The biggest exhibition of Jan van Eyck’s work that ever was or will be is now on view in the Northern Renaissance master’s hometown of Ghent, Belgium.
The justly proud team behind “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution” tout it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but that isn’t strictly true. The exhibition, which opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent in Ghent, Belgium, on February 1 and continues until April 30, is the largest display of the Northern Renaissance artist’s work ever assembled. Counting the Ghent Altarpiece panels as one item and illustrations in the Turin-Milan Hours book as another (scholars believe Jan van Eyck is the artist they initially identified as “Hand G”), the curators in Ghent succeeded in gathering 13 of the 20 or so surviving works by Van Eyck.
“Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution” represents a feat of negotiation and coordination that has never happened before and will never happen again. Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy who was Van Eyck’s most prominent and ardent patron, almost certainly never had the pleasure of seeing so many Van Eyck paintings in one place. For that matter, neither did Van Eyck. The Belgian exhibit is not just a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it’s a once-in-forever experience, so rare and unmissable that you might want to hold this magazine in one hand and your phone in the other as you secure show tickets, flights, and lodging—the looming Covid-19 pandemic be damned.
The Ghent museum owns no Van Eycks, but since 2012 it has played host to the ongoing restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the exquisite 15th-century polyptych credited to Jan and his older brother, Hubert, who died before he could finish it. The idea for the exhibition sprang from the Ghent Altarpiece restoration project, which was envisioned in three phases, two of which have been completed. (Phase three, planned for 2021, hinges on finding the funding to go forward; the restoration has cost about $2.5 million to date.) “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution” displays eight of the altarpiece’s outer panels under the same roof with portraits and religious-themed works by the artist. Once the show ends, the panels will return to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral elsewhere in Ghent, and they will never leave again. (Or, rather, if the panels leave again, they’ll leave without the permission of the stewards of Saint Bavo, something that has happened more than once. The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is famous as a landmark in art history, but it’s almost as famous for the number of times it’s been stolen. Its roster of thieves includes Napoleon and Hitler. One panel, dubbed Just Judges or Righteous Judges, disappeared in 1934 and hasn’t been seen since. Albert Camus, in his 1956 novel The Fall, placed the missing panel in the possession of the book’s main character.)
Curator Frederica Van Dam says the pieces in the show were chosen to illustrate “Why Van Eyck’s works were genius, and what makes him so fantastic, and what made him stand out from the others.” Van Eyck utterly transformed the world of art, and that is not hyperbole. His peerless talents were recognized in their time, and they blazed for centuries after his death. In 1435, when the relevant purse-holders were dithering over fulfilling Van Eyck’s substantial salary, Philip the Good reminded them that he was worth every penny, pointedly stating, “We would not find his like more to our taste, one so excellent in his art and science.”
If Van Eyck’s sole contribution had been the idea of painting portrait sitters in three-quarter view, that would be enough to cement his place in art history, but he did much more. While he didn’t invent oil painting, his experiments with siccatives—chemical agents that speed up the paint-drying process—changed it so completely that you can understand why Giorgio Vasari erroneously credited him with creating the medium. Before Van Eyck’s successful quest to find something that would accelerate the speed of drying, artists approached and applied oils in the same way they did tempera, in one layer. In finding a chemical means to make oil paints dry faster, Van Eyck freed himself and his colleagues to apply layers of transparent and opaque glazes to achieve visual effects of light, depth, and texture that were not possible before.
Perfecting the technique of painting with oils is one of the three facts that explain why Van Eyck shines so brightly in the firmament of art history. Another is his exceptional talent for observing the smallest of details. Hélène Dubois, head of the Ghent Altarpiece restoration project, told The Art Newspaper in December 2019, “Botanists can actually identify every plant in there. The ones that couldn’t be identified—those were overpaintings.” (It’s worth pointing out that Sandro Botticelli, lauded for his botanical accuracy, was born four years after Van Eyck died.)
“Van Eyck had an amazing eye for detail without overdoing it,” says Van Dam, noting that he might have made sketches outdoors to capture every leaf, stalk, and blossom so well. “His attention to detail is in every aspect of his painting.” One of the more startling and wonderful discoveries to come from the Ghent Altarpiece restoration is Van Eyck’s exceptional understanding of the behavior of light. The light sources shown in the panels of the altarpiece match the light that comes through the south windows of the Vijd chapel, where the artwork was installed inside Saint Bavo’s six centuries ago. Even the light that graces the painted pearls on the finery worn by the crowned figure known as The Deity is consistent and correct.
Van Eyck’s third strength was knowledge. He sought it in all its forms, he soaked it up, and he understood how best to deploy it. “He had a photographic memory, and he had access to libraries and access to scientists,” Van Dam says. “He could have communicated with them and asked them what they saw.” Exactly how he got his knowledge, we can’t be 100 percent sure, but it’s clear he had it. Background information on Van Eyck is damnably scant. “There are 40 archival documents at most, and most are about payments,” Van Dam says. “They don’t give away anything about his education or his personality. We have to draw conclusions from his work.” Jan Dumolyn and Frederik Buylaert, in their essay in the exhibition catalogue, write, “Any attempt at a biography is like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of which only a few dozen pieces have survived.” A fair amount of discussion of Jan van Eyck’s motivations and reasoning must remain in the realm of speculation.
