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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

An exhibition explores the impact of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait on the Pre-Raphaelites.

John Everett Millais, Mrs James Wyatt Jr and her daughter Sarah, about 1850

John Everett Millais, Mrs James Wyatt Jr and her daughter Sarah, about 1850, oil paint on mahogany 35.3 x 45.7 cm.

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In calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of rebellious young British artists of the 1840s evoked a sense of mystic medievalism that accords well with the fantastic, otherworldly images they painted. Depicting legends from the Bible, scenes from Dante, or poems by Victorian contemporaries, the works of the PRB combined a look that harked back to the early Italian Renaissance (that is, before Raphael) with a distinctly modern, even proto-modernist, point of view. But with all the images of languishing red-haired beauties and knights of Camelot they created, one would hardly imagine that one of the most important influences on the group was a painting by a 15th-century Flemish, not Italian, master, and that the subject of this painting was no vision of the spiritual realm but a down-to-earth bourgeois couple in an intricately detailed, albeit enigmatic, domestic setting.

A team of art historians at the National Gallery in London contends that Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) had an important effect on the birth of Pre-Raphaelitism, and beyond that, on four decades’ worth of British art to follow. They are backing this claim with a large-scale exhibition that showcases the Van Eyck—one of the National Gallery’s most prized possessions—amid a rich assortment of Pre-Raphaelite and other Victorian paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs. The exhibition, “Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites” (through April 2) not only makes some thought-provoking points about art history but also about the history of culture, the way the past is remembered, and the strange kinship between archaism and modernism.

The original three members of the PRB, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, started their movement in 1848 in reaction to what they saw as the dry-as-dust teaching methods and ideals of the Royal Academy. Just six years earlier, the Arnolfini Portrait had come into the collection of the National Gallery, purchased from a British army officer, James Hay, who had acquired it some 30 years earlier. The picture, which was in a remarkable state of preservation, was among the spoils of war, probably looted from the Spanish royal family by the Bonapartes during the Peninsular Wars. Hay may have gotten hold of it when Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train was captured by the Duke of Wellington. In later years, Hay stated that he bought the Arnolfini Portrait in Brussels. Ironically, though it was painted for a bourgeois family, in whose possession is likely remained for several decades, it had passed into aristocratic hands by 1516 and later in the century became the property of King Philip II of Spain. From then until the early 19th century it was in the collection of the Bourbon rulers of that country.

Today, the Arnolfini Portrait is one of the most famous paintings in the world; in the early 1840s, it was hardly known. Still, its acquisition by the National Gallery was a major coup for England. Connoisseurs and critics such as John Ruskin were beginning to discover the merit of Early Netherlandish painting, and the Van Eyck, in addition to being the work of one of the school’s very greatest masters, was (and is) in a remarkable state of preservation. In fact, so fresh were its rich colors, so sharp its details, so smooth its surface, that these features took precedence over its content in the minds of English art-savvy viewers.

The young members of the PRB, only recently graduated from art school, were not immune to this fascination. One of the preoccupations of art teachers and students at the time was the rapidity with which many contemporary and recent paintings fell into discoloration and decay due to bad paint mixing and application. The craftsmanship of Van Eyck—who was credited, erroneously, with the invention of oil painting itself (though he and his brother Hubert did play a major role in refining the technique and moving it forward)—was a reproach to English artists and an inspiration to the PRB to do better. They contrasted Van Eyck’s jewel-like finish with the more slapdash paint handling of Sir Joshua Reynolds (“Sir Sloshua,” as they liked to joke), the Royal Academy’s first president. In dedicating themselves to creating a modern-day version of the sharp-edged, precise, and very brightly colored style of the 15th century, the PRB themselves made some missteps; in one notorious incident, Rossetti painted a fresco (a medium beloved of the Early Italian Renaissance) without having troubled to learn the finer points of fresco painting, with the result that the whole thing flaked off within a few months.

When the Arnolfini Portrait went on view at the National Gallery in March 1843, it was brought to even wider attention by mass-media coverage. In particular, The Illustrated London News, which had been founded the year before, carried an engraved reproduction of the painting that allowed the image to be widely disseminated for the first time in its existence. The article stated: “To every one it is a mystery. Its subject is unknown, its composition and preservation of its colours a lost art.” And speaking of mass reproduction of images, some who had seen the painting in person compared its precision to that of photography, a new art medium that had only been invented some four years previously. A reviewer in The Athenaeum wrote, “The various traceries, the border-and-scroll work, the enriched minor details of the room, seem to be daguerrotyped rather than painted, such is their extreme fineness and precision.”

