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Jan van Eyck (c.1395-1441) was a Flemish painter who is now considered one of the leading Northern European artists of the 15th century.
Van Eyck’s precise date of birth is unknown, and little is known too about his childhood. The earliest surviving record dates to 1422 and describes him as a court painter to John of Bavaria where he held the rank of valet de chambre. It is believed however that he was born in Maaseik in Belgium and learned to paint in the studio of his older brother, Hubert.
Van Eyck probably joined John of Bavaria’s court in 1421. He left in 1424 for the court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy where he seemed to have found favor. While other painters of his time relied on commissions for their income, Philip paid van Eyck a generous salary which he doubled twice in the first few years and to which he added large bonuses.
Van Eyck’s work at the court involved more than painting, and he was sent on a number of secret missions on the Duke’s behalf. These included being part of a delegation sent in 1428 to arrange the Duke’s marriage to Isabella of Portugal. It’s possible that van Eyck’s portrait of Isabella helped to win the Duke’s agreement to the match.
In 1432, after his return from Lisbon, van Eyck settled in Bruges. He married and had a daughter who would later enter the convent at Maeseyck under the Duke’s sponsorship.
In addition to the work he produced at the court, van Eyck also took private commissions. One of the most famous was the Ghent Altarpiece, a series of panels painted with Hubert van Eyck between 1426 and 1432 for Jodocus Vijdts and his wife, Elisabeth Borluut. While Early Renaissance paintings of the time attempted re-create an ideal form of classical art, van Eyck’s paintings emphasized detail and realism. The van Eyck brothers’ unique use of glazes, “wet-on-wet” and other techniques led later critics to dub Jan van Eyck the “father of oil painting.”
Another famous painting, the Arnolfini Portrait is believed to show Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his apparently pregnant wife at their home in Bruges. Unusually for his time, van Eyck signed and dated his paintings, and this painting, now in London’s National Gallery, was dated 1434.
The painting is one of the most studied works in Western art. Commentators have drawn attention to the level of detail in the reflection in the mirror on the far wall, the realism of the room, as well as the pose of the woman. While she appears to be heavily pregnant, some critics have noted that virgin saints have been depicted in similar stances, including in two of Jan van Eyck’s own works, the Dresden Triptych and the Frick Madonna. Most intriguing is a recent discovery that Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami weren’t married until 1447, thirteen years after the painting was dated and six years after van Eyck’s death. One theory now identifies the couple as Giovanni’s cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfinia and his late first wife Costanza Trenta.
Jan van Eyck died in Bruges in 1441. As early as 1454 Genoese humanist Bartolomeo Facio named him “the leading painter” of his day.
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