Jan Van Eyck is renowned for his magnificently detailed and brilliantly colored work. For many years, he was erroneously credited as the 'inventor of oil painting'. Though the theory has been disproved, he is no less noteworthy in the history of art.
We first hear of Jan Van Eyck in an official record from 1422―he was a young court painter, in his mid-twenties at the time, in the service of Duke John of Bavaria―and from then on his life is comparatively well-documented. However, practically nothing is known about his early life prior to 1422. He is said to be born in Maaseyck, in 1395 at the latest; some scholars say it could be closer to 1380.
In those times, professional artists required a membership to the Artists' Guild. In order to get a membership, it was compulsory for the artist to have undergone rigorous training for several years in the studio of an established master painter. Scholars assume, especially given van Eyck's proficiency, that he spent his formative artistic years in a similar fashion.
Van Eyck and Philip The Good
While working in the Hague in the service of Duke John, van Eyck built up quite a reputation for himself as a fine painter. So, when his patron died in 1425, he had no trouble finding a new employer. He was sought almost immediately by Duke Philip The Good of Burgundy, a rich and powerful state in those times. Philip, a highly cultured man and patron of the arts, offered him an excellent salary combined with many privileges and honors, and van Eyck went on to remain in his service for the rest of his life.
Painter and Diplomat
In those times, like now, being an artist required one to be competent on several other levels as well. Van Eyck painted canvases, altarpieces, and palace decorations, and he was also a fashion designer, stage designer, banner designer, food designer, and was available for just about anything else that was required.
Taking note of his brilliant intellectual and social capabilities, Philip The Good often sent him on important diplomatic missions. Two of such missions were related to the ducal marriage. The first to Spain, which was not successful. The second mission was in Portugal to meet with and paint the portrait of the Duke's prospective wife, Isabella, the eldest daughter of King John I of Portugal. The Duke married Isabella, though the portrait is now lost.
These travels, often also made to neighboring towns and states on behalf of the Duke, broadened van Eyck's outlook and also introduced him to the different styles of paintings that were in vogue then.
After the Duke was happily married, van Eyck decided to follow suit and got married himself around 1433. He and his wife, Margaret, had several children together―one who was privileged to have the Duke of Burgundy for a Godfather. There aren't many more records about Margaret or his kids.
After Philip The Good was married, he didn't seem to need van Eyck in perpetual attendance as before. This gave the artist time to take on other clients and work on their projects. He completed a magnificent altarpiece for the Cathedral of St Bavon in Ghent. This work was apparently started by van Eyck's brother, Hubert, who had died in 1426, leaving the work unfinished. There are not many records in history about Hubert van Eyck. Jan and Hubert probably worked together earlier, and Hubert was considered the better painter―as stated by the inscription on the St Bavon altarpiece. Whether this inscription is real or not is not known.
Aside from this altarpiece, van Eyck also painted portraits of the city notables―like the beautiful, if over-pious painting of Chancellor Nicolas Rolin. Rolin, who was notoriously corrupt, is shown being blessed by the Virgin and Baby Jesus. Van Eyck also undertook decoration work for the Bruges City Hall.
Aspects of van Eyck's Art
A large portion of van Eyck's artwork did not last over the ages, and is now lost. The works that have come down to us, however, are all notable for their amazing sense of reality, impressive technique, and excellent sense of color and perspective.
He did not invent oil painting as many people assume, but he certainly did improvise on the way oils were used back then―he gessoed a smooth wooden surface and painted in an opaque style, with many overlays of transparent color glazes. He was also one of the first to show faces in a three-quarter view, and paid detailed attention to light and shade.
Van Eyck died in June 1441, and was buried with high honors at the Church of St Donat. Philip The Good mourned him sincerely and repaid his 16 years of loyal service by seeing to it that his widow and children were well-provided for.