The Arnolfini Portrait: Understanding The Classical European Masterpiece

Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife with the title "The Arnolfini portrait"

A classic 15th century masterpiece by the European painter Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini portrait is an expression of artistic brilliance. It’s an artwork from the early Renaissance period. 

The Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck is one of the most famous paintings produced in the Netherlands. It outshined the standards of paintings back then and expanded the limits of the European creative diaspora. 

Considered as a symbol of union, this artwork contains two central figures. A man and a woman are painted in the center of the frame. An ample of classical European artifacts are visible in the setting as well. 

Portrait of Arnolfini revolves around subtle portrayal of human emotions in accordance with the Northern Renaissance style of art. It embodies various artistic elements and acts as an institution for new age painters. 

Apart from being an inspiration for artists, the marriage portrait unfolds a lot of stories for art theorists and art enthusiasts. It’s one of the most talked about paintings in the world. 

Currently established in the National Gallery of London, this portrait came out a bit typical to grasp for art analysts. The dynamic nature of the Arnolfini portrait demands multiple attempts of analysis in order to be understood completely. 

However, there are few theories and arguments deduced by different people in different periods. We’ll be discussing them further in this blog. 

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History and Significance 

Peculiar Facts 

Dating back to the early 15th century, Portrait of Arnolfini has carved an astonishing legacy along these five centuries. It came out as a true testament to the radiance of an expert artist. 

It’s one of the earliest portraits from the Netherlands which had so much to look for at a glance. As the central subject was later identified as Giovanni Arnolfini, a famous Italian merchant. 

The identity of the other subject, which is a female, is over speculated by many art enthusiasts  which became a point of discussion amongst them later. 

On a popular note, the female in this painting was considered to be Arnolfini’s wife Costanza Trenta. Like other paintings by Jan Van Eyck, he painted her in a very graceful manner. 

However, Trenta succumbed to death after her childbirth a year before Van Eyck could accomplish this painting. Her detailed portrayal suggests Van Eyck’s personal visit to the scene. 

The Arnolfini portrait in a silver frame
Image Source: Wikipedia

History Behind The Subjects 

Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini was a distant cousin of painter Jan Van Eyck. This fact has been justified using multiple elements in the painting. 

Arnolfini belonged to a very affluent family. He was born in Lucca, a town in Tuscany, Italy. Where everyone in his lineage was involved in the finance sector. However, Arnolfini chose a different career. 

He used to trade silk based fabrics across south and east Europe. To get leads for their business, silk traders relied heavily upon trading agents in those days.

Arnolfini had a few agents spread across different countries who used to help him in fetching potential customers. 

He had an agent in Bruges, Belgium as well. The town where the Arnolfini Wedding took place. His agent played a significant role in bridging the gap between Arnolfini and Van Eyck. 

Van Eyck was a known name in the Flemish town of Bruges. As soon as he met Arnolfini and his wife, he thought of capturing this significant moment as an amazing portrait. 

Costanza Trenta, wife of Giovanni Arnolfini who also happens to be the female counterpart in this painting, was also an Italian. She belonged to a family from a finance background as well. 

She was Arnolfini’s first wife and got married to him in 1426. The two of them shared a great relationship. The marriage portrait of Arnolfini is an emblem of their love.  

Van Eyck painted Trenta with absolute grace and elegance. He attempted to portray her character with the help of his creative liberty.

Theories Surrounding The Arnolfini Portrait 

Death of Arnolfini’s Wife 

The Arnolfini portrait was produced in 1434 and Costanza Trenta died in the year 1433 due to her childbirth. Yet her portrayal in the painting resembles her character and personality in a very true sense. 

This fact gave rise to two bizarre conversations among the people: 

  1. Jan Van Eyck had a very vivid memory of that scene as he captured it with near perfection. He had a super memory and kept mental notes of every small detail of that moment. 
  2. As Arnolfini’s first wife passed away, the painter might have taken inspiration from his second wife; Jeanne Cenami. Though Van Eyck produced portraits of Cenami in the later stages of his life. 
  3. Just Like Arnolfini, you can also get a Memorial Painting of a loved one!

Bulge of Trenta’s Gown

Van Eyck was known to embed hidden references in his paintings. One such reference is signified while painting Trenta’s gown. Van Eyck could’ve never thought of the kind of theories and rumors that surrounded the painting later on. 

