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The Netherlandish Painters: Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin

Netherlands is notorious for being one of the most influential places in Europe for birthing the Baroque and Realist styles of painting. Thanks to some very influential painters such Jan van Eyck, Hubert van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Gerard David; Netherlandish paintings have gained one of the most influential standings in European art. The early days of Netherlandish paintings took place during the Renaissance period, before the movement progressed into the Dutch Golden Age in 17th century. During the golden era, Netherlandish painters became well known for their mastery of oil painting and realist caricature.

Until the late 17th and 18th centuries, Netherlandish painters remained the most sophisticated artists in oil painting still life. In fact, the color precision and detail that was featured in these paintings—even in our modern terms—is comparable to the detail and precision of a photograph. Unfortunately for the the admirers of this kind of elaborate style of painting, many early pieces of Netherlandish paintings were destroyed by the numerous waves of iconoclasm that occurred in northern Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The early Netherlandish style began to gain its popularity in northern Europe during the 1420’s and developed independently from other forms of art that occurred during the same time in Italy and other European countries. The main subjects that where depicted in early Netherlandish paintings were mainly religious until artist began working with landscapes, and with largely secularized content—as their main subject-matter. During this divergence, the depiction of the atmospheric perspective was first being experimented as a way of representing spatial depth.

The most influential and perhaps the most representative painter of the Netherlandish style was Jan van Eyck. Although Robert Campin is also considered the founding father of the Netherlandish style, Jan van Eyck is a painter to which one of the most sophisticated paintings are attributed to. There is not much known information about Jan van Eyck’s life, however, it is widely accepted that his date of birth was circa 1380’s in a town that called Maaseik which borders today’s Netherlands, and is located in today’s Belgium. In total, there are 25 known surviving works that are officially categorized as works by Jan van Eyck. One of the most significant works of art created by Jan van Eyck which is worth discussing and interpreting in the view of its iconographic and historic significance, is the Arnolfini portrait.

Jan van Eyck's _Arnolfini portrait_ (1434) Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait (1434).

The Arnolfini portrait remains one of the most controversial and mysterious paintings from the Renaissance period. It was painted by Jan van Eyck and the painting features the realistic style that Eyck frequently applied in his paintings. So many small details and nuances are featured in this painting; from the reflection in the back mirror, to the iconographic significance of mandarins behind Arnolfini’s figure that scholars endlessly discuss, dispute, and critique. The painting itself has a noteworthy standing in the history of Renaissance art because of the unusual representation of perspective that was considered revolutionary at that time. The photorealistic quality and the extensive expression of naturalism in the painting was considered mind boggling during that era and is widely considered to be so until this day.

The figures in the portrait represent an Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and supposedly his pregnant wife. From small interior details to the most luxurious forms of clothes of the Renaissance period, are all features and symbols of the immense wealth and value that the Arnolfini family had under their possession. The brass, or even possibly a gold chandelier; red bed covers; imported mandarins; a mirror; a small dog—were all possessions of immense value during that period. Arnolfini’s wife green dress color for example, may symbolize the color of growing life and prosperity since it would also give more meaning and significance to her pregnancy. The blooming cherry tree outside of the window is a symbol of life and spring, the time when all kinds of living forms of life bloom and prosper. The lighting coming from outside also gives the painting a very realistic three dimensional feel.

The mirror behind the figures has always sparked various theories about the painting’s iconographic significance. The reflection of the figures is depicted in a very realistic manner however, the figures behind Arnolfini and his wife remain on of the biggest mysteries. Some scholars believe that the mirror itself is supposed to be an eye of God, others believe that the mirror reflects the witnesses of the couple’s wedding—what is even more interesting, is the fine details of twelve small icons around the mirror that appear to represent the scenes of christ’s crucifixion.

The primary reason for the creation of the painting also remains very questionable. Perhaps, the painting’s primary reason was to act as an official document of Arnolfini’s marriage since it has Jan van Eyck’s name is right in the center of the painting which brings a possibility that he could have been the only witness of the engagement.

