Arnolfini Portrait

Arnolfini Portrait

Infobox Painting|

title=The Arnolfini Portrait
artist=Jan van Eyck
type=Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards
height=82.2 (panel 84.5)
width=60 (panel 62.5)
width_inch = 23.6
museum=National Gallery

"The Arnolfini Portrait" is a painting in oils on oak panel executed by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck in 1434. Among other titles, it is also known as "The Arnolfini Wedding", "The Arnolfini Marriage", "The Arnolfini Double Portrait" or the "Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife".

This painting is believed to be a portrait of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife in a room, presumably in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges. It is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art history. Being both signed and dated by Van Eyck in 1434, it is, with the "Ghent Altarpiece" by the same artist and his brother Hubert, the oldest very famous panel painting to have been executed in oils rather than in tempera. The painting was bought by the National Gallery in London in 1842.

The illusionism of the painting was remarkable for its time, in part for the rendering of detail, but particularly for the use of light to evoke space in an interior, for "its utterly convincing depiction of a room, as well of the people who inhabit it". [Dunkerton, Jill, et al, "Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery", page 258. National Gallery Publications, 1991. ISBN 0-300-05070-4]

Identity of subjects

This painting was long believed to be a portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami in a Flemish bedchamber, but it was established in 1997 that they were married in 1447, thirteen years after the date on the painting and six years after van Eyck's death. It is now believed that the subject is Giovanni di Arrigo's cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. This is either an undocumented second wife, or, according to a recent proposal, his first wife Costanza Trenta, who had died by February 1433. [ [ Margaret Koster, "Apollo", Sept 2003.] Also see Giovanni Arnolfini for a fuller discussion of the issue] This would make the painting partly a memorial portrait, showing one living and one dead person. Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini was an Italian merchant, originally from Lucca, but resident in Bruges since at least 1419.National Gallery catalogue: The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings by Lorne Cambell, 1998, ISBN 185709171X ] He is the subject of a further portrait by Van Eyck in Berlin, [] leading to speculation that he was a friend of the artist.


The painting [Cambell 1998, op cit, pp. 186-91 for all this section] is generally in very good condition, though with small losses of original paint and damages, which have mostly been retouched. Infra-red reflectograms of the painting show many small alterations, or pentimenti, in the underdrawing: to both faces, to the mirror, and to other elements. The couple is shown in an upstairs room in summer as indicated by the cherry tree outside the window which is in fruit. The room is in fact not a bedroom, as usually assumed, but a reception room as it was the fashion in France and Burgundy to have beds in reception rooms that were normally used just as seating except, for example, when a mother with a new baby received visitors. The window has six interior wooden shutters, but only the top opening has glass, with clear bulls-eye pieces set in blue, red and green stained glass.

The two figures are very richly dressed; despite the season both their outer garments, his "tabard" and her dress, are trimmed and fully lined with fur. The furs may be the especially expensive sable for him and ermine or miniver for her. He wears a hat of plaited straw dyed black, as often worn in the summer at the time. His tabard was once rather more purple than it appears now, as the pigments have faded; it may be intended to be silk velvet (another very expensive element). Underneath he wears a doublet of patterned material, probably silk damask. Her dress has elaborate "dagging" (cloth folded and sewn together, then cut and frayed decoratively) on the sleeves, and a long train. Her blue underdress is also trimmed with white fur.

Although the woman's plain gold necklace and the plain rings both wear are the only jewellery visible, both outfits would have been enormously expensive, and appreciated as such by a contemporary viewer. But especially in the case of the man, there may be an element of restraint in their clothes befitting their merchant status - portraits of aristocrats tend to show gold chains and more decorated cloth. The interior of the room has other signs of wealth; the brass chandelier is large and elaborate by contemporary standards, and would have been very expensive. It would probably also have had a mechanism with pulley and chains above, to lower it for managing the candles. Van Eyck has probably omitted this for lack of room. The convex mirror at the back, in a wooden frame with scenes of The Passion painted behind glass, is shown larger than such mirrors could actually be made at this date - another discreet departure from realism by Van Eyck. There is also no sign of a fireplace (including in the mirror), nor anywhere obvious to put one. Even the oranges casually placed to the left are a sign of wealth; they were very expensive in Burgundy, and may have been one of the items dealt in by Arnolfini.

Further signs of luxury are the elaborate bed-hangings, which are probably held up by iron rods suspended from the ceiling, and the carvings on the chair and bench against the back wall (to the right, partly hidden by the bed). There is a small Eastern carpet on the floor by the bed; many owners of such expensive objects placed them on tables, as they still do in the Netherlands.

The view in the mirror shows two male figures just inside the door that the couple are facing. The one in front, wearing blue, is presumably the artist although, unlike Velázquez in Las Meninas, he does not seem to be painting. The dog is an early form of the breed now known as the Brussels griffon.

