Aesthetic Visual Analysis on Van Eyck’s “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini & Jeanne Cenami”(1434)

Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne (Gioavanna) Cenami  Double Portrait (1434) is one of the most famous Renaissance paintings. It was created by Jan van Eyck. At the present time the painting is displayed in the London’s National Gallery. The portrait is one of best known works of the 15th century created in the Netherlands.  The period of the 15th century was marked new tendencies in art  and got the name of Northern Renaissance. Jan van Eyck belongs to The Early Netherlandish school. He became one of the first painters, who started using the technique of oil painting.  Changes in the art were centered around Flanders and Florence. In Flanders cultural and trading life was centered in Ghent, Burges and Antwerp. Jan van Eyck lived in worked in Burges.  Burges in the first part of the 15th century was an important trading center. Rich people lived there and painting of that time depicts a lot of merchants, who were the richest people of that time.  Jan van Eyck often depicted merchants and aristocrats on his paintings. The Double Portrait (1434)  depicts a wealthy merchant Arnolfini, who was involved in the garment trades.

The Netherlandish portraits are written with big naturalism. Jan van Eyck followed this naturalistic style.

Giovanni Arnolfini and Jeanne (Gioavanna) Cenami  Double Portrait (1434) has a complex composition. Two full-height figures, which make the central part of the painting, are surrounded by objects of furniture. The painting has a lot of hidden clues and symbols, which can be used to interpret the author’s ideas. 

Critics still argue about the context of the painting. Some of them argue that the painting depicts the scene of marriage. Some symbols, used in the painting, such as one lit candle, shoes in the lower left corner and writing on the wall support this thesis. At the same time, other specialists give convincing reasons, which prove that the painting was created after the marriage. Giovanna’s hairdo, settings in the room and other minor details prove this version[1].  Despite the context, two main figures of the painting, which make the central element of it, become the symbol of happy family life. They give ideas not only about the life of one family, but about marriage traditions and family relations of that time. Different symbols, such as placement, colors, minor details are important keys, which help to make judgment about the epoch, traditions and relations, peculiar to that time. “In terms of meaning, the naturalistic integration of objects within coherent spaces allowed a profusion of symbolic references to be “concealed” within what seems to be the normal ensemble of a domestic or ecclesiastical interior.”[2]  

Gioavanna Cenami stands near  her husband, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. They are both dressed in luxury dresses, which are designed to underline their high financial standing. Arnolfini is a merchant and his expansive clothes are designed to illustrate his social position. Giovanna and Giovanni’s clothes are ornamented with fur, which was a sign of luxury for that time. Well-appointed interior is also used to underline high social position of the family.

The painting is one of the earliest oil paintings in Europe. Jan Van Eyck used oil paintings instead of tempera paints. Oil paints let him reach better mingling of shade, since oil paints stay wet for longer time[3]. The author used Flemish style of the painting for this painting, as for a lot of his other works. The picture is painted with great preciseness. Minor details are painted with precision. Some specialists believe the author used magnifying glass to paint them.

The painting illustrates social perception of women, their role and function in the family and in the society.  At the same time, the painting illustrates tender and loving relations between the couple. The woman is looking at her husband. From the one hand, her facial expression illustrates that she is fond of her husband. From the other hand, she looks at his face, which means that they have loving and equal relations. “Another interesting feature of this scene is the juxtaposition of Giovanna and the object which dominates the right of the image, the bed. This element serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the private site of sexual encounter and the site for the woman’s production of children for her husband, reinforcing Giovanna’s role within the marriage.”[4]  

The painting presents an unusual double standing portrait.  Double standing portraits are rare for the that epoch. The man from the picture looks strait. His wife is looking at him. Their postures and facial expression represent the ideal of family relations. The man is looking forward, and his wife is looking at him.  In addition, Giovanna is standing near the bed. Her place in the picture reflects women’s position in the family.  House and bedroom are their basic destinations. The man is standing near the open window. This can be interpreted as his orientations on the external objects and active social life. “The representation of Giovanna is particularly interesting in terms of how the artist visually compared her to the ideal woman and mother, the Virgin Mary and continually refers to her role as a wife through the inclusion of subtly placed symbols.”[5] At the same time, it is worth to note that the woman on the picture is not pregnant. That is a common mistake. She holds her full-skirted dress with her hand in a contemporary fashion and folds of the dress create an illusion that she is pregnant. At the same time, the manner to hold the dress, and an accent made on the painting still underline the importance of fertility. Women are viewed as potential mothers and this makes their main role and function.

Latin words,  written on the wall are translated as “Jan van Eyck was here 1434.”[6] This date is often defined as the date when the painting was finished.

