Jan Van Eyck came from a notable family of painters that originated from Maaseik, a town under the diocese of Liege. Van Eyck pioneered oil painting and executed the Ghent Altarpiece which is his famous work made him the most popular painter among his family clan. He was an iconic painter of his time with his leadership in introducing realism as a theme to painting medieval art.
Van Eyck was a renowned court painter with John of Bavaria and Philip the Good of Burgundy as his main art patrons. He painted characters that were relevant to the Catholicism mostly such as the many altarpieces he executed for his clients. His original painting style was inspired by Gothic art but later developed an approach that applies the characteristics and principles of realism and naturalism.
Art historians have little to share about Van Eyck’s early life that his exact birth date is unknown due to the fact that this event was undocumented. However, when Eyck worked and received payment from John of Bavaria anywhere between 1422 and 1424, this could suggest that he may be born on 1395 or towards the end of 1300’s.
In 1500’s, a report showed that he had been conceived and raised in Maaseik, Liege. Some proofs to prove this claim was his name Van Eyck which if translated to its old spelling would mean “eik”, a substrate of Maaseik dialect.
As mentioned earlier, Van Eyck came from a family of painters. He had two brothers named Lambert and Hubert, and a sister named Margareta. He might have had his earliest trainings with his siblings and then attended a formal school to learn Latin and the classics. This educational attainment earned him some edge over the other painters to be chosen by Philip the Good as his personal court artist.
The Count of Holland, John of Bavaria, was Van Eyck’s earliest art patron as an independent painter. He was supported by the said Count to form his own team, in which he had two assistants. He was contracted to decorate the Binnenhof Palace in The Hague. But his close relationship to John was cut short due to the count’s death in 1425.
In 1425, he moved out of John’s household and rendered his services to Philip the Good of Burgundy. His works with the said Duke had been documented, in which it says that Van Eyck was both a painter and a diplomat. He had done several paintings for Philip that was of collectible quality. He then assumed a high position in the Tournai Painter’s Guild, which was an exceptional milestone for such a young painter back then.
As a senior member of the guild, Van Eyck had to travel to Tournai to personally acknowledge this recognition which was celebrated in a banquet party alongside the celebration Feast of St. Luke on October 18, 1427. There in the event he met other emerging painters like Rogier van der Weyden and Robert Campin.
By this time, Van Eyck would have been still under the employment of Philip. He would get a salary on a regular basis that made him independent on commissions, and so he had much room for expressing and exercising his creative process. This artistic freedom allowed him to rise from above the rest because he was unique as an artist with technical skills that served instrumental in discovering the right way of using oil paints in painting. This revolutionized visual arts in a way that oil painting became possible because never did advanced painters actually think of oil-based paints as a feasible method. As a result, Van Eyck became one of the most important figures in fine arts during the 15th century Europe, and even today.
In 1433, he painted Portrait of a Man in a Turban which art historians believe was a self-portrait. In it he placed a unique signature “As I Can”, one of the earliest signatures ever made on paintings, that showed how confident he was in his superb performance and career so far.
Beginning 1434 was a series of successful works where Van Eyck painted Madonna-inspired masterpieces such as the Virgin and Child with canon van der Paele, Madonna of Chancellor Rolin and Lucca Madonna. He finished all three in 1436 and during this time he was already married to a lady named Margaret. The coupled lived in Bruges in a house that Van Eyck had bought for them together with their two children. Margaret is believed to be Van Eyck’s inspiration in painting The Arnolfini Portrait in 1434.
Before moving to Bruges, Van Eyck stayed in Lille for a while. He was still an active court painter for Philip, for which he would also attend to diplomatic missions asked of him by the Duke. For example, he was sent to Lisbon, Portugal alongside a couple of team members to organize Philip’s wedding to Isabella. While in there, he did some paintings of the bride so that his current art patron could have an idea on how she looks like before their wedding.
According to reports, Isabella of Portugal was not that attractive that Van Eyck wasn’t faithful to the way he painted her. Even though that was the case, the noble couple had their matrimonial ceremonies at the Netherlands and finally got married on December 25, 1429. After nine months of laboriously preparing the ground for Philip’s wedding to Isabella, Van Eyck had begun working on the Ghent Altarpiece in 1432.
In 1432, his availability concentrated on working at the Saint Bavo Cathedral to paint the Ghent Altarpiece also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This masterpiece stood the test of time for its complexity and historical relevance. It is a huge altarpiece that consisted of twelve panels and eight of which have hinges to be able to move it according to one’s preferred angle.
This commission by Joost Vijdt for the St. Bavo Cathedral was originally meant for Hubert Eyck but he had a premature death in 1426 so the commissioners turned to the younger brother, Jan Van Eyck to complete the painting. It is believed that Hubert may be responsible for the design of the painting and it was Jan that executed all of the works but art historians couldn’t find enough evidence to distinguish which part of the painting was done by Hubert and which part was by Jan. However, contemporary critics have come to accept the theory that Jan was responsible for painting the each panel while Hubert constructed the panels mainly.
In terms of style and technique used by Jan Van Eyck, he showed mastery of Flemish Polyptych from the details, spatial setting and accuracy in narrating the events regarding the subject matter. It is worth mentioning that the Ghent Altarpiece was the first painting to be opened for public viewing in order to foster worship and deeper connection to the religious idols.
In most cases, Van Eyck had been fond of painting Madonna portraits. He made the Virgin Mary as his recurring central figure where she would be seated and adorned with jewelries and a crown, while holding the Holy Child in her arms. Aside from this, the Child Christ also looks up to his mother and he does hold the hem of Virgin Mary’s dress, which stance is very reminiscent of the Byzantine art. Needless to say, Van Eyck’s Madonna would convey sheer tenderness in her gaze and stance and charm on her face.
During the earlier years of his professional career, he used to paint Madonna donor portraits. And in Northern Europe it was a common subject for fine artists to paint a Madonna in apparition or any Saint in front of an ordinary person. For example, in Van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele the canon looks like he’s reading a passage from the Bible and must be praying to Virgin Mary. And in apparition, the Virgin and Child alongside a couple of Saints have appeared before him as though they are listening to the Canon’s prayers.
During the 1430’s, Northern Europe painters would paint donor portraits based on the beliefs and religious practices of the people. Virgin Mary had been the central figure from Early to High Renaissance, which symbolizes how the Christians of that time have viewed her as the intermediary between humans and the Divine.
During the last ten years of Van Eyck’s life, he couldn’t be any prouder of himself with his major contributions to European art. He held high positions in the Burgundian nobility while opening his doors to accepting commissions from international clients. This solidified his reputation over Europe, particularly in Italy where Early Renaissance was emerging as an artistic movement.
However, in July 1441, Van Eyck had met his premature death, unable to finish a lot of work and workshop duties with his assistants and apprentices. His successor, Petrus Christus, emerged later on as he directly absorbed his master’s style, approach and theme, which are all evident in his Portrait of a Carthusian (1446). Additionally, Van Eyck’s unfinished works are now treated as the highlight of 15th century Flemish painting. His brother, Lambert, was the one who supervised the settlement of his estate and other properties, including his studio in Bruges.