The Arnolfini Portrait is an oil painting on an oak panel realized in 1434 by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. The artwork depicts the Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife, symbolically portrayed in their mansion in the Flemish city of Bruges.
What is Depicted in The Arnolfini Portrait?
The Arnolfini Portrait is a full-length double portrait of a couple depicted in their luxurious living room. The protagonists have been identified as Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a cloth merchant from Lucca (Italy), who settled in Bruges in 1420, and his wife, probably Giovanna Cenami. The painting was exhibited for the first time in 1843 in London at the National Gallery, where it is still preserved.
Every detail of the work is meant to demonstrate Arnolfini’s socio-economic status and wealth: the elegant robes of the protagonists (Arnolfini was a merchant of precious fabrics), the four-poster bed with red curtains, the oriental rug, and the Gothic lamp. On the left of the composition, near the open window, the painter depicts oranges. They were an extremely expensive fruit in 15th-century northern Europe.
In the center of the portrait, Jan van Eyck places a convex mirror, adorned with ten episodes from the Passion of Christ. Two mysterious figures, dressed in blue and red, are reflected in it. One of the two figures may be Jan van Eyck himself. This detail allows the artist to enlarge the scene and illusionistically show what was happening outside the picture frame. In addition, there is a Latin inscription above the mirror, attesting to the work’s signature and date of execution: Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 (Jan van Eyck was here. 1434).
The Arnolfini Portrait demonstrated Jan van Eyck’s technical skill. The Flemish painter succeeded in rendering minute details and the touchy textures of clothes and fabrics with realistic precision. He favored oil painting, taking advantage of the longer drying time of the technique to blend colors. He applied several layers of glowing glazes (wet-on-wet technique) to achieve realism and light effects.
The Arnolfini Portrait Artwork Analysis
The Arnolfini Portrait features a complex iconography, and the purpose of the painting is still debated among scholars. For a long time, the most common interpretation of the scene was that it was a marriage ceremony. However, new studies have shown that Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami only wed with second nuptials in 1447, more than a decade after the painting was commissioned. The meaning of the painting may be different. Giovanni Arnolfini had, in fact, a first wife, Costanza Trenta, who died a year before the painting, probably during childbirth. The painting could be a memorial portrait dedicated to her.
Scholars also focused on the symbolism of the hands. Erwin Panofsky interprets the joining hands as an act of fides, a “marital oath”, reinforcing the hypothesis of marriage portrait. The round mirror also prompts this theory: the two mysterious figures in the doorway could be witnesses and Jan van Eyck’s signature is a form of official attestation of the event. Instead, scholar Margaret Koster focuses on the chandelier, interpreting the painting as a memorial portrait. The one-lit candle in the correspondence of Giovanni Arnolfini could represent a metaphor for his being still alive, while the unlit candles could symbolize his wife’s death. The iconography of the candle could also generally mean the brevity of life.
In any case, The Arnolfini Portrait symbolically shows the gender roles of the epoque: the wife, standing near the bed, exemplifies her domestic role, while the husband, near the open window, his role as a merchant in the outside society.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?), 1433. In this self-portrait, there is the same thick red felt turban that Arnolfini also wears. This was a men’s garment very much in vogue in fifteenth-century Flanders.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini, 1435. The painting allows scholars to compare the physiognomy of Giovanni Arnolfini.
Jan van Eyck, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Gent, 1426- 1432. Like in the Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck is really meticulous in describing people, objects, and animals in minute detail.
People Also Asked Question(s)
Why is there a dog in The Arnolfini Portrait?
The little dog, probably a lap dog, is a symbol of fidelity and loyalty. If we assume instead the purpose of a memorial portrait, the dog placed at the feet of the deceased was a common practice in tomb effigies to accompany them in the afterlife.
Is Arnolfini’s wife pregnant?
In the past, the woman has been interpreted as pregnant because of the bulge on her skirt. However, recent studies have shown that bulky gowns were fashionable clothes in the courts of the 1400s.
What does the bright green of the dress mean in the The Arnolfini Portrait?
The intense green of the woman’s dress could symbolize hope, possibly the hope of becoming a mother. Furthermore, this shade called cinnabar green was used to dye fabric, but it was a very expensive process. The choice also represents the wealth and opulence of Arnolfini.