge amount of information about his sensory experience.

You see motifs in van Eyck’s paintings being picked up by other artists. That convex mirror, for example, turns up in picture after picture. That became a sort of standard trope in realist painting. Painters for centuries painted armour and the reflections in armour, and sometimes in highly polished silver, they did what van Eyck also like doing which was paint himself as a tiny figure in the reflection.

This is a stunning piece of realism, in fact, van Eyck’s style was absolutely unprecedented in the art of any culture in the world. Nobody had painted with anything like this level of realism anywhere, at any time before this.

It’s still the case that this is a work of art i.e. it’s a construction, a fiction. For example, although he probably had people posed in a room similar to that, the figures are actually too large for the room, the figures are giants in relation to the furniture and the space. He’s moving things around, probably to an extent he’s mentally or physically pasting them together, it’s a bit of a collage.

Perhaps the objects are all intended to be decoded, perhaps the little dog is a symbol of fidelity, perhaps the oranges symbolise something and so forth. It may be a big dictionary of symbols to which we don’t actually now have the definitive key, but I would say beyond that actually the fact that we don’t know the answers to this question doesn’t put us off looking.

It’s one of the most stunning pieces of illusionistic realism in Western art. Pictures of everyday life around us, start here.

With thanks to…

The National Gallery, London



Getty Images

The National Gallery, London

Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust

Museo Nacional del Prado

The Metropolitan Museum of Art




Audio Network



The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck, 1434
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Jan van Eyck dutch painter portrait, 1880
Illustrierte Geschichte / Getty Images


Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)
Jan van Eyck, 1433
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


A Man
Robert Campin, c.1435
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Portrait of a Man in a Chaperon
Netherlandish painter, 1440-1450
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


The Marriage Feast at Cana
Juan de Flandes, ca.1500-1504
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


Self Portrait
George Frederick Harris, 1909
Photo: Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


The Mirror
Sir William Orpen, 1900
Digital image © Tate
Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)


The Madonna with Canon van der Paele
Jan van Eyck, 1436
Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images


A Goldsmith in his Shop
Petrus Christus, 1449
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


Saint Francis and the Poor Knight, and Francis’s Vision
Sassetta, 1437-1444
The National Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Saint Mark the Evangelist and Saint Sinibaldus Venerated by Members of a Lay Confraternity
Cristoforo Cortese, c.1425-1434
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


The Annunciation
Fra Angelico, 1425
© Museo Nacional del Prado


The Card Players
Paul Cezanne, 1890-1892
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


The Potato Peeler (reverse: Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat)
Vincent van Gogh, 1885
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


Young Woman with a Lute
Johannes Vermeer, c.1662-1663
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)


Man Weighing Gold
Adriaen Isenbrant, c.1515-1520
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(CC0 1.0)

Jan van Eyck’, The National Gallery

Van Eyck’s handling of oil paint’, The National Gallery

Susan Foister, ‘Reflections: Jan van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites’, Art UK, 4 January 2018

Early Netherlandish Painting’, The Metropolitan Museum

Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, ‘Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?)’, Smarthistory, 11 December 2015

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