How Influential Was Jan Van Eyck? Essay

It is argued that the development of realism in the north could not have happened without the influence of Italian art. Such an argument however fails to consider that there was a strong tradition of realistic representation in the north; most evident in the sculptures of Carl Sluter. This realistic approach to depiction had in turn its roots in the Sienese art of the trecento whose influence underpinned the move towards realism in both the north and Italy. Therefore it can be argued that the advent of naturalistic depiction was not sudden, it did not suddenly appear with Van Eyck; he fits in with the natural development of the trend. However Van Eyck’s influence is discernable in his approach. He takes realism further than any of his predecessors in its hair-splitting minuteness. His approach is akin to an attempt to get as close as possible to the perfection of God by trying to reconstruct reality down to its minutes detail.

The care that Van Eyck took to depict in meticulous detail even the most insignificant object must have had a considerable impact in laying the foundations for the development of still-life, which became an important genre in Dutch and European art in subsequent centuries. The focused attention on every day objects, seeing them as sacred however insignificant, must have had an impact on the development of still-life. Looking for instance at the depiction of fruit in the Arnofini Wedding, the apple on the window sill, the oranges on the furniture, a gentle clear light falling on them. It is easy to see how such an approach could have sown the seeds for the development of still-life. By concentrating on that part of the canvas for a few moments it is possible to detect a tangible sense of tranquillity and spiritual peace, which are important features of still-life.

It can be argued that with Van Eyck we see the union of the human with the divine, the descending or manifestation of the divine upon everyday reality. However this manifestation is not overt, it is more felt rather than seen, something that is achieved primarily through the treatment of light. This can be seen in the translucent quality of the religious paintings as for instance the resplendent visual of the Van der Paele Virgin. The presence of the sacred or holy, which in Italian art of the time was portrayed by means of the halo, is depicted in Van Eyck through the creation of a sense of diffuse, subdued, yet luminous light. For instance in the “Rolin Madonna” the light comes from the right where the angel is; it is not related to the light from outside, therefore we have the implied presence of divine light. The influence of such a symbolic treatment of light can perhaps be seen in Filippo Lippi’s ‘The Tarquinia Madonna’ where unusually for Italian art of the period there are no halos. The presence of the divine, like in Van Eyck, is suggested through the symbolic use of light. In ‘The Tarquinia Madonna’ behind the head of the Madonna Lippi has depicted an open door out of which comes a gentle, diffuse light, which seems to some extent to fulfil the role of a halo.

It can therfore be argued that the depiction of the divine in the shape of the gentle, diffuse, yet luminous light is one of the essential features of Van Eyck’s art. It is especially significant that it is subtle yet pervasive. Such an approach and treatment of what can be termed as the light of God can to some extent be also seen in the late religious paintings by Rembrandt most notably in “Jacob Blessing the Son of Joseph”; where although there is no visible source of light the scene is infused with a soft light. The suggestion here is not that Rembrandt directly imitated Van Eyck. The influence can be considered on the basis that Van Eyck laid the premises upon which such a depiction could be attempted; that the divine could be portrayed in realistic depictions. Therefore it can be argued that Van Eyck initiated a shift in attitude that had an impact on subsequent artists.

Consequently it can be argued that with Van Eyck we see the onset of a new understanding of how the divine is to be depicted and portrayed. Whereas medieval art was mainly preoccupied with the visionary portrayal of the otherworldly, Van Eyck’s depiction of the divine was very much rooted in its manifestation in the living creation right in front of his eyes. His praise to God was given in the meticulous depiction of reality which reveals a wonder and love of creation. Consequently while it has been argued that with Van Eyck we see the secularization of art it can in turn be argued that his influence lies not in the so called secularization of art but in changing the approach and attitude with respect to how the divine is depicted. Van Eyck’s art is recognition that reality, this world, is just as sacred as the other.

The life-like and detailed representation of all aspects of reality that we see in the paintings of Van Eyck also had a considerable influence on the development of landscape painting. In the depiction of landscape Van Eyck shows due preoccupation with the detailed rendition not just of the foreground but also of the receding scenery. For instance in the ‘Crucifixion’ the detailed rendering of the landscape as the view stretches towards the horizon does not relent. Therefore in the depiction of landscape Van Eyck shows due preoccupation with the detailed rendition not just of the foreground but also of the receding scenery. The influence of this feature of Van Eyck’s art can be seen in Brueghel who embraced the ethos that in the depiction of landscape due attention must be given to the far distant aspects of the depiction as well as the foreground.

