Jan focus on sacred images linked to Christianity.

Jan van Eyck was an influential painter of the Early Renaissance. In this lesson, we will discuss his life, innovative techniques, world-famous portraits and impact on the art world.

At the end, test your knowledge with a quiz.

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Who was Jan van Eyck?

Most of us are familiar with the Italian giants of the Renaissance: Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, and so forth. But northern European artists also helped make the Renaissance what is arguably the most influential period in art history. One of the first names you will encounter when searching important northern European artists is Jan van Eyck, who revolutionized portraiture, increased realism in Medieval works, and pioneered the art of oil painting.

Portrait of a Man, a possible self-portrait of Jan van Eyck
Arnolfini Portrait
Arnolfini Portrait

Van Eyck’s portraits showcased his secular style, where his mastery of facial expressions and knowledge of nature shines through. He also used oil paintings, relatively unknown for the time period, to get in the fine detail and colors needed in realistic portraiture.

One of van Eyck’s most famous portraits is the Arnolfini Portrait, which shows a wealthy Italian merchant embracing his wife. The piece shows extraordinary detail down to the quality of the hands, which became key indicators of an artist’s skill during the Renaissance. The Arnolfini Portrait is also famous for its usage of symbolism, showing elements such as love, loyalty, marriage, and faith. The painting is historically significant because it shows Arnolfini’s wife in equal stature to him, as opposed to the common view of women as subordinate to men.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

Van Eyck often showed two individuals opposite one another, and a similar, equally famous painting of his is the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. This painting mixes portraiture with sacred elements and shows Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philip the Good, interacting with Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

The painting uses an extraordinary mastery of perspective, the technique of depth and point of view. The viewer sits in a room with the painting’s subjects, and beyond them is a view looking out at a realistic landscape of gardens, buildings, rivers, and hills. The painting is also believed to have a series of hidden symbolic meanings tied to religious themes.One portrait may give us an idea into what van Eyck actually looked like.

Known as Portrait of a Man, (pictured above) the painting shows a middle-aged man with a large red turban and a quote inscribed on the frame saying ‘I Do as I Can’. Many have attributed the quote to van Eyck, and the clothing of the individual in the portrait is similar to what someone of his social class may have worn.

Lesson Summary

Jan van Eyck was a painter from the Netherlands from the 15th century, during a time when most famous artists came from Italy. Van Eyck painted for courts of the high nobility, including Philip the Good. From the courts, van Eyck mastered the art of portraiture, using oil to incorporate exquisite realism and attention to form, nature, and detail. His most famous religious art piece is the Ghent Altarpiece, which brought his naturalistic style to religious images that were often idealized.

Van Eyck’s most famous portrait is the Arnolfini Portrait, which is loaded with symbolism giving us clues into sensibilities of the time. His work the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin demonstrates a mastery of perspective that had arguably never before been seen before.


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