The painting is also signed, inscribed and dated on the wall above the mirror: "Johannes de eyck fuit hic. 1434" ("Jan van Eyck was here. 1434"). The inscription looks as if it were painted in large letters on the wall, as was done with proverbs and other phrases at this period. Other surviving van Eyck signatures are painted in trompe l'oeil on the wooden frame of his paintings, so that they appear to have been carved in the wood.

cholarly debate

In 1934 Erwin Panofsky published an article entitled "Jan van Eyck's 'Arnolfini' Wedding" in the "Burlington Magazine", arguing that the elaborate signature on the back wall, and other factors, showed that it was painted as a legal document recording a marriage. [Repeating the material in his "Early Netherlandish Painting", cited here]

Since then, there has been considerable debate on this point. Art historian Edwin Hall considers that the painting depicts a betrothal, not a marriage. Art historian Margaret D. Carroll argues that the painting is a business contract between the husband and wife in her 1993 article "In the Name of God and Profit: Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait".

Lorne Campbell in the National Gallery Catalogue sees no need to find a special meaning in the painting beyond that of a double portrait, very possibly made to commemorate the marriage, but not a legal record. He cites examples of miniatures from manuscripts showing similarly elaborate inscriptions on walls as a normal form of decoration at the time. Another portrait in the National Gallery by Van Eyck, known as "Leal Souvenir", has a legalistic form of signature.

Margaret Koster's new suggestion, discussed above and below, that the portrait is a memorial one, of a wife already dead for a year or so, would displace these theories.

Art historian Maximiliaan Martens has suggested that the painting was meant as a gift for the Arnolfini family in Italy. It had the purpose of showing the prosperity and wealth of the couple depicted. He feels this might explain oddities in the painting, for example why the couple are standing in typical winter clothing while a cherry tree is blossoming outside, and why the phrase "Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434" is placed so large and in the centre of the painting.

Interpretation and symbolism

*The placement of the two figures suggests conventional 15th century views of marriage and gender roles – the woman stands near the bed and well into the room, symbolic of her role as the caretaker of the house, whereas Giovanni stands near the open window, symbolic of his role in the outside world. Giovanni looks directly out at the viewer, his wife gazes obediently at her husband. His hand is vertically raised, representing his commanding position of authority, whilst she has her hand in a lower, horizontal, more submissive pose.

*Although many modern viewers assume the wife to be pregnant, this is not believed to be so. Art historians point to numerous paintings of female saints similarly dressed, and believe that this look was fashionable for women's dresses at the time [Hall, Edwin. "The Arnolfini Bethrothal". 1994. pp. 105-106. [ Online edition] ] .

*The cherries on the tree outside the window may symbolise love. The oranges which lie on the window sill and chest may symbolize the purity and innocence that reigned in the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man.Panofsky, Erwin. "Early Netherlandish Painting". Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. pp. 202-203.] They were uncommon and a sign of wealth in the Netherlands, but in Italy were a symbol of fecundity in marriage. [Orange blossom remains the traditional flower for a bride to wear in her hair.]

*The cast-aside patten clogs are possibly a gesture of respect for the wedding ceremony and also indicate that this event is taking place on holy ground, although these were normally only worn outside. Husbands traditionally presented brides with clogsPanofsky, Erwin. "Early Netherlandish Painting". Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. pp. 202-203.] . It can also be seen as indicative of domestic stability and tranquility.

*The little dog symbolizes fidelity,Panofsky, Erwin. "Early Netherlandish Painting". Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. pp. 202-203.] or can be seen as an emblem of lust, signifying the couple's desire to have a child. [as the art historian Craig Harbison has argued]

*The green of the woman's dress symbolises hope, possibly the hope of becoming a mother. Her white cap signifies purity.

*Behind the pair, the curtains of the marriage bed have been opened; the red curtains might allude to the physical act of love between the married couple.

*The single candle in the left rear holder of the ornate seven-branched chandelier is possibly the candle used in traditional Flemish marriage customs.Panofsky, Erwin. "Early Netherlandish Painting". Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. pp. 202-203.] Lit in full daylight, like the sanctuary lamp in a church, the candle may allude to the presence of the Holy Ghost or the ever-present light of God.

*Alternatively, in Margaret Koster's theory that the painting is a memorial portrait, the single lit candle on Giovanni's side contrasts with the burnt-out candle whose wax stub can just be seen on his wife's side. In a metaphor commonly used in literature, he lives on, she is dead.

*There is a carved figure of Saint Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth, as a finial on the bedpost,Panofsky, Erwin. ‘’Early Netherlandish Painting.’’ Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. pp 202-203.] . Saint Margaret was invoked to assist women in labour and to cure infertility. From the bedpost hangs a brush, symbolic of domestic care. Furthermore, the brush and the rosary (a popular wedding gift) appearing together on either side of the mirror may also allude to the dual Christian injunctions "ora et labora" (pray and work).

*The small medallions set into the frame of the convex mirror at the back of the room show tiny scenes from the Passion of Christ and may represent God's promise of salvation for the figures reflected on the mirror's convex surface. The mirror itself may represent the eye of God observing the vows of the wedding. A spotless mirror was also an established symbol of Mary, referring to the Holy Virgin's immaculate conception and purity.Panofsky, Erwin. '’Early Netherlandish Painting.’’ Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953. pp 202-203.]

*The mirror reflects two figures in the doorway, one of whom may be the painter himself. In Panofsky's controversial view, the figures are shown to prove that the two witnesses required to make a wedding legal were present, and Van Eyck's signature on the wall acts as some form of actual documentation of an event at which he was himself present.


Van Eyck created a painting with an almost reflective surface by applying layer after layer of translucent thin glazes. The intense glowing colours also help to highlight the realism, and to show the material wealth and opulence of Arnolfini's world. Van Eyck took advantage of the longer drying time, compared to tempera, of oil paint to blend colours by painting wet-in-wet to achieve subtle variations in light and shade to heighten the illusion of three-dimensional forms. He carefully distinguished textures and captured surface appearance precisely. He also rendered effects of both direct and diffuse light by showing the light from the window on the left reflected by various surfaces. It has been suggested that he used a magnifying glass in order to paint the minute details such as the individual highlights on each of the amber beads hanging beside the mirror.


The known provenance of the painting is as follows: [Cambell 1998, op cit, pp. 175-78 for all this section ]

*1434 - Painting dated by van Eyck; presumably owned by the sitters.
*before 1516 - In possession of Don Diego de Guevara (d. Brussels 1520), a Spanish career courtier of the Hapsburgs (himself the subject of a fine portrait by Michael Sittow in the National Gallery of Art). He lived most of his life in the Netherlands, and may have known the Arnolfinis in their later years. By 1516 he had given the portrait to Margaret of Austria, Habsburg Regent of the Netherlands.
*1516 - Painting is the first item in an inventory of Margaret's paintings, made in her presence at Mechelen. The item says (in French):"a large picture which is called Hernoul le Fin with his wife in a chamber, which was given to Madame by Don Diego, whose arms are on the cover of the said picture; done by the painter Johannes." A note in the margin says "It is necessary to put on a lock to close it: which Madame has ordered to be done."
*1523-4 - In another Mechelin inventory, a similar description, this time the name of the subject is given as "Arnoult Fin".
*1558 - In 1530 the painting was inherited by Margaret's niece Mary of Hungary, who in 1556 went to live in Spain. It is clearly described in an inventory taken after her death in 1558, when it was inherited by Phillip II of Spain. A painting of two of his young daughters commissioned by Phillip clearly copies the pose of the figures (Prado). [

*1599 - a German visitor saw it in the Alcazar Palace in Madrid. Now it had verses from Ovid painted on the frame: "See that you promise: what harm is there in promises? In promises anyone can be rich." It is very likely that Velázquez knew the painting, which may have influenced his "Las Meninas", which shows a room in the same palace.
*1700 - In an inventory after the death of Carlos II it was still in the palace, with shutters and the verses from Ovid.
*1794 - Now in the Palacio Nuevo in Madrid.
*1816 - The painting is now in London, in the possession of Colonel James Hay, a Scottish soldier. He claimed that after being seriously wounded at the Battle of Waterloo the previous year, the painting hung in the room where he convalesced in Brussels. He fell in love with it, and persuaded the owner to sell. More relevant to the real facts is no doubt Hay's presence at the Battle of Vitoria (1813) in Spain, where a large coach loaded by King Joseph Bonaparte with easily portable artworks from the Spanish royal collections was first plundered by British troops, before what was left was recovered by their commanders and returned to the Spanish. Hay offered the painting to the Prince Regent, later George IV of England, via Sir Thomas Lawrence. The Prince had it on approval for two years at Carlton House before eventually returning it in 1818.
*c1828 - Hay gave it a friend to look after, not seeing it or the friend for the next thirteen years, until he arranged for it to be included in a public exhibition.
*1841 - The painting was included in a public exhibition.
*1842 - Bought by the recently-formed National Gallery, London for £600, as inventory number 186, where it remains. The shutters have gone, along with the original frame.


External links

* [ The Arnolfini Portrait on the National Gallery website]
* [ Mystery of the Marriage] - Open University program
* [ Erwin Panofsky and The Arnolfini Portrait]
* [ The Arnolfini double portrait: a simple solution - Critical Essay, proposing that the painting is partly a memorial portrait]
* [ Blog essay on theories around the painting by John Haber]
* [ Press interview with art historian Craig Harbison]


* [ picture: The Arnolfini Portrait]
* [ Detail of the mirror]
* [ Detail of the statue of Saint Margaret and the artist's signature]
* [ Detail of the chandelier]

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