Flemish art: the "Closer to van Eyck project"

Closer to Van Eyck project (website)

I have seen Flemish School works before, but when - finally- I saw Jan Van Eyck's works in a Bruges museum, only then I grasped the reach of the possibilities of realistic observation and the  technique of oil painting and the mastery of his genius. The almost minuscule brushes of the chained pieces of the armor, the luxurious shine of an ecclesiastical robe, the reflected face barely disguised in the golden shimmer of an angelical shield, the dedicated labour of painting layer after layer, stroke after stroke, a work only deserved to be acquired by kings and rulers.
A knack for finesse, detail, observation, texture, are the qualities that come to the forefront in Van Eyck's work.  But, above all, as said, in my opinion, delicacy of brushwork. Nothing of the "Primitive" label placed upon him and his work by the Renaissance-centred narrative. After that I had seen different pieces of his work in other places and my first impression hasn't changed.
The delicate jewels depicted strenuously in maximum detail were made as a tour de force buit they are also a emblem of the kind of spirit of the whole work, minutely detailed, like savouring the existence in this world in a sober, cold , scientific manner if that is possible at all, the kind of information a just opened eye could gather, thirsty to catch all the information available, as art was waking up to the perspectives of a reloaded figurativism. See this, touch that, contemplate everything in this mirror of the world, marvel at the brief moment of life you have to take a glance to all things, wordly and unwordly, nature at flow, nature in detail, all wholesome theater in the great scheme of things. Some of the seeds of the baroque are, dormant, but still there. 
Stroke over stroke, brushing the softened white table, ready to be oiled slowly and glowingly with earths of different colors, brought form afar, by traders of  all avenues of life, by sea and by land, from beyound the Aral, or mountains not to be named, using maps not to be shared. Like that other craddle of lurid colorism, Venice, Flandes, with cities such as Brugues and Ghent, was a meeting point for traders all over Europe, and as such has access to the most sough-after colours and influences of materials, ready to be melted by the alchemy of artisans of many crafts.  Slowly, they emerged from the pages of the Breviaries to the altars of the churches, to barely turn back. 
All this is digitally observable now with this project.
The pieces have been analyzed, x-rayed, photographed as images and as objects, located and tracked, as is customary in the paradigm of the digital humanities nowadays.
Much has been said and written about Van Eyck, but for the learning artist, each work has innumerable layers of meaning and details to delve on. In the notes you can get  a look to just some of the observations made  in the historical trayectory of this body of works.




Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) was almost contemporary with Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Brunelleschi(1377-1446), Leon Alberti(1404-1472), Masaccio (1401-1428), Filippo Lippi(1406-1469) and Jacopo Bellini(1400-1470) Paolo Ucello (1397-1475)- but curiously-for me-precedes the pseudo-medieval imageries of Hyeronimus Bosch (1450-1516). Curiously-again-is the next generation of Italian painters such as Ghirlandaio, Perugino or Antonello da Mesina the ones who show in their work a more naturalistic approach to light, as they start to adopt more and more the oil technique.

"Jan van Eyck is credited with originating a style of painting characterised by minutely realistic depictions of surface effects and natural light. This was made possible by using an oil medium, which allowed the building up of paint in translucent layers, or glazes.

Little is known of van Eyck's origins, but he probably came from Maaseik, near Maastricht, and was of the gentry class. He is first heard of in 1422 working in The Hague for John of Bavaria, ruler of Holland. From 1425 he was at Bruges and Lille as painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In 1428 van Eyck was sent to Portugal to paint Philip the Good's future wife, Isabella of Portugal.

Van Eyck appears to have painted many religious commissions and portraits of Burgundian courtiers, local nobles, churchmen and merchants. A small group of his paintings survive with dates from 1432 onwards. One of his most famous works is the 'Arnolfini Portrait', signed and dated 1434. It is thought that his 'Portrait of a Man' may be a self portrait. "