Perhaps more significantly the influence of this feature of Van Eyck’s art can be seen in the appearance of the first detailed depiction of a receding landscape in Italian art in Mantegna’s Frescos in the Eremitani Chapel. This was in marked contrast to the prevalent attitude towards landscape as merely the setting for what was being depicted. Therefore it can be argued that Van Eyck initiated a shift in attitude as to the importance placed on landscape. Van Eyck’s naturalistic depiction of nature, it being far removed from any sentimentality or idealisation must also have had a significant impact. If we consider the landscapes of Rubens for instance we will find the treatment of nature to be ‘healthy, manly, and rational’ which are all features that can be attributed to Van Eyck’s art. Again the suggestion is not that there was an absolutely direct influence, but that Van Eyck initiated an approach and manner that pervaded the art of subsequent generations of painters. In his treatment of landscape Rubens was influenced by Bruegel who in turn was influenced by Van Eyck.

A further aspect of Van Eyck’s influence can be seen in relation to portraiture where he introduced the three-quarter position and painted the sitter facing the light in order to concentrate on and reveal the details of the face. This innovation however again had its roots in the religious sculpture of the preceding centuries where three-quarter length depictions are common. Nevertheless this should not undermine the assumption that with respect to portraiture Van Eyck introduced innovations that had widespread repercussions.

Van Eyck’s influence can also be felt in the altar-piece of San Marco by Fra Angelico and that of Barbadori by Fra Lippi. The influence is not apparent only with respect to the composition but in the detailed portrayal of luxurious textures. In the ‘San Marco’ altarpiece Fra Angelico has gone to great lengths to portray in detail the carpets and the floor pattern in the foreground. He also focuses in detail on rendering the texture and attached jewels on St Lawrence’s vestment and the embroidery on the hanging cloth which inevitably invites parallels with Van Eyck.

Van Eyck had a medieval outlook. He considered the whole of creation as a book of metaphors and symbols each representing various aspects of good and evil. What may appear to be a simple domestic interior is in fact an allegory with profound implications. In the Arnofini Marriage for instance we find the suggestive use of symbolism in the form of an orange on the window sill which in the context of what is being depicted takes on a whole new meaning. Therefore seeing symbols in everyday objects and using them as such could be considered as an important aspect of Van Eyck’s influence. The minute realism that we find in Van Eyck, his compositions, and symbolism in the form of everyday objects are all for instance apparent in Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Annunciation’.

Likewise there is a clear affinity in terms of composition between ‘St Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Virgin’ and Van Eyck’s ‘Rolin Madonna’. Like in the ‘Rolin Madonna’ the figures are set in a logia and beyond the arches can be seen a town. With respect to the treatment of symbolism, composition, and realistic depiction of reality a parallel can also be drawn between Memling’s ‘Annunciation’, the ‘Arnofini Marriage’, and ‘Annunciation’ from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. A similar treatment to Van Eyck’s with respect to symbolism and detailed rendering of reality can also be seen in the work of Robert Campion especially in the Werl Triptych. Consequently it can be argued that with respect to composition and the symbolic treatment of everyday objects there is a clear affinity that runs through early Flemish painting.

The similarity in composition between Petrus Christus’ ‘Virgin and Child’ and the ‘Arnofini Marriage’ is striking. In both, the figures are at the centre of the composition with a window to the right and a bed to the left. In terms of composition and the suggestive use of symbolism, Van Eyck’s influence seems to be widespread. It is also possible to see minute realism in Christus and Weyden. In Christus’ Virgin and Child for instance we have a detailed depiction of the carved lilies at the back, and the garden that can be seen from the open window; both serving as emblems for the purity of the Virgin. Van Eyck’s influence on Weyden is also apparent in Weyden’s altar piece of the Seven Sacraments were in respect to the depiction of architectural setting and spatial arrangement of the composition there is a strong affinity with Van Eyck’s ‘Virgin in the Church’. Also like in the Dresden triptych the side panels depict figures set in the aisle of the church while the central panel depicts figures in the nave.

However the question arises of weather these features were the direct result of Van Eyck’s influence or due to established trends to which Van Eyck and his contemporaries conformed to. It is important to have a sense of proportion with regard to the extent to which such features were the result of Van Eyck’s influence. The composition of the ‘Arnofini Wedding’ for instance is derived from depictions such as the Holzhausen tomb were we have a standing man and woman surrounded by various animate and inanimate objects. Consequently the conclusion again can be drawn that with respect to composition Van Eyck was to a large extent working within established trends. Moreover there is considerable evidence to suggest that Van Eyck and his contemporaries freely lent and borrowed motifs from each other. Therefore the fact that we see convex mirrors, depictions of fruit, windows opened into a garden, and chandeliers in the paintings of Weyden and Christus are not an indication of influence as such on part of Van Eyck.