Hubert van Eyck is also another very influential early Netherlandish painter who was Jan van Eyck’s older brother. One of the most important and widely known works created by Jan van Hubert is The Three Marys at the Tomb and the Ghent Altarpiece, a work composed of 12 panels which Hubert is know for laying out. When Hubert passed away in 1426, Jan was the one who took on the task of finishing the altarpiece. Even The Three Marys at the Tomb was not completed upon Hubert’s death and was finished by some other artist, most likely Jan van Eyck, since he is the artist who completed most of of Hubert’s works.

Because Jan van Hubert has not lived a long life, it is hard to consider him the founding father of the Early Netherlandish style since Jan van Eyck was the main successor of his knowledge, foundations; and was the artist who finished the significant paintings started by Hubert. It is therefore more widely accepted to consider Jan van Eyck together with Robert Campin One as the founders of the early Netherlandish movement. Robert Campin was born in 1375 which makes him around 10-15 years older than Jan van Eyck. Campin’s place of birth remains a very controversial subject since until this day, it remains unknown. The fact that he bought his citizenship suggests that he was born outside of Netherlands. On of the most significant significant painting created by Camping include the The Mérode Altarpiece, The Werl Triptych and The Annunciation Triptych which happens to be located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One of the most elaborate works of art created by Robert Campin is perhaps The Werl Triptych. Although only two of the pieces survive until this day, it is a work of art worth mentioning because of the extensive use of geometrical perspective and the immense meaning of symbolism together with the iconographic content of various objects and holly figures. The painting similarly to Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, is praised for its extensive elaboration of naturalism. The work itself is attributed to “Master of Flémalle” rather than Robert Campin, which it is disputably accepted as Robert Campin’s pseudonym in many other paintings.

Robert Campin's _The Werl Triptych_ Robert Campin’s The Werl Triptych (1438)

The right part of the The Werl Triptych, is identified as Saint Barbara who is depicted as reading a bound and gilded holy book while being seated in front an open fire which lights the room with a warm golden glow. It is speculated that Barbara is the centerpiece of painting since she is a holy figure that was most commonly depicted by artists of Campin’s generation. However, it is almost impossible to say correctly that Barbara is the main subject given the fact that the centerpiece of the painting is missing. Similarly to Arnolfini’s wife in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, Barbara is wearing a green dress which also symbolizes growing life and prosperity, a practice commonly practiced by painters when depicting holly female figures.

The left part of the Triptych depicts Saint John and the donor Heinrich von Werl. The panel depicts von Werl kneeling in prayer as he is accorded by John the Baptist in a domed interior. One of the most interesting details of this specific painting however remains the featuring of a mirror in between the two figures, just like the one in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait. Just as in Jan van Eyck’s painting, the mirror functions as an eye of god that judges everything that is happening and looks after people’s sins. Although The Werl Triptych was painted four years later than the Arnolfini portrait, it is notable how Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin influenced each other’s works.

References

Borchert, Till. Van Eyck to Dürer: The Influence of Early Netherlandish Painting on European Art, 1430-1530.
London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Burroughs, Bryson. A Diptych by Hubert van Eyck.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Volume 28, No. 11, Pt 1, November 1933.

Conway, William Martin. The Woodcutters of the Netherlands in the Fifteenth Century In Three Parts.
History of the Woodcutters. Cambridge: University Press, 1884.

Cotter, Holland. Mysteries in the Crystalline World of a Flemish Master.
The New York Times. April 23, 1998. Accessed May 9, 2015.

Kamil, Neil. Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots’ New World, 1517-1751.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Robert Campin | Von Werl Altarpiece: John the Baptist and the Franciscan Theologian Heinrich Von Werl, and Saint Barbara (1438).
Artsy. Accessed May 9, 2015.

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