"Jan van Eyck is the most famous member of a family of painters traditionally believed to have originated from the town of Maaseik, in the diocese of Liège. The work of the Van Eycks, epitomized in the Ghent Altarpiece , brought an unprecedented realism to the themes and figures of
late medieval art . Van Eyck pursued a career at two courts, working for John of Bavaria, count of Hainaut-Holland (1422–24), and then securing a prestigious appointment with Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy (1425–41). Employment at court secured him a high social standing unusual for a painter, as well as artistic independence from the painters’ guild of Bruges, where he had settled by 1431. Evidence that the Van Eycks bore a coat-of-arms, and thus belonged to the gentry, and that Jan was literate (as shown by his own handwriting on a drawing), is consistent with the probability that some of his frequent travels for the duke were diplomatic missions. Many aspects of his work were surely intended to promote his personal reputation and abilities, including his practice of signing and dating his pictures (then unusual), and his playful and quasi-erudite use of Greek transliteration in his personal motto Als ich kan (As well as I can). His artistic prestige rests partly on his unrivaled skill in pictorial illusionism. The landscape of his Crucifixion (33.92ab ), with its rocky, cracked earth, fleeting cloud formations, and endless diminution of detail toward the blue horizon, reveals his systematic and discriminating study of the natural world. Van Eyck’s ability to manipulate the properties of the oil medium played a crucial role in the realization of such effects. From the fifteenth century onward, commentators have expressed their awe and astonishment at his ability to mimic reality and, in particular, to re-create the effects of light on different surfaces, from dull reflections on opaque surfaces to luminous, shifting highlights on metal or glass. Such effects abound in the Virgin of Canon van der Paele (1434–36), as shown by the glinting gold thread of the brocaded cope of Saint Donatian, the glow of rounded pearls and dazzle of faceted jewels in the costumes of the holy figures, or the small, distorted reflections of the figures of the Virgin and Child repeated in each curve of the polished helmet of Saint George. The almost clinical detail in the face of the kneeling patron vividly illustrates Van Eyck’s acute objectivity as a portraitist. Through his understanding of the effects of light and rigorous scrutiny of detail, Van Eyck is able to construct a convincingly unified and logical pictorial world, suffusing the absolute stillness of the scene with scintillating energy. Despite this legendary objectivity, Van Eyck’s paintings are perhaps most remarkable for their pure fictions. He frequently aimed to deceive the eye and amaze the viewer with his sheer artistry: inscriptions in his work simulate carved or applied lettering; grisaille statuettes imitate real sculpture; painted mirrors reflect unseen, imaginary events occurring outside the picture space. In The Arnolfini Portrait, the convex mirror on the rear wall reflects two tiny figures entering the room, one of them probably Van Eyck himself, as suggested by his prominent signature above, which reads “Jan van Eyck has been here. 1434.” By indicating that these figures occupy the viewer’s space, the optical device of the mirror creates an ingenious fiction that implies continuity between the pictorial and the real worlds, involves the viewer directly in the picture’s construction and meaning, and, significantly, places the artist himself in a central, if relatively discrete, role. Another reflected self-portrait, this time in the shield of Saint George in the Virgin of Canon van der Paele, functions as part of Van Eyck’s textural realism but likewise challenges our credulity by reminding us, through this minor intrusion of the artist’s image, that his ostensible realism is an artifice.
Despite his individual fame, Van Eyck’s achievement was not carried out in isolation: as was customary, he employed workshop assistants, who made exact copies, variations and pastiches of his completed paintings. Such works no doubt helped to supply a vigorous demand for his work on the open market, while contributing to the recognition of his name throughout Europe. After Jan’s death in June 1441, his brother Lambert, who was also a painter, helped to settle his estate, and perhaps oversaw the closing of his workshop in Bruges."

(Metropolitan Museum)

"... Jan van Eyck brings on a revolution in the history of painting in the Low Countries between circa 1420 and 1441. He is probably brought up by his older brother, Hubert, whose Ghent Altarpiece he completes in 1432, following Hubert's death in 1426. Jan van Eyck's work makes an abrupt end to the refined ‘international style' that dominates the art at the time. With his precise observation and naturalistic rendering of reality, his brilliant colouring and the oil technique that he perfectly masters, though did not invent, gives Van Eyck the look of a virtuosity that scarcely will ever be matched. As diplomat and court painter of the Burgundian dukes, he moves within the highest circles throughout his entire lifetime. "

Circa 1380-85 :Hubert van Eyck is probably born in Maaseik. 

1384 : After the death of Louis of Male, his son-in-law, the Burgundian duke Philip the Bold, rules over the Flemish counties. 

Circa 1385-90 : Jan van Eyck is probably born in Maaseik. 

1409 :‘Meester Hubrecht' paints an altar tableau for one of the convents in Tongeren. 

