The Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife Giovanna Cenami by Jan van Eyck is an extraordinary piece, full of symbolism and connotation. ( Are those two things the same?)
The portrait was painted in Bruges and 1434. Viewing it almost 500 years later it’s easy to make suppositions and interpretations without understanding the context and conventions of the time . Though the scene is in the bedroom , which today may be considered a private space , it was not uncommon for a bedroom to be open to visitors in the 1400s . The couple are standing in the doorway, looking of the room and in the mirror behind them another couple are reflected, who would be facing them, looking into the room. My initial response seeing the Arnolfini couple was that they were newly wed and that the wife was pregnant . My research shows that neither of these ideas were true .
It has been interesting to discover the way clothing was used in portraits to represent wealth and a fashionable merchant class . The woman in the portrait is wearing a winter gown trimmed with fur despite it clearly being a bright and warm day as indicated by the light at the window. The oranges suggest that it would have been summer , but the winter clothes both figures are wearing would be more ostentatious. The gathered folds of green fabric might suggest pregnancy to the modern eye and I but were in fact the style of the day for those who could afford gowns with many extra yards of fabric.
The rug on the floor and brass chandelier also indicate wealth. Only one candle is lit, again indicating a bright day. The single candle could represent the presence of God. The circular mirror is decorated with small illustrations showing the stations of the cross, another object which indicates wealth, whilst also showing that the Arnolfini couple were not alone. The dog in the foreground represents faithfulness which adds to the confusion of the status of the couple as possible newly-weds.
There are wooden sandals on the floor, perhaps again indicating wealth. This is one of the earliest portraits of people other than royalty, a couple that the merchant classes could identify with, as their homes and clothing would be similar. Although the man has been identified, there is some question about the identity of the woman. I wonder if she is an idealised image? Perhaps someone Arnolfini would like to marry? The two possibilities of who the woman could be remained unmarried in the year the portrait was painted. Most art historians accepted that the painting was a portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Jeanne Cenami but a chance discovery in 1997 established that they were married in 1447, thirteen years after the date on the painting and six years after van Eyck’s death.
Why was it painted?
Van Eyck would have been commissioned to paint the portrait and It seems that the painting was originally thought of as almost a marriage document, a record of the couple’s wedding. . It is an interesting idea that it may have been a wishful image of the bride that Arnolfini would have liked. Perhaps a fantasy woman.
Who would have seen it?
The original image would have been seen by few people compared to the millions who visit the National Gallery in London , where the painting now hangs. To have access to galleries such as these online is an extraordinary event . Paintings can be viewed by people all over the world . When I researched the painting I found information on the Khan Academy site which also enlarged areas of the work allowing me to see detail .
How would audiences have interpreted the painting?
As this was one of the earliest portraits of non-royalty, I imagine that people viewing it would have readily identified with it. They would have observed the symbols of wealth and would have possibly recognised the people portrayed. As it is a very skilled painting with incredible detail, I imagine it would have been very well received in it’s day.
My chosen image
My chosen image – a photograph by Tom Hunter appropriating the Vermeer painting. This has been seen in exhibitions, in newspapers and magazines, in books, possibly on posters advertising exhibitions of the photographer’s work, and online. Art is more available to the masses through mass communication.
Why was it produced?
As part of an exhibition drawing attention to the plight of squatters. In an interview in the Guardian the Tom Hunter says
“I just wanted to take a picture showing the dignity of squatter life – a piece of propaganda to save my neighbourhood.
I took this in 1997, for my master’s degree show at the Royal College of Art. The 17th-century golden age of Dutch painting had had a massive impact on me: the way they dealt with ordinary people, not kings, queens and generals. I thought if I could borrow their style for squatters and travellers, it would elevate their status. In this shot, inspired by Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, my next-door neighbour is reading the possession order.”