The Secular Portrait

Jean Hey (Master of Moulins), Portrait of Margaret of Austria, 1490

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1482

So far we have seen portraits of individuals praying piously in the company of Saints — but what about selfies?  While most Flemish portraits depicted donors in pious prayer as part of a religious diptych, the independent “secular portrait” emerged as a popular genre in the Netherlands and Italy in the 15th century.  In the middle ages, individuals were not “important” enough to be included in art, but during the Renaissance wealthy patrons commissioned portraits to memorialize their accomplishments and to express their sense of pride and self-worth.

Portraits in the Renaissance were not like our “selfies” today.  People didn’t smile for the camera or show themselves partying like rock stars,  Instead, they portrayed themselves according to social norms regarding proper behavior.

Typical characteristics of Flemish portraiture include realistic detail in the treatment of surfaces and textures; note the softness of fabric and hair, and the way light reflects off hard reflective surfaces such as jewelry.  Sitters are usually dressed in expensive clothing to indicate their wealth, and they are posed in a 3/4 view (neither directly frontal, or in profile).  Their hands are often included in the picture, communicating self-possession and poise.  Their facial expressions are typically solemn and serene, and the sitter is often depicted against a landscape setting that places them in a particular time and place (the landscape was probably their property, so it would have signified their vast wealth).  The emphasis is upon a proud sense of self worth and accomplishment, as well as an appropriately pious and solemn demeanor.  These were images that were intended to communicate a social persona that suited the expectations the time period.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Couple, 1434

This double portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife is unusual because the figures are shown full-length, rather than cut off at the waist.  Arnolfini was an Italian banker stationed in Bruges (he worked for the Medici family), and he is typical of the new patron class we see emerging during this period.  The couple is depicted in a well-furnished bedroom chamber, dressed in expensive fabrics (in spite of the warm weather indicated by the view out the window).  Other signs of the couple’s wealth can be seen in the oranges on the windowsill (likely imported from a warmer climate), and the Persian carpet on the floor (another expensive imported item).

The painting is filled with disguised symbols that seem to point to the theme of matrimony:  the dog is a symbol of “fidelity,” and the removed clogs may allude to a sacred event.  The extinguished candle has been connected to religious symbolism (the eye of God), and to Flemish nuptial rituals, and the carved bedpost represents St. Margaret, patron saint of childbirth.  The whiskbroom was a symbol of domestic virtues.  These symbols have led scholars to conclude that the portrait was made to record the Arnolfini’s wedding ceremony, though this popular interpretation has been called into question by more recent scholarship.

One of the most remarkable features of the painting is the convex mirror on the back wall, which shows a reflection of the room in reverse, and reveals two figures in the doorway – likely the artist and his assistant.  Van Eyck signed the wall above the mirror in florid Gothic script:  “Van Eyck was here.”   This has led scholars to believe that Van Eyck served as a witness to the wedding (or whatever legal ceremony is taking place), and that he produced the painting as a “certificate” of proof.

The realistic detail in this painting is astonishing (all the more so, given the small size of the panel).  Van Eyck renders surface textures so convincingly we can almost feel them with our fingers, while the subtlety of the light passing through the window seems so real we can almost feel the warmth.  Equally impressive is the convincing sense of space that Van Eyck creates in his rendering of the room.  Van Eyck used a technique called empirical perspective, which means that it was based on observation, rather than the mathematically exact science of linear perspective that Italian artists were using at this time.  Empirical perspective is similar to the technique of “sighting and angling” that students learn in drawing classes.  It can help create a convincing illusion of space, but cannot compete with the mathematically exact science of perspective that was developed by Italian artists at this time.


Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, tempera and oil on wood, 1434 (National Gallery, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker
https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/northern-renaissance1/burgundy-netherlands/v/van-eyck-portrait-of-giovanni-arnolfini-and-his-wife-1434

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