1419 : Death of John the Fearless, the second duke of Burgundy. His son Philip the Good succeeds him and from that moment rules over Flanders. 

Circa 1420 : The Ghent patrician Joos Vijd gives Hubert van Eyck the assignment for what will be the Ghent Altarpiece (St. Baafs Cathedral, Ghent). 

1422 : Jan van Eyck works as a painter in the services of John of Bavaria-Straubing (1374-1425), who abdicates the principality of Liège and from 1417 on excercises control over the counties of Holland, Zeeland and Henegouwen. Jan van Eyck works together with many assistants in the princely residence in The Hague, the so-called Inner Court. 

1424 : Van Eyck is mentioned as court painter for the first time in documents of the Dutch Accounting office, but he probably already serves this function in previous years. 

1425 : After the death of John of Bavaria (6 January), Jan van Eyck departs for Bruges. In one document drawn up on 19 May, he is named as the court painter of the Burgundian duke, Philip the Good. Jan van Eyck leaves for Rijsel in the summer and around Christmas time receives his first annual stiped as ‘valet de chambre' (chamberlain) of the duke. 
Hubert van Eyck is paid for two design drawings on assignment of the Ghent Magistrate. On the occasion of a visit by the Ghent councilmen to Hubert van Eyck's work place, his assistants receive the customary gratuities. 

1426 : In August, Jan van Eyck is paid by the Burgundian Accounting office for two business trips on assignment for Philip the Good. The first trip is the pilgrimage that he makes in lieu of the duke. The second is stamped as a secret mission that the artist goes to ‘faraway lands' as stated in the document, that are not allowed to be called by name. It is suspected that the artist made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land via Italy and that the second trip took him to the various cities of the Ottoman empire. In October, Jan van Eyck again receives a stipend for a ‘secret and far trip' that he makes on assignment of the duke. 
The testament of the Ghent patrician Robert Poortier that was drawn up in March, mentions an altar tableau and an image of St. Anthony that was made in the work place of Hubert van Eyck at the time. 
In the late autumn, the Accounting office of Ghent notes the receipt of estate tax for the painter ‘Lubrecht van Heyke,' who died at the end of August. The assistants probably continue working from his work place under the supervision of Jan van Eyck on the Ghent Altarpiece.
1427 : The Burgundian Accounting office in Lille pays Jan van Eyck various payments for his services at the court. These payments may be connected with the wall murals in the duke's residences, among which is the Hesdin castle. On the fest of St. Lucas, the court painter attends a banquet of the painters' guild of Tournai, where Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden are also present. The magistrate of Tournai distributes the ‘honour wine' for these reasons. 

1428 : On 23 March, Jan van Eyck is back in Tournai. In the spring, the Accounting office of Lille pays a bonus to the painter in addition to his annual stipend. Moreover, his travel expenses in the summer of ‘certain secret trips' are also paid. During the summer, Jan van Eyck moves out of his house in Lille and at the end of the summer sets off via England and Spain with a Burgundian envoy of high rank for Portugal, where the approaching wedding of Philip the Good and the Portuguese Infante Isabella is being negotiated. Among the Burgundian diplomats is also Baudouin de Lannoy. 

1429 : Jan van Eyck paints two portraits of the princess in Portugal, which in February are sent to the duke over land and sea. While people are waiting for the answer, a few Burgundians, amongst whom is also Van Eyck, make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. They meet King John II of Castille, and Mohammed, the king of Granada. In September, the bride departs with her entourage by ship to the Low Countries, where she arrives on Christmas Day in Sluis, one of the Bruges outer harbours. 

1431 : Lambert van Eyck, a brother of Jan van Eyck, is paid for services to the duke.
1432 : On 6 May, the Ghent Altarpiece in St. Jan's Church (now Sint-Baafs Cathedral) is presented. This same day, the baptismal ceremony of Joos van Gent takes place. Joos van Gent, the son of Philip the good and Isabella of Portugal, dies shortly thereafter. A short time later, Van Eyck must have settled permanently in Bruges and set up a studio there. From the summer until his death, he paid a mortgage payment to the St. Donaas church for his house in Bruges. In this time, the magistrate of Bruges visited the painter's studio and paid gratuities to his assistants. The duke and his entourage also paid a visit to the studio in Bruges. 
For more information concerning the restauration and study of the Ghent Altarpiece, visit this website. Each centimeter of the altarpiece was scrutinized and photographed at extremely high resolution in both regular and infrared light. 
Jan van Eyck paints the Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir) (dated 10 October 1432) (National Gallery, London). 
Lambert van Eyck paints the now-lost Portrait of Jacoba of Bavaria the same year. 

1433 :Van Eyck paints Portrait of a Man (self-portrait?) (dated 21 October 1433) (National Gallery, London), with the personal motto of the painter on the frame: ALC IXH XAN for the first time.
Probable marriage of Jan van Eyck with ‘damoiselle Marguerite' (Margaretha van Eyck). 

1434 : On assignment of Giovanni di Nicolaio di Arnolfini, the artist paints The Arnolfini Portrait (National Gallery, London).  The same year he receives the project for the Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (Groeninge Museum, Bruges) and probably for the Madonna with Chancellor Rolin (Paris, Musée du Louvre). 
The first child of Jan van Eyck is named after his godfather, duke Philippot of Philippotte and is baptised. The duke, who was represented at the baptism, gave six silver chalices crafted by the Bruges goldsmith Jan Peutin as a baptismal gift. From the autumn, Van Eyck works on assignment of the city magistrate on the gilding painting of six stone sculptures of the counts of Flanders for the façade of the Bruges Town Hall. The following year he is paid for this. 

1435 : The duke changes his annual stipend to a life-long annuity, and multiplies the sum many times over. He personally gives the Burgundian Accounting office the assignment to pay out the amount immediately to his cherished court painter. At the request of Philip the Good, Van Eyck travels to the Peace Congress in Atrecht (Arras) in order to portrait the participants. There, he makes the Portrait Drawing of Niccoló Albergati (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden). He probaby completes the Madonna with Chancellor Rolin. 

1436 : Completion of the Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (Groeninge Museum, Bruges) and The Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). 
On assignment of the duke of Burgundy, the artist takes up again a faraway trip to ‘foreign lands' in order to deal with ‘secret circumstances'. His stipend is supplemented with a double annuity. 

1437 : Completion of the Madonna and Child with Saints George and Catherine (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), a travel altar on assignment from a merchant from Genova. Jan van Eyck begins work on the Saint Barbara (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp). The work also remains unfinished. 

1438 :Completion of The Portait of Niccoló Albergati (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). 
Van Eyck pays the book illustrator Jehan Creve for the painting of initials in a manuscript that is destined for the duke. The Accounting office of Lille pays him for the cost the following year. The initials are probably related to the so-called Turin-Milan book of hours, which Van Eyck and his studio had begun. 

1439 : Completion of the Madonna at the Fountain (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp) and the Portrait of Margaretha van Eyck (dated 17 June 1439) (Groeninge Museum, Bruges), as well as the Portrait of Christ. The original is lost (dated 31 January 1439). The Groeninge Museum in Bruges is in the possession of a copy from the last quarter of the 16th Century. 

1440 : Jan van Eyck provides the duke ‘a few panels as well as other secret objects' for which he is remunerated the following year by the Accounting office. He begins on the uncompleted Madonna of Nicolas van Maelbeke (gone lost during the French Revolution). 

1441 : Jan van Eyck dies in July. His widow receives from the duke a one-time stipend worth her departed husband's annuity as financial support. 

1442 : Lambert van Eyck receives the permission from the capital of St. Donaas to bury the corporeal remains of his brother and to have them placed in the church. Saint Jerome in his Study is completed. (The Institute of Arts, Detroit) 

1443 : Completion of the Virgin and Child, with Saints and Donor (The Frick Collection, New York). 

1444 : The Valencian merchant Gregori obtains Van Eyck's Saint George (the work is since lost) for Alfonso V of Aragón in Bruges. 

1449 : Cyriaco d'Ancona mentions Jan van Eyck as a famous painter. 

1450 :The daughter of the painter enters a cloister in Maaseik. The Van Eyck house in Bruges is sold, the studio is dismantled. 

1456 : Bartolomeo Facio mentions works by Jan van Eyck in Italian possession, amongst others The Lomellini Triptych (probably destroyed by a fire in 1504), which was then to be found in Naples, as well as a work with bathing women (the works has since been lost) in Urbino. 

1554 : Giorgio Vasari incorrectly ascribes the invention of oil painting to Jan van Eyck.