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Marriage of the Arnolfini

Few paintings have generated as much controversy and speculation as The Marriage of the Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck (1424)

Little is known of Jan van Eyck.

He was the court painter of the Duke of Burgundy whose lands extended to Flanders and the Netherlands.

Bruges in Flanders was a thriving commercial centre where many Italian merchants did business chiefly in cloth.

One such was Signor Arnolfini from Lucca who commissioned this dual portrait of him and his pregnant wife from Van Eyck.

This much is known but there is speculation regarding the identities of the couple, one art historian suggesting they may actually be Van Eyck and his wife; another advances the theory that it’s a momento mori that la Signora Altofini died in childbirth and Signor Altofini wanted the dual portrait to commemorate her and child.

Signor Arnolfini in all his finery bears a distinct resemblance with his wan pallor to Vladimir Putin.

Waldemar Janusczak in his programme on it in the series Art Mysteries opens by saying it is a clear case of theft from the Spanish Government by the National Gallery where it has resided since Colonel Hay, a Scottish soldier in the Dragoons, sold it to the museum for 600 guineas in 1842.

However it is not as clear as that.

The picture’s provenance was ownership by two regents of the Netherlands, Marguerite and her niece Marie.

It finished up in Spain as it was owned by a Spanish diplomat Diego Guevara as Philip II of Spain was now ruler of the Netherlands.

Napoleon Bonaparte appointed his brother Joseph King of Spain but in the Peninsular War, successfully overseen by Wellington,

Hay captured it as plunder from Joseph.

Plunder was acceptable – indeed Napoleon himself was a notorious plunderer – and, as Spain was grateful to Wellington, no issue was raised.

Hay kept it for many years before selling it to the National Gallery where it now resides.

So it could belong to Spain, Flanders , the Netherlands, France or Britain.

What is not in doubt is that it is a fine painting rich in detail.

Van Eyck was amongst the first to paint in oil and in a mirror at the rear of the painting he appears.

The painting is unusual as it’s not in a church. Eyck and his brother Hubert are also famous for the Altar Piece in Ghent Cathedral which Hitler coveted for his art museum in Linz.

The dual portrait of the Arnolfinis spawned and inspired many dual portraits – notably that of Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark by David Hockney.

We know David Hockney was a frequent visitor to the National Gallery and must have seen the picture.

Signor Arnolfini, like Ossie Clark, is shoeless. There is one crucial difference. The Arnolfinis are holding hands but the Hockney picture is less welcoming.

Percy the cat sits on Ossie Clark’s lap whilst there is a little dog at the feet of Signora Arnolfini.

I recently read a book by art historian Carola Hicks entitled The Girl In A Green Gown.

She detailed the provenance of the work and whilst discussing the various theories of the identity of the couple did not commit herself to any of them.

My own view is to leave the speculation to the art critics and enjoy this flower of the Northern Renaissance for the splendid painting that it is.

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About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts