Jan van Eyck was the greatest artist of the early Netherlands school.
Jan van Eyck held high positions throughout his career, including court painter and diplomat in Bruges. So outstanding was his skill as an oil painter that the invention of the medium was at one time attributed to him, with his brother Hubert, also a painter. Jan van Eyck is considered to be a founder of the
Early Renaissance style in the Northern Renaissance. We do not know the exact date and place of his birth, it is believed that he was born in early 1390s in the eastern province of the Netherlands Limburg. Jan van Eyck was probably taught the art by his brother Hubert van Eyck, with whom he created the masterpiece
"The Ghent Altarpiece" (shown here).
The artwork was started in 1425, but after the death of Hubert, his younger brother finished it alone. "The Ghent Altarpiece" or "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" is a very large and complex Early Netherlandish polyptych panel painting. Commissioned by the wealthy merchant and financier Joost Vijdt, the altarpiece represented a "new conception of art", in which the idealization of the Classical tradition gave way to an exacting observation of nature.
The altarpiece consists of a total of twenty-four compartmented scenes, which make up two views, open and closed, which are changed by moving the hinged outer wings. The upper register (row) of the opened view shows Christ the King between the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The insides of the wings represent angels singing and making music, and on the outside Adam and Eve. The lower register of the central panel shows the adoration of the Lamb of God, with several groups in attendance and streaming in to worship, overseen by the dove representing the Holy Spirit.
Between 1422 and 1424, Jan van Eyck was employed as a painter by John of Bavaria, Bishop of Liègeand and the following year, 1425, his famous relationship with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, began. As court artist and equerry, Jan van Eyck moved to Philip's court at Lille. Few such cases of mutual serendipity adorn the history of Renaissance patronage: instead of treating his artist as something between a jongleur and an artisan, as the Medici in their off moments were apt to do, Philip was moved to declare that he "would never find a man so much to his taste, or such a paragon of science and art."
For eleven years, Jan van Eyck worked in an atmosphere of gracefully reciprocated admiration. He worked, not only for Philip, but for wealthy Italians resident in the Netherlands, such as Giovanni Arnolfini and his fame spread rapidly to Italy. In Jan van Eyck's 1434 painting "The betrothal of the Arnolfini" (shown here), we see how van Eyck exploited the qualities of oil as never before, building up layers of transparent glazes, thus giving him a surface on which to capture objects in the minutest detail and allowing for the preservation of his colors.
This portrait is of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, a merchant from Lucca and a frequent visitor to Bruges, and his wife Giovanna Cenami. The signature on the back wall - 'Jan Van Eyck was here, 1434' - and his reflection in the mirror has led many to believe that he was a witness to their marriage. The carving of Saint Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, on the bed, and the presence of the dog - a traditional symbol of faithfulness - accentuate the marital theme."
There is a common misconception, which dates back to the sixteenth-century Tuscan artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, that Jan van Eyck invented oil painting. It is however true that he achieved, or perfected, new and remarkable effects using this technique. Thus, due to his early mastery of the technique, he has often been referred to as the "father of oil painting." Exceptionally for his time, van Eyck often signed and dated his paintings on their frames, then considered an integral part of the work (the two were often painted together).
The stained glass window and niello pavement inlays in "The Annunciation" (shown here)exactly preserve what must have struck Jan van Eryck as their primitive crudeness. The Annunciation was originally on panel but has been transferred to canvas. It is thought that it was the left (inner) wing of a tryptych; there has been no sighting of the other wings since before 1817. It is a highly complex work, whose iconography is still debated by art historians. It is typical of Van Eyck that this should have been so.
No painter has ever been more preoccupied with artifacts with the exact way a square cut ruby is set in its flange to the rim of a crown or pearls are sewn to the hem of a robe, with the joints in an arch, the dull sheen of pewter or the luster of polished silver, the pin in an iron door hinge, the binding of a missal or the angular wooden soles of a pair of discarded chopines. In a lesser artist, this preoccupation might become fetishistic. In Jan van Eyck, it does not.
Each of the refined and sumptuous objects with which his world was populated is both concrete and self transcending; or so we instinctively feel. Jan van Eyck's extraordinary achievement rests on the fact that in his paintings, he extended detailed information about things far past the ordinary limits of scrutiny; his eye acted "both as a telescope and as a microscope", and it left us with too much, not the suggestive too little of other realist art. Jan van Eyck died in Bruges in 1441 and was buried there in the Church of St Donatian, which was destroyed during the French Revolution.