Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, The National Gallery, London, review: unmissable

Offering a rare chance to get up close to the Arnolfini Portrait, the show argues convincingly that this 15th century picture ushered in a new type of British painting in the 19th century

Alison Cole
Friday 29 September 2017 09:12 BST
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Graffiti artist: the playful inspirer of the Pre-Raphaelites left a message on the wall in this portrait, saying ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’
Graffiti artist: the playful inspirer of the Pre-Raphaelites left a message on the wall in this portrait, saying ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434’

This fascinating exhibition focuses on one of the National Gallery’s greatest treasures, Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, the first Netherlandish picture ever purchased by the Gallery, back in 1842. It also focuses on the immediate impact that this modest and mesmerising work had on a group of young students: the Royal Academy Schools then occupied the east wing of the National Gallery building, just a short stroll away.

These students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, who a few years later were to found a secret brotherhood known as the Pre-Raphaelites.

Seeking a purity and heartfeltness that existed in art before Raphael, these radical young British artists, together with Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, were bowled over by Van Eyck’s extraordinary mastery. Here was a style of painting that although "primitive" and belonging to the world of medieval craftsmanship was utterly in tune with modern tastes, which were then beginning to embrace the extreme similitude and ‘frozen’ portrait style of the recently invented photography (the exhibition includes some early daguerreotypes).

The Pre-Raphaelites admired Van Eyck’s rich jewel-like colours, his minute oil technique, his domestic and religious symbolism, and his intensely natural light effects; the show argues convincingly, if a little simplistically, that this early 15th century picture helped usher in a new type of British painting. More comprehensively, it charts the influence that the painted convex mirror, which hangs at the centre of Van Eyck’s picture, had on two generations of British painters, whether directly or through the filter of Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

The show provides an unmissable opportunity to study Van Eyck’s masterpiece at close quarters (it is hung lower than usual, without its customary barrier) as well as enjoy a number of major Pre-Raphaelite works on loan from Tate Britain. The identity of the main figures in the Arnolfini Portrait has now been discovered as Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant in Bruges, and his wife – but in the 19th century it remained mysterious.

The Lady of Shalott, c.1886-1905, William Holman Hunt ( Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images)

Was the man in the extraordinary black hat "making an honest woman" of this "pregnant" lady, or was the woman having her fortune told? And were the figures, glimpsed in the convex mirror behind them, witnesses to a marriage or friends being welcomed into the intimate bedchamber? The remarkable form of the artist’s signature and date, positioned right above the mirror, as if painted on the wall – "Jan Van Eyck was here 1434" – suggests that the mirror reflects the artist himself together with a companion.

Holman Hunt was perhaps the artist who best understood how the use of mirrors within a picture could open up all sorts of narrative possibilities for painting. In The Awakening Conscience, there are no fewer than three mirrors, whose reflected light and vision of nature outside symbolise the moment of spiritual revelation of a kept woman. By the 1860s, the convex mirror had become a fixture in fashionable middle class homes, while for the artist it provided an opportunity to move into another realm altogether.

The ultimate form of artistic engagement with the Arnolfini Portrait can be found in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings that depict The Lady of Shalott, the tragic heroine of Tennyson’s poem in which the mirror’s magic is pivotal to the drama as it unfolds. The mirror, of course, as Van Eyck revealed, can also hold the key to the magic of the very act of painting.

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