The mirror on the wall is not only an object of the interior. The author skillfully uses it to expand the space of the painting. In addition, it shows the reflections of two figures. According to one of the versions Jan van Eyck depicted himself in the mirror. The trick, used by the painter expands the space of the room. In addition, it places two additional figures n the setting, without distracting attention from two main figures of the painting. The mirror is decorated by ten circles, which describe different episodes from the Bible from the life of Jesus Christ.

Two main figures on the painting stand close to each other and hold each other’s hands. The entire painting is designed to illustrate their mutual love and adherence to each other.

Small paintings on the mirror, which describe different scenes from the life of Jesus Christ can be interpreted as God’s blessing to the family. At this point the mirror can be interpreted as an all-witnessing eye of God, who watches the family and supports it.

Formal Analysis

The painting has vertical direction. Despite the lines are smooth, they create general vertical structure. Giovanna is painted with soft and rounded lines, which are designed to underlines her femininity. The folds of her dress create an illusion that she is pregnant[7]. The author of the painting spent much time depicting the minor details.  Interiors, dresses, main and secondary objects are written with great diligence.

Two main figures from the painting form one figure. This figure can be interpreted as a connection between spouses and their mutual love. “The straight edges of forms perpendicular to the plane of the picture converge in a broadly systematic manner but are not subject to precise optical geometry.” [8]  

Green, red and shades of black are the main colors of the painting. Red and green create a contrast on the right part of the painting. Red and green are complimentary colors.  They are used to make an accent of female figure. The bed is painted in red, which is used to attract to additional attention to this object of the interior. Additional colors are smooth. Such colors as light brown, light yellow and others are used to support basic color and make the accent in the painting.

The author uses complex scheme of light on his painting.  The light goes from the window, depicted on the left side. At the same time, the light is reflected my different objects, which creates the effect of diffused light. Such a complex scheme helps create necessary artistic effect and make an accent on main figures as well as multiple artistic details.  Van Eyck studies different effects of light. Oil paint enabled him to depict different light effects on the picture. Light from the window is supported by the light from the brass chandelier.

The painting has very smooth texture the author uses small brushstrokes, which are not visible. The painter makes an attempt to reproduce people and objects with much accuracy.

Composition

The author of the painting uses the number of techniques in order to create a sense of space. The objects of the painting are place on different plans. Two main figures are place in the middle of the room. Interior and light add additional space. In addition, the mirror is used to  expand the space of the room.

The author used the  combination  of shade and light, as well as painting techniques are used to create the effects of depth and volume.

The feeling of space is enhanced by the objects, which are depicted small became they are situated on other distance. The objects in the mirror are smaller and give an idea about the size of the room and create a perspective.

The elements on the paining balance each other. Dark colours, used for Giovanni are balanced by bright colours used to depict his wife and mild colours of the interior. There is a contrast  between light and dark in the painting.

All elements make an integral part of the painting. Two figures make the main accent of the double portrait and other elements are used to support and enhance two main figures. All other elements, are used to frame two figures.

Bibliography

Hall,  Edwin, The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait, University of California Press, 1994.

Harbison, Craig. “Sexuality and Social Standing in Arnolfini’s Double Portrait”. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer, 1990.   

Hicks, Carola, Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, London: Random House, 2011.

Hoysted,  Elaine , Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, Renaissance Mothers, July 2015. http://www.academia.edu/28729542/Jan_Van_Eycks_Arnolfini_Portrait_July_2015_Renaissance_Mothers_

Kashfi, Soraya Jane , 6 Steps to Decoding the Arnolfini Portrait, The Culture Trip, April 2016.

Ward, John. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck’s Paintings”. Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 15, No. 29 (1994), pp. 9–53

Criminisi A.,  Kemp M., Kang S. B., Reflections of Reality in Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, Semantic Scholar, 2016. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a5c7/5d855eac160c4a6fdc9e23aafe439a5aae0a.pdf


[1] Hall,  Edwin, The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait, (University of California Press, 19940), p. 134.

[2] Criminisi A.,  Kemp M., Kang S. B., Reflections of Reality in Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, (Semantic Scholar, 2016), p.4. 

[3] Ward, John. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck’s Paintings”, Vol. 15, No. 29 (Artibus et Historiae, 1994), p. 11.

[4] Hoysted,  Elaine , Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, Renaissance Mothers, (Academia of Education,  July 2015). http://www.academia.edu/28729542/Jan_Van_Eycks_Arnolfini_Portrait_July_2015_Renaissance_Mothers_

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hicks, Carola, Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait, (London: Random House, 2011), p. 36.

[7] Harbison, Craig. “Sexuality and Social Standing in Arnolfini’s Double Portrait”. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 249–291.

[8] Criminisi A.,  Kemp M., Kang S. B., Reflections of Reality in Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, (Semantic Scholar, 2016), p. 4. 

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