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THE BOOK, AND THE PAINTING
The Arnolfini marriage portrait, as it is generally if perhaps inaccurately known, painted by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, signed and dated 1434, has long been one of the most popular and enigmatic paintings of its time. Of modest size, a little less than three feet high, it is one of the oldest surviving panel pictures to be painted in oils rather than tempera. It is also regarded as the first great work of art which simultaneously celebrates both middle-class comfort and monogamous marriage.
Not surprisingly, very little is known for certain about who the sitters are. The common assumption is that it is a portrait commemorating the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and his probably pregnant wife, who are seen at their home in Bruges. Is it a picture of the marriage ceremony, with the painter as a witness barely discernible in the mirror on the wall in the centre - or a celebration of their union? Is the man a highly individualised portrait, and the woman just a stock image, similar to the artist's saints and Madonnas? Could it possibly have been an In Memoriam picture painted shortly after her death? Or could it possibly be nothing to do with the Arnolfinis, but a self-portrait of the artist and his wife instead?
Nobody will ever know for certain, but it is interesting to speculate on all possible theories that have been advanced over the centuries. It is equally fascinating to read about its history and provenance since it left the artist's hand. Several chapters in this book relate the lengthy saga as it passed from the ownership of the sitters to various members of the Habsburg family, when it moved from Flanders to Spain and into the royal collection there. One of the Kings of Spain allegedly hung it in his lavatory. It was probably seen by Velázquez, who may well have been influenced by it when he was painting 'Las Meninas' ('The maids of honour'), generally regarded as his greatest work.
During the wars of the Napoleonic era it was appropriated from Madrid by Joseph Bonaparte, looted from his baggage by the British army under the Duke of Wellington, then came into the collection of a Scottish army officer, and was offered to that renowned art collector the Prince Regent, who was unimpressed by it. It was purchased for 600 guineas by the National Gallery in 1842. With a couple of exceptions during wartime (it was believed to be near the top of the list of paintings Hitler intended to get his hands on when - if - he won the war), it has been on display there ever since, being moved to the new Sainsbury wing in 1991. These days it tends to feature highly in polls of most-loved paintings in Britain, and has been much parodied and adapted by cartoonists as well as reproduced on every item of merchandise possible.
Interleaved with accounts of its various changes of ownership, the author has discussed every little detail and motif in the painting. What is the significance of everything, including the clothes the gentleman is wearing, the lighted candle, the oranges, the rug, the wood carvings on the bed and other furniture, and the dog, a terrier known as the Brussels griffon, described as the most spontaneous element in an otherwise very carefully planned and structured picture? Each item which is visible in the picture has some meaning, and all of it is meticulously covered. For example, the fixtures and fittings of the window have their significance, in that they have glass in them - a luxury in the days when many people had to make do with shutters over them to keep out the cold, while the candles and brass chandelier are also an indication of wealth. The whole is painted with immaculate attention to detail. It has been described as looking as naturalistic as anything painted two centuries later by the 17th-century Dutch master Vermeer, some of whose portraits are strikingly similar in approach.
One mystery which is not solved within this book - and probably never will be - is that of the identity of the two spectators. They have evidently just come into the room, but you'll have to look very carefully at the mirror on the wall, another picture within a picture, to see them at all.
Each detail of the picture is illustrated in black and white within the relevant chapter. However the reproductions on these pages are rather fuzzy, and you would do far better to google 'Arnolifini' under images online than rely on the book. Luckily there is also a 12-plate colour section, which includes contemporary works of art, later ones clearly influenced by the painting. Also shown are a couple of modern parodies, including a rather clever cartoon from the 'Guardian' in 1996 by Martin Rowson which portrayed Bill Clinton as Giovanni and Tony Blair as the green-gowned bride - and instead of the dog, a pig with a cigar in its mouth and a hat with a dollar sign on its head.
One little myth is finally cleared up. It had always been assumed by those who saw it that the lady was heavily pregnant. In fact, at the time it was fashionable to gather in the folds of a dress under the breasts, so that they would swell out over the stomach and the fur lining which symbolised the wearer's wealth. So now we know - there was not a little Arnolfini on the way after all.
Carola Hicks (1941-2010) was a renowned biographer and art historian. She died of cancer shortly before finishing this, her last book, and it was completed by her widower.
However, much about the painting, and not just the identity of the two people in the mirror, will always be a mystery in some sense. We will probably never know much more about the family themselves than we do now, but in spite of that Hicks has managed to uncover a wealth of extraordinary detail about the painting and its history. I for one will certainly be looking at it in a new, better-informed light on any subsequent visits to that much-frequented corner of the Sainsbury Wing in the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on Bookbag and ciao]