Moreover the trend towards realism was primarily influenced by the formulation of new theological ideas. God is no longer conceived as separate from the world but as pervading it. Therefore everything is now conceived as sacred ‘as so often in the work of the first great Flemish artists, this painting (Virgin and Child, Christus) is everywhere informed by the desire to show how the sacred has become incarnate in everyday life’. Consequently it can again be argued that Van Eyck did not initiate this approach into early Flemish painting but that he was simply responding to the new theological ideas. Perhaps his influence lay in responding better and bringing a more profound understanding to these theological ideas; or knowing how to translate these ideas into compositions and in that respect bringing his influence to bear on his contemporaries and successors. Therefore Van Eyck’s influence was primarily in the execution.

To some extent it can be argued that unlike contemporaries such as Robert Campin Van Eyck appears to have been the first artist to cast of the restraining and to some extent artificial influence of convention and to establish a direct relationship with nature and seek to depict the intricacies of the reality in front of him. This can for instance be seen in the self-evident contrast between the depiction of landscape in Robert Campin’s “Nativity” and Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb”. Whereas the former is insipid and marked by a distinct air and sense of artificiality the latter is marked by a meticulous, relentless, realism, but above all a perspicuity and clarity that give the depiction a sense of controlled vigor which seem to point to Durer’s depiction of reality. We get the sense of the triumph of the artist’s will in his effort to master reality.

Looking at the paintings of Hans Holbein it is difficult not to detect the influence of Van Eyck. A notable example is Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ were the painstaking depiction of objects, but also more notably of cloth and fabric immediately brings to mind Van Eyck. In the hanging cloth behind the figures for instance we can clearly see the embroidery. But perhaps the most striking affinity between the paintings of Holbein and Van Eyck is their glass like clarity. Also when Holbein is talked of as displaying controlled power in his canvases it is a manner or approach that can not but invite a parallel with Van Eyck; namely mastering and reconstructing reality. Van Eyck’s art like that of Holbein and Durer can be described as a sound, rational art, where the divine manifests itself in the perfection of the depiction; achieved through meticulous attention to detail which in turn gives the paintings vigour and clarity. But the most important and fundamental parallel between the two is with respect to seeing painting as a reconstruction of reality down to its minutes detail. In Holbein’s Portrait of Derich Born there is the inscription “When one adds the voice, one sees Derich in person, in a way that prompts one to ask oneself weather the painter or the God of Creation made him”. This is mirrored by the fact that Van Eyck on numerous occasions signed his works with the inscription “Jan Van Eyck made me”.

The depiction of Adam and Eve in the Ghent Altarpiece is especially significant because it was the first time that the lifelike human figures were depicted in art. The human figure as it really is and not as it is imagined to be. Both the depiction of Adam and that of Eve have nothing ‘mythical’ about them they are real, and recognizably so, human figures. This manner of depiction had a strong influence on subsequent depictions of Adam and Eve most notably on Masaccio’s ”Expulsion’ where although the depiction is by no means as realistic as that of Van Eyck yet the figures are nevertheless recognizably lifelike. A discernable parallel can also be drawn with Durer’s life-size depiction of Adam and Eve. However again the question needs to be posed weather life-size representation was an innovation due to Van Eyck or weather he drew on tradition particularly when considering that life-size sculptural representations of Adam and Eve could be found at the portals of medieval churches.

It is possible to see Van Eyck’s influence as initiating an approach whereby the manifestation of the divine is conveyed in the perfect reconstruction of what is being depicted. Therefore although it is well enough to look for Van Eyck’s stylistic influence, which very probably was not significant it being likely that he was merely within, and responding to, stylistic trends; it could be more fruitful to consider his influence in terms of approach and attitude. For instance seeing divinity in all aspects of creation and striving towards a detailed depiction of every object however insignificant. Therefore it can be argued that Van Eyck’s influence is not easily discernable not because his influence was small but because it was subtle and did not fully manifest itself until the seventeenth century.

It can therefore be argued that Van Eyck’s stylistic influence was not significant, that in fact in this respect it was limited especially when considering that the more sentimental style of Rogier van der Weyden had a more pronounced influence on the generation following that of Van Eyck. Van Eyck’s influence was more significant in respect of outlook and approach which consequently made it more profound and far-reaching. The composition of the Arnofini Wedding for instance was derived from medieval sculpture as was the life size representation of Adam and Eve and borrowing and lending features like convex mirrors can not amount to influence. Van Eyck’s influence must be seen in terms of execution of showing what is possible, as stimulation. Nor can it be argued that with Van Eyck we see the advent of seeing reality itself as sacred. This was a prevalent theological idea in the late middle ages. What is significant is how Van Eyck responded to it. Therefore it’s ultimately in the execution that Van Eyck’s influence lies in.


Max J Friedlander: From Van Eyck to Brueghel.

Max J Friedlander: Early Netherlandish Painting.

From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Nethelandish Paining in the Metropolitan museum

Sir Martin Conway: The Van Eycks and their Followers

Otto Pacht: Van Eyck

Albert Chatelet: Van Eyck

Ludwig Baldass: Van Eyck