Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…
When you enter room 56, tucked away in the farthest reaches of the Sainsbury Wing, chances are there’ll be a cluster of visitors obscuring your view of The Arnolfini Portrait. You might feel a bit sorry for the room’s other paintings: all lonely and neglected, like.
This is a justly famous and popular work. Depicting Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, it dates to 1434 and, for its realism and depth, the contrast with other contemporary paintings is astonishing.
Most great paintings from the period, no matter how beautiful, are irredeemably flat, but Jan Van Eyck had a freakish mastery of painting light in oil. It is his treatment of light, rather than foreshortening, that gives the portrait its depth. For example, details such as the juxtaposition of the light outline of Arnolfini’s right shoulder with the dark shadow of his left create the illusion of, as one of the gallery’s guidebooks rather neatly puts it, ‘prising apart’ background and foreground. As well as light, Van Eyck recreates every surface texture convincingly – the rich cloth, wooden floorboards, the chandelier, the convex mirror, the hairy dog.
So much the textbooks will tell you. They’ll also tell you about the long and slightly ridiculous debate about supposed symbolism, particularly concerning the writing on the wall above the mirror (Wikipedia gives a potted history here).
What the textbooks won’t tell you, and what you can only discover for yourself by visiting the gallery, is the extreme daintiness of The Arnolfini Portrait. Despite the realism of Van Eyck’s technique, something is very odd about the subjects’ proportions. Their heads, feet and hands are tiny, trim and prim. So in fact rather than ‘realism’ we should say ‘brilliant illusionism’, because it is not a realistic portrait – rather, one believes it at the time, as one ‘believes’ a work of fiction while reading it.
Arnolfini and his wife look, and I can think of no better way of putting this, like a beautifully rendered pair of wee little pixies.