Trenta’s gown can be seen with a slight bulge towards her stomach, it looks similar to a state of pregnancy but it’s a completely different representation. 

Van Eyck has portrayed the prosperous nature of the rich Italian upper class. Arnolfini’s wife is painted holding her gown. The way she slightly lifted it created a small bulge  which was misunderstood for a probable pregnancy. 

Themes and Symbols

Symbolism in Arnolfini portrait.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Early Renaissance painters used to inculcate many themes and symbols in a single frame. Several themes derived from either the daily life of the people or the religious emblems. 

Symbolism is one of the most intact elements of this painting. Arnolfini portrait symbolism is an inspiration for new age artists. 

Holding Hands

From the ancient times to the modern world, holding hands is considered as a universal gesture of an affectionate union. Whether it’s between a married or a non-married couple, it empowers the gift of Love. 

In this painting, Arnolfini and his wife are holding each other’s hands in an affectionate and matrimonial manner. They depict the significance of a partner in life. 

Shoes Taken Off

In the medieval European civilizations, being barefoot prior to a spiritual or a religious ceremony was considered as a gesture of respect. 

In the Arnolfini Portrait, both the subjects are standing barefoot with their shoes taken off. This symbolizes either the beginning of a spiritual journey or occurrence of a holy event. 

Matrimonial bond is one of the holiest events in a person’s life. And it justifies the actual event taking place, captured by Van Eyck as a portrait. 

A Single Lit Candle 

A single lit candle can be seen on the chandelier above the subjects in the painting. The other candlesticks also had candles but only melted wax is left to be seen now. 

In many European communities lighting candles is considered as a symbol of the presence of God. Hence, “God is here to bless this matrimony” would’ve been Van Eyck’s thought of inspiration while painting this masterpiece. 

According to the candle interpretation, the lit candle symbolizes God and other unlit candles or melted wax is a representation of some insignificant elements of life which add zero value to your experiences. 

Oranges 

Oranges don’t grow organically in the town of Bruges. They were imported from hotter regions of Europe in order to be consumed. The cost of import was not under a middle class family’s budget. 

Only the rich and prosperous could relish upon this delicious seasonal fruit in Bruges. Jan Van Eyck included this non-compulsory symbol in this painting to showcase the financial prowess of Giovanni Arnolfini. 

Elements like exotic fruits, food items and consumable goods sprinkle an essence of realism paintings in these artworks. 

Being a matrimonial memoir, The Arnolfini portrait snapshots the scene of a marriage with perfection.

Isn’t it a utopian thought to snapshot your wedding memories in the form of a mesmerizing portrait?

Composition and Analysis

Composition and Analysis of the Arnolfini portrait.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Elements

Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait includes a variety of elements that hold the composition together. Some of them include central human figures and animals, some consist of positioned objects such as Tables and chairs. 

Every element in this Flemish artwork is painted with a brilliant artistic motive. Let’s understand the elements and their contribution in elevating the standards of this painting. 

Human Figures: 

At a glance, there are only two human figures visible in this painting. But there are actually four humans painted in this artwork.

Apart from the central figures, there are two more humans painted in the mirror behind. They are painted to complement the existence of perspective in this painting.

From the aspect of realism, two people came to witness the wedding of Arnolfini and Trenta. As they gaze onto the couple, their reflection is clearly visible in the mirror hung on the wall. 

Non-Living elements:

Objects such as bed, table, chair, curtains, chandelier, window, shoes, clothes, oranges, ceiling, floor and mirror. These objects are positioned with ultimate precision and a very deep understanding of geometry. 

These elements exemplify other components of the painting. For an instance, the chandelier hanging on the ceiling depicts a ray of sunlight falling on it.

As the color used to paint the chandelier is golden, the shine of light falling on it adds a highlight on it. 

Positioning of the Mirror: 

Positioning of the Mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait.
Image Source: Wikipedia

Probably the most diligently put element, the mirror also happens to be the focal point of the image. Jan Van Eyck received a massive praise for his excellence while positioning the objects in front of the mirror. 

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Mirror being the focus of the painting, it gives a pinhole view of the entire room. From reflection of the central subjects to those who are standing facing them, it displays a nearly perfect portrayal of the orthogonal perspective. 

From an artistic point of view, Van Eyck could’ve painted the outline of the mirror very vaguely as it’s hardly noticeable to a layman. Instead, he chose a fish eyed frame for the mirror which is even harder to paint.  

This element is one of the responsible factors to make the Arnolfini portrait one of the best marriage portraits in the world. 

Detailing: 

Every Magnum Opus is applauded for its immaculate detailing and fine artwork. So is the Arnolfini portrait. It contains all kinds of artwork detailing including fine brushwork, smudge free highlights, facial paletting and border highlights. 

Apart from these conventional details, antique techniques such as underdrawing have been used to mark this painting as a meticulous masterpiece. 

Hidden details of this artwork embrace biblical features painted in the frame of the mirror.  The topmost frame of the mirror displays the “Crucifixion of Jesus Christ”. The rest of the section in that frame comprises different biblical stories. 

This sort of detail gives insight to the artist’s religious side. Similar to other Jesus paintings, embracing the catholic element in this painting by Van Eyck is commendable. 

Fun fact: Many artists inspired by The Arnolfini portrait created indoor house colored pencil portraits of this house.

Lighting and Color

Lighting and color of the Arnolfini portrait
Image Source: Wikipedia

The two major components of any painting that are critical while its presentation are none other than the color and the use of lighting in the artwork. 

Color

In the Arnolfini portrait, use of different pigments for coloring is done very efficiently. Van Eyck had immense knowledge about different shades of the same color. 

He has used dark and medium shades of red, green and brown with a few tints of white and black in this painting. For example, the gown of the lady contains three shades of green simultaneously. 

The solid green, green with a tint of white and dark green in some areas. His choice of colors is justified by a series of folds on Trenta’s gown and shadows casted by folding of large portions of her tunic. 

Giovanni Arnolfini is painted smoothly wearing a pitch black attire. He is wearing a black colored hat in contrast with a black dress covered with a brown tinted gown. 

Arnolfini’s gown is filled with vertical strokes of gray mixed black color. Van eyck has showered a few tints of white upon it to make it appealingly illustrious. 

There’s a dog painted at the bottom most area of the frame. It represents the aspect of loyalty in the painting. Detailed and absolute brush strokes make it even more realistic. 

Van Eyck has incorporated a complete plethora of brown color and its different shades while painting the dog. Use of yellow mixed brown is visible in painting the back and legs of the dog. 

Strokes using a drop of white color on the tip of the brush are visible. Eyes and nose are tinted with a small amount of white as well. 

Lighting 

Northern Renaissance paintings were known for optimum use of natural light to amplify objects. Most of the Renaissance artists used to picturize scenes involving sunlight in an outdoor setting. 

Same is the case with the Arnolfini portrait. Natural light is one of the most significant components of this painting. It has been used very efficiently by Jan Van Eyck. 

After the Arnolfini portrait analysis, here’s an example to understand it in a better way. There is an open window painted towards the right end of the room. It justifies the sunlight reflection falling on the chandelier. 

Now some oranges are kept beside the window aisle and some are lying on the table next to it. The main highlight from this scene is the balanced amount of light falling only on the plan view of the oranges. 

A slight shadow casted by the top view reflection of oranges is evident beneath them. It’s one of the most astonishing features of this painting. 

Utilization of natural light is also accomplished to illuminate faces of both the central subjects. The brightened facial composition of Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride is well thought out and painted. 

Hidden Element

There are many hidden elements in this painting. Some blend and enhance the composition smoothly while others complement existing elements. One such element happens to be a non-visible window. 

A tincture of sunlight is visible at the extreme left corner of the frame. It kisses the floor with subtlety and adds contrast to the overall composition. 

Van Eyck’s expertise in handling the contrast is clearly visible in the Arnolini portrait. The way he had blended the sunlight with the casted shadows of objects and subjects is immaculately spectacular. 

Reception Amongst People  

Ancient Perspective 

The great European Renaissance gave birth to many experts like Jan Van Eyck. His paintings received a mixture of feedback from the artistic diaspora. 

Similarly, the Arnolfini portrait became a center of attraction in the 15th century. Being a true depiction of the real life scene, it was a very non-traditional concept according to the timeline. 

Many art agents and commissioners appreciated Van Eyck’s perspective of the Arnolfini wedding. As he portrayed it with a sense of realism which was rare to witness in the Northern Renaissance paintings.

The Arnolfini portrait’s reception amongst the majority of medieval European people turned out to be a statement of their wealth and elegance. Many historians have written about it with the same fact. 

Modern Perspective

Some artworks are timeless. They carry forward the legacy within generations. So is the case with the Arnolfini portrait. It takes the new gen artists on a journey of the classical European period. 

Apart from the technical and artistic prowess of the Arnolfini portrait, it acts as a big source of inspiration for modern artists. The hidden and homonymous nuances of this artwork creates a bubble of questions in young minds. 

Many speculations have been made about the Arnolfini portrait. Most of them revolve around the matrimonial theme. However, a very unblemished perspective came into the picture lately. 

Trenta’s death prior to the production of the Arnolfini portrait is an undeniable fact. Taking it into consideration in accordance with Van Eyck’s signature on the wall, this could be a memoir tribute to Arnolfini’s deceased wife. 

The Arnolfini Portrait’s Influence 

Among Artists 

Like I mentioned earlier, some paintings create a legacy for generations to witness and learn. Similarly, the portrait of Arnolfini is nothing less than an institution for many artists. 

The use of space and on the artboard is done flawlessly. Due to which, the positioning of objects, orthogonal projection and many other elements highlight the artists expertise.

Whereas nowadays, many modern artists seek cultural inspiration from older artworks and designs. For instance, one of the famous Spanish artists Lita Cabellut, who works in The Netherlands, inculcates one of the oldest techniques in her works. 

The Fresco technique  which dates back to as early as 1600 BC, and originates from the Greek Bronze age is visible in Van Eyck’s many artworks. From which many famous Italian artists took inspiration. 

Among Other Contemporary Experts

If an artwork becomes a cultural emblem, rigorous research and contemplation around it would be a very certain thing to happen. Many renowned authors who wrote about European art and aesthetics mentioned the Arnolfini portrait in their books. 

An art Historian and Professor Margot Carroll wrote about the Arnolfiini portrait in her infamous book “Painting and Politics in Northern Europe: Van Eyck, Bruegel, Ruben and their contemporaries. 

She ideated the scene of a business signing by a medieval European merchant which he shares with her wife displayed in this painting. That resonates with the influence of Van Eyck’s artworks amongst new age authors. 

Conclusion 

The Arnolfini portrait is nothing short of a Magnum Opus. From every given perspective, it glorifies the Grandeur of early renaissance. 

This Flemish artwork now rests at the National Gallery of London and elevates the surrounding environment. Even being more than 600 years old, its impact on modern art is  intact. 

Van Eyck’s masterclass has been justified in every essence. His vision, preparations and execution has been pitch perfect!

With so much entitlement of creating a legacy behind, it still remains there with many unsolved queries. 

It isn’t certain that the world would witness another accolade like this again!

Authors Note:

I would like to express my gratitude towards all the readers who stayed till the end.

I hope I did justice to your time and curiosity. Nevertheless, if you are an art enthusiast like me and would like to contribute along with some information, feel free to drop a comment!

We at PortraitFlip, keep on delivering such amazing and knowledgeable content. To keep up with us, subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Instagram!

And if you would like to own this mesmerizing masterpiece, check out our reproduction paintings and Order your Arnolfini portrait ASAP!

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FAQs  

1. What does the Arnolfini portrait symbolize?

The Arnolfini portrait symbolizes the witnessing of a union. It’s a scene from Giovanni Arnolfini and Costanza Trenta’s marriage in Belgium. All the elements in the painting signify different elements of the matrimonial theme.

2. Who is the subject in the Arnolfini portrait?

There are two main subjects in the Arnolfini portrait. The man wearing a black hat is identified as Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and the woman in green gown is his wife Costanza Trenta. Both were of Italian descent but used to reside in Belgium due their business.

3. Where did the Arnolfini Wedding take place?

The marriage of Arnolfini and Trenta took place in the town of Bruges, Belgium in 1426.

4. Why did Jan Van Eyck paint the mirror in the Arnolfini portrait?

Van Eyck was an expert in positioning objects in different spaces. He painted the mirror in the center of the frame to make it the focal point of the painting. After which it became easy for him to position other objects in the painting. 

5. Name the artist who painted The Arnolfini Portrait. What was its original purpose?

The above portrait is popularly known as “The Arnolfini Portrait”. However, it had a few more names used by people from different countries to address it. Some called it the Arnolfini wedding/ the Arnolfini marriage and a few people referred to it as a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife. 
Its original purpose was to produce a memoir for the deceased wife of Giovanni Arnolfini. Van Eyck captured the Arnolfini wedding portrait in the form of this beautiful painting.

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