The Road to Van Eyck, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam


Don't miss this stupendous display of the works of a Flemish master who, at a stroke, invented oil painting and changed the course of art history

As demands on curators go, the one made of Friso Lammertse was a cracker. "In 2008, the director asked me to prove that Jan van Eyck did not come to Earth by UFO," beams the man behind The Road to Van Eyck, a stupendous new show, four years in the making, at Rotterdam's Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum.

Lammertse's boss hadn't been reading Chariots of the Gods, but Vasari's Lives of the Artists. In his essay on the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, Vasari says that Van Eyck, tired of his wood panels splitting from water-based tempera, had cooked up an alternative medium of boiled linseed juice and nuts. This he mixed with his pigments. Bingo: oil painting.

Oils allow for a far freer working method than tempera, which is hard to alter once it has dried. They also have a transparency and luminosity that opaque egg paints do not. According to Vasari, Antonello, spotting these qualities in a Van Eyck altarpiece in Milan around 1450, took himself off to Bruges to learn the Flemish master's method. The rest, as they say, is art history.

As often with Lives of the Artists, this story – one man invents one thing and changes the world – seems suspiciously neat. There are fewer than a dozen works signed and dated by Jan, and about the same number again of unsigned works thought to be by him and/or his brother, Hubert. We do not know who taught the pair to paint, and the work of the names floated – Robert Campin's, for example – lacks the experimental genius of the frères Van Eyck.

Just to compound the problem, very few pre-Eyckian works – that is, panel paintings made in the Netherlands before 1430 – have survived: around two dozen in all. Jan van Eyck isn't only credited with inventing oil paint, but with using it to create something entirely new: a naturalistic, Northern European light that focuses on the minutiae of the surfaces it strikes. You can see it in spades in the National Gallery's Arnolfini Portrait. That light, too, Antonello took back with him to Italy.

The problem is that there is next to no evidence to prove or disprove Vasari's story – to argue either that other Netherlandish artists were painting like Jan before Jan did, or that his was the sole eureka moment. So Lammertse and a pair of German colleagues set out to do two things. First, they tracked down every known pre-Eyckian Netherlandish panel painting, reasoning that in these might lie a genius that at least influenced Van Eyck's. In the process, the trio added five works to the pre-existing list of 25 – the equivalent, pro rata, of turning up 100 new Rembrandts. Some, such as a set of small altarpieces, once thought to have been made by Baltic nuns, are included in the Boijmans show.

Alongside these are previously known works, some of startling loveliness. Among them is the museum's own Norfolk Triptych of 1415-20, a small but gem-like altarpiece. Even with Lammertse's Netherlandish discoveries, less than 1 per cent of panel works from before 1430 has survived, so the chances of Jan having seen any of the ones in this show is tiny. If he did, though, then it might well have been the Norfolk Triptych, made in nearby Liège and of a quality that would almost certainly have made it famous among painters.

Various hands have been suggested for the triptych, including the Van Eycks' own. The clarity of light seems Eyckian, as does the playfulness of the images on the central panel. The architectural surrounds are part of both the work's wooden frame and of the rooms in which the saints sit, occupying that same middle-world we see in the mirror of the Arnolfini portrait. But there is something annoyingly un-Eyckian about the Norfolk Triptych. Its clear, northern light casts no shadows, and the cast shadow was one of Jan's most famous innovations.

Like Rubens after him, Jan van Eyck was a polymath – painter, courtier, alchemist and spy. As an artist, his work covered all the bases. He illuminated a Book of Hours for Jean, Duc de Berry (its two surviving pages are here), he decorated polychrome sculptures, made altarpieces and portraits. Examples of all these are in the show, both by Jan and by his contemporaries.

It is clear that there are some minor overlaps between these two sets of work. The marbling on the back of Van Eyck's portrait of his wife has long been thought of as his own invention, although it is here for all to see on a Netherlandish panel made 30 years before. But these are mere details compared with the obvious differences between Van Eyck's art and everyone else's. For all Lammertse's hard work, the only rational explanation for Jan remains arrival on Earth by spaceship. Shows of this brilliance do not come along twice in a lifetime, and Rotterdam really is not far away. Swim there if you have to.

To 10 Feb (

Critic's Choice

One material, many wondrous uses: Bronze shines brightly at the Royal Academy in London until 9 Dec, showcasing the various ways the versatile alloy has been used in art in both the past and present. And that metal is the main event in Salisbury too, with Keith Coventry's Black Bronze, White Slaves at the New Art Centre. Coventry casts the detritus of modern urban life – everything from kebab machines to crack pipes – in bronze (till 18 Nov).

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf