Jan van Eyck was a very influential painter during the late Middle Ages to early Renaissance. Active during the first half of the 1400s, van Eyck is largely considered the founder of the Flemish school of painting. Flemish art was realistic, including many very precise and also symbolic details. It is often said that Van Eyck was the inventor of oil painting. This, however, isn’t true. Oil paints had existed since Medieval times. However, they were very difficult to make, resulting in tempera paints being used by virtually everyone in all corners of the globe. Paintings weren’t being made with oil paints with any regularity until van Eyck and the rise of the Renaissance.
It was the oil paint that gave such brilliance to van Eyck’s paintings. Several of van Eyck’s largest pieces were completed with the assistance of his brother Hubert, who was also a painter though not of the same fame as Jan. Aside from these enourmous alter pieces the van Eyck’s received commissions for, Jan van Eyck worked alone, painting many formal portraits of various individuals. One such portrait is titled simply as Man in a Red Turban. The face of the man jumps from the painting, the bright red turban and the pink face with rosy cheeks stands out starkly from the black background. He is not idealized at all. Instead the man is depicted with every wrinkle, every stubbly hair on his chin, emphasized and shown. Van Eyck didn’t try to hide the wrinkles or fatten the man’s very thin lips, instead immortalizing him exactly as he was.
A painting of great fame and just as much speculation is Giovvani Arnolifini and His Wife. This is a master of a painting. The amount of detail is much more than just the realistic facial features as in Man in a Red Turban. Everything from the wood grain of the floorboards to the crevices in the bricks outside the window, to the tiny medallion paintings which surround the mirror on the back wall and the reflection within show the amazing attention to detail that van Eyck had. Van Eyck was a master of detail. Nothing escaped his eye. Everything was included in his paintings for a purpose. Besides being a master painting and lasting tribute to the immense talent of van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait is a mystery. We do not know why it was made. Does it commemorate a wedding? Is it a tribute of some sort to one or the other? Is it simply a portrait that was commissioned and executed in a style unorthodox for the time?The mystery of the painting makes it even more appealing to many, and many historians and debate on the issue and publish entire volumes on that one piece. Van Eyck has become an enigma of Flemish painting, both the inventor of the style and the one who best represents it. The Northern Renaissance art scene is largely defined by this sole painter who has gone down in history books worldwide.