Take Pliny the Elder, for example. Circumstantial evidence points to Van Eyck having some level of awareness of some of the contents of Pliny’s Natural History. Bartolomeo Fazio, a historian and humanist whose lifespan overlapped that of Van Eyck, says the artist was familiar with the writings of the ancient Roman scientist and military man. But there doesn’t appear to have been a copy of the tome in the Burgundian library. It’s possible, and maybe even probable, that Van Eyck came to know of Pliny’s writings through his court connections. Philip the Good likened himself to Alexander the Great, and Pliny wrote about Alexander’s court painter, Apelles. None of Apelles’ works survive, but the descriptions Pliny gives of them, and of the highlights of the ancient artist’s life, make him seem like a decent parallel to Van Eyck. He was lauded for his exceptional artistic skill, and he was credited with discovering a useful varnish. More interesting still is that features of paintings by Apelles discussed by Pliny show up in works by Van Eyck. Pliny described an Apelles portrait of Alexander the Great that depicts him holding a thunderbolt. Both the bolt and the ruler’s fingers seem to extend outside the picture plane and into the space occupied by the viewer. Van Eyck does something similar within the Ghent Altarpiece. The full-length panel portrait of Adam, the first human, presents him with his bare right foot seeming to rest against the frame, with his toes poking out at the viewer.
Another diptych in the show, an Annunciation painted in grisaille between 1434 and 1436, shows the archangel Gabriel in full with his right wing extending well past the painted “frame”. Shadows cast by the Virgin Mary fall on her painted “frame” as well. These trompe l’oeil features, which are not far off from the plane-breaking features of the lost Apelles portrait of Alexander the Great, make the diptych a favorite of Van Dam’s: “The painting has a three-dimensional look. You have the impression you’re looking at a sculpture. The way the light works on the painting is ingenious.”
One of the stranger works on view in “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution” could have been inspired by Pliny’s opinion of unfinished paintings. In admiring an image of Aphrodite that was underway but not complete when Apelles died, Pliny said he found some unfinished paintings, in which the underdrawings are visible, more appealing than finished works. The Saint Barbara of Nicomedia dates to 1437, when Van Eyck was four years away from death, but it is flamboyantly unfinished. The blue and beige colorations in the upper half of the image were added later, but the Van Eyck frame—one of the few frames made by the artist still paired with its artwork—is intentional. If Van Eyck knew the passage from Pliny, he might have been inspired to create Saint Barbara as a deliberately unfinished oil on panel.
In addition to the Ghent Altarpiece, two other Van Eycks in the exhibition are fresh from the restorer’s laboratory: Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, painted around 1435, and Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir or Tymotheos), painted around 1432. (The latter comes from the National Gallery in London, which possesses three Van Eycks, including the famed Arnolfini Portrait. Both it and a portrait of a man who might be Van Eyck were deemed too fragile to travel.) They are two of several Van Eyck portraits in the show, and his portraits hold their own distinct fascinations. The artist unmistakably, and unmercifully, subscribed to the Oliver Cromwell school of portraiture: He painted his sitters warts and all. Stubble is visible on some of their faces, as are the red patches caused by rosacea, a skin condition. Van Dam points out that when painting the portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, Van Eyck faithfully replicated the scar between his subject’s eyes. The wall text for the portrait characterizes this approach, amusingly, as “unadorned dermatological realism.”
The presence of these meticulously recorded flaws prompts the question: Why? Or rather, why did Van Eyck’s sitters allow him to portray them with such pitiless accuracy? They were paying him a great deal of money to record their appearance, fixed for all time in oils on wood. It’s possible that de Lannoy commissioned his portrait to immortalize the gold chain that drapes his neck. He earned the impressive necklace when he rose to the rank of knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric society for Burgundian boosters.
While being careful to state that her answer is speculation, Van Dam suggests that the sitters acquiesced to the less-than-flattering depictions of themselves because “I think he blew them away with his skills. I think they were in awe of what they saw.” Van Eyck certainly had confidence in his own abilities, as attested by the fact that he was one of the earliest painters to sign his own works; on the other hand, he playfully and modestly undercut that confidence with the phrase “Als ich kan,” which translates to “as I can” or “as best I can” (it’s also a pun on his surname).
Van Dam and her curatorial colleagues hoped to cast the same spell over visitors to “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution,” and it looks like they’ve achieved their goal. The show is so bewitching, in fact, that people are staying longer than expected. The curators thought that visitors would work their way through in about 90 minutes, but the average stay is timing out at closer to two hours or more. “I hope people enjoy the show and the beauty of Van Eyck, but it’s not just pretty pictures. There’s a whole world behind it,” she says. “I think most people are moved by his work, whether you are religious or not. Van Eyck’s work touches upon the mystery of life.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley