Famous Paintings: Arnolfini Portrait

Among the most famous paintings in all of Renaissance artArnolfini Portrait has remained enigmatic since its creation by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1370/90 – 1441).

Although van Eyck was one of the most famous painters of the Renaissance, little is known about his early life and training.  From court and legal documents we know he was retained in 1425 by Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy best known for having captured Joan of Arc.

Although art historians attribute 25 paintings to this Renaissance master, it’s a somewhat uncertain number because signatures are rare on 15th century paintings. Instead, painters signed the frames but these were often lost or replaced.

Margaret, The Artist's Wife, 1439.  Oil on oak, 1439.  Approx. 13" x 10". On loan at National Gallery, London, from City Museums (Bruges)

Margaret, The Artist’s Wife, 1439.  Oil on oak, 1439.  Approx. 13″ x 10″. On loan at National Gallery, London, from City Museums (Bruges)

At least two van Eyck paintings do bear his signature:

1. Man in a Red Turban (left), believed to be a self-portrait; and

2. Margaret, The Artist’s Wife (right).

Man in a Red Turban (Self Portrait?), 1433. Tempera and oil on wood.  13 1/8" x 10 1/8".  National Gallery, London.

Man in a Red Turban (Self Portrait?), 1433. Tempera and oil on wood.  13 1/8″ x 10 1/8″.  National Gallery, London.

In both cases, the original frame bears van Eyck’s motto, “Als ik kan”, or the pun, “As I or Eyck can”.

Above the concave mirror on the back wall in Arnolfini Portrait, van Eyck has inscribed, “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1934”, which translates as “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434”.

Typically, though, a painting in 15th century Flanders would have been signed, “Jan van Eyck made this”.  Nonetheless, art historians agree on the authorship of this painting.

And that’s the end of the agreement.

The verbiage used in Arnolfini is what an eyewitness to a legal document would’ve used, leading earlier art historians to consider this a wedding portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, or a “power of attorney” painting in which the husband grants legal permission for his wife to act on his behalf during an absence.

Jan van Eyck.  Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.  Oil on wood.  32 1/4" x 23 1/2".  National Gallery, London.

Jan van Eyck.  Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.  Oil on wood.  32 1/4″ x 23 1/2″.  National Gallery, London.

The German scholar Erwin Panofsy asserted in 1934 that Arnolfini Portrait was indeed a wedding portrait, citing these features associated with matrimony:

  • the couple has removed their shoes in recognition of the sanctity of the bed chamber, turning it into a holy place;
  • the bedpost finial is a wooden statue of the patron saint of childbirth, Saint Margaret, a nod to the fertility sought in marriage;
  • the fruit on the windowsill and chest allude to abundance or fertility;
  • honoring customs of the Renaissance, the woman’s robe is cinched above her stomach, giving the appearance of pregnancy but intended to emphasize fertility.
  • while the dog is a rare breed (affenpinscher) indicating the couple’s prosperity, it is also a traditional symbol of fidelity (thanks to Gardner’s Fred Kleiner for noting that the common dog name “Fido” comes from the Latin fido, to trust, the root of ‘fidelity);
  • the ten roundels surrounding the mirror show the Passion of Christ, suggesting the Christian idea that the “eye of God” will watch the newlywed couple.

It bears noting that if this were a wedding portrait, we would know that Giovanni is 30 years old or younger: in 15th century Flanders, a marriage ultimatum was given to unmarried men who were thirty, with names of those who failed to marry recorded in the dreaded “Book of Disgrace”.

But now, even the National Gallery shies away from labelling this a wedding portrait

Lorne Campbell, who wrote the 15th century catalog about Netherlandish paintings for the National Gallery,  contends that Arnolfini Portrait is a double portrait of Giovanni de Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, Costanza Trenta.

The twist here is that she was dead by the time Jan van Eyck signed this work.

Campbell suggest that this is a portrait of his second wife, but no evidence has been found to support his re-marriage.  Instead, Margaret L. Coster argues that this is a posthumous portrait of Costanza, intended to honor and remember her.

In support of this theory, the praying figure of St. Margaret suggests  intervention for the newly departed; and the mirror roundels depicting the dead Christ are closer to Costanza while those showing a living Christ are on the husband’s side.

How incredible that one of the seminal paintings by one of the Renaissance’s most famous painters has remained enigmatic, nearly six centuries later.  One of the few certainties is that we haven’t heard the final word about this van Eyck masterpiece.

Explore another van Eyck masterpiece, Ghent Altarpiece.


By |2018-03-25T17:07:53-04:00October 29th, 2009|Renaissance paintings|4 Comments

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  1. Iac March 1, 2010 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Not «The Arnolfini Portrait» but «The Van Eyck Wedding» – News about a Critical Essay, proposing the painting is a self-portrait of the painter with his spouse Margaretha: On the paternity of this work and on the date there is no doubt, since we can see the signature, but there is no certainty of the two people represented. Crowe and Cavalcaselle in 1857 set the painting in relation to the inventory of the paintings owned by Margherita of Austria in 1516 were the following words were written “Ung grant tableau qu’on appelle Hernoul le Fin, avec sa femme dedens une chambre” Hernol le Fin was interpreted as a common form of the surname Arnolfini, and since then the depicted couple were identified as Giovanni Arnolfini, a rich merchant living in Bruges, advisor of the Duke of Burgundy and his wife Giovanna Cenami.

    Since 1847 the director of the National Gallery had timidly proposed that the painting may have represented Jan and Margaretha Van Eyck, but the most acclaimed art critics, like Ruskin and De Labourde were absolutely convinced of the Arnolfini thesis until 1934, when Panofsky closed the question by affirming that this was the truth since the painter married in 1433 and not in 1434.

    Marco Paoli returns on this question, confirming that there are no documents that put Van Eyck in relation to the Arnolfini family. In this situation there is no reference, even indirect, in the family tree of the supposed commissioners, nor to their land and their original cultural level; the couple also have no resemblance to the Mediterranean physical aspect. In conclusion, there is no other reason for the attribution except the fact that there is an assonance between Hernol le Fin and Arnolfini.


  2. Susan March 3, 2010 at 6:09 pm - Reply

    Spectacular — thanks for providing the latest information about this famous painting.

    Susan Benford, Masterpiece Cards

  3. Meg Denno February 22, 2013 at 6:10 pm - Reply

    Helped me greatly with a project. Very informative.

  4. Susan Benford February 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm - Reply


    You’re most welcome — glad to help!

    Please consider joining this blog to slearn about other famous paintings (plus, you’ll earn a chance to win a free set of Cards!).


    Susan Benford

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