As for the Illustrated’s statement that the painting’s “subject is unknown,” that is no longer true, although some elements of mystery persist. The man on the left of the composition is believed to be Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant from the Italian city of Lucca who traded in Bruges, Belgium. The lady on the right is his second wife, whose name is not recorded. The meaning of the portrait is even less clear. It used to be known as The Arnolfini Wedding, with the understanding that it depicted the couple on the day of their marriage, and the pregnant appearance of the wife lent an air of scandal or at least of conundrum to the picture. Art historians now accept that Van Eyck did not intend to depict the lady as pregnant at all; what we are looking at is actually the folds of her green robe drawn up in front of her. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky went into an elaborate exegesis based on the supposed symbolic significance of various objects in the room, with the intention of proving that the painting was itself a visual marriage contract. In any case, what we can be sure of is that Van Eyck depicted a married couple in their home, and that the painting is probably the first secular domestic interior ever done. Of course, being a 15th-century artwork, created during a profoundly religious era, the Arnolfini Portrait alludes to religious themes—the lady herself and the tightly constrained room with the stained-glass panes to one side are reminiscent of the Virgin Mary in her chamber in Van Eyck’s Annunciation.

The atmosphere of enigma, otherworldly or otherwise, in the painting is crystallized by the convex mirror set into the wall, right in the center of the composition. Above it is written, in Latin, Johannes de Eyck fuit hic—Jan van Eyck was here. And indeed he is here; in an astonishing optical performance, the artist has painted himself into the picture as a reflection standing in the doorway of the room, as if facing the Arnolfinis. In doing so, Van Eyck was certainly showing off to some extent; painting reflections is difficult to begin with, and the distorted rendering of a curved mirror is even harder to pull off. Beyond the tour de force aspect, though, the paradoxical effect of a semi-spherical mirror, contracting and expanding space at the same time, is very much in keeping with 15th-century Northern European philosophical trends. The unique way in which many artists of the period combined a microscopic eye with a telescopic eye resonated with the pronouncement of the German theologian and mathematician Nicholas of Cusa, who described God as “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The organizers of the current National Gallery exhibition are at pains to show that beyond the general influence of the Arnolfini Portrait on Pre-Raphaelite technique, the mirror on the wall had a very specific influence on a number of important paintings of the PRB, as well as on future British artists from outside the movement. One of the most notable is Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853), which places a man and a woman in a lushly appointed, claustrophobic space that recalls the Arnolfini bedchamber—albeit with a much less virtuous air. The woman is not a wife but a mistress or perhaps even a prostitute, and as she rises, seemingly repulsed, from the lap of the debauched-looking man, it is the mirror (flat, not convex) at the rear of the painting that reveals to the viewer what she is seeing in the distance—a green, spring-like outdoor scene that contrasts with the decadent interior. The fact that this is not shown directly may be taken to imply that the most important element of the painting is actually in the mind of its subject. In Ford Madox Brown’s unfinished Take Your Son, Sir! (1851–57), the mirror is a convex, circular one like that in the Arnolfini Portrait, and it likewise depicts the artist in miniature reflected form, entering the room. The woman is Brown’s mistress Emma (they were not yet married at the time), and the infant she proffers to him is their child, Arthur Gabriel Brown.

The convex mirror appears in medieval guise in a painting by Edward Burne-Jones, a later arrival to the PRB. His Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862), a scene from the popular English legend of the beautiful Rosamund Clifford, the lover of King Henry II, places the mirror on the rear wall of Rosamund’s secret room, to which her rival, the queen, has followed her by using an ensnaring thread. In Van Eyck’s painting, the frame of the mirror contains ten cartouches featuring tiny scenes of the Passion of Christ. In Burne-Jones’ mirror, there are six subsidiary mirrors around the rim, each of which catches Eleanor’s face from a different angle.

Perhaps the most salient Pre-Raphaelite use of the mirror is in several depictions of Tennyson’s famous ballad The Lady of Shalott (versions from 1833 and 1842). In the legend as elaborated by the poet, the eponymous lady is condemned by a curse to remain perpetually isolated in a room in a castle on an island, weaving into an embroidery illustrations of the procession of life that passes her by. She may not look at these things directly but only in a mirror, her back to the window. In her mirror she eventually sees Sir Lancelot and falls in love with him, leaving her prison to row to Camelot in a boat that, of course, leads her to her death. The story is obviously tailor-made for Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities, and more than one artist tried his or her hand at it. The present exhibition features a very elaborate version by Holman Hunt, done late in his career, over a period encompassing 1886–1905. In this painting, the huge embroidery is held within a circular frame, parallel to the floor, while behind the lady, placed vertically, is the mirror, also in a circular frame. While the reflecting surface is not exactly convex like that of Van Eyck, it still seems to contain more space within it than a normal flat mirror could. The brightness of the scene there reflected contrasts with the heavy darkness of the room.

The connection between the PRB and the Arnolfini Portrait is visible in these paintings, though there is only scant contemporary documentation of their experience of it. That lack of direct evidence makes the argument seem somewhat tenuous at times. However, at least as an emblem of the appeal of the late-medieval world to the early modern world, the Van Eyck–PRB connection makes sense. The paradoxical connection between the early oil painting technique and the photographic technique illuminates the Janus-faced nature of Pre-Raphaelitism itself, suspended between reactionary nostalgia and daring annunciation of the modernist rebellion soon to come.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: January 2018

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