Jan Van Eyck stood out head and shoulders above his contemporaries. No one could imitate him. Some claim that Jan Van Eyck even invented oil painting, but that is not the case. He may not be the inventor of oil painting, but he did popularise and perfect it. Moreover, his works of art consist of several layers of paint. With the greatest attention to detail, he applied at least three semi-transparent layers of paint to the panels, varying from light to dark. Do you get the impression that the Ghent Altarpiece shows perspective? That doesn’t surprise us; the above-mentioned layers allowed Jan Van Eyck to create a feeling of depth.
It's hard to believe, but Jan Van Eyck did not paint everything off the cuff. Even the greatest painter sometimes needs some help. A sketch is hidden underneath the carefully constructed layers of oil paint. The drawing in black pigment forms the beginning of something beautiful. Jan Van Eyck supposedly made use of underdrawings to create the Arnolfini Portrait. Arnolfini's hat was supposedly drawn over several times before the paint-covered brush touched the panel. Other elements of the work, such as the oranges, the pearls of the necklace and the dog, have been painted without underdrawings.
When it comes to medieval dress, we can learn a lot from Jan Van Eyck’s paintings. When creating his masterpieces, he paid a lot of attention to clothing. Through his diplomatic contacts he would have had a broad knowledge of the various fabrics. He painted a wide variety of fabrics with a special eye for detail. He depicted the thin scarlet woollens, for which Ghent, Bruges and other Flemish cities were famous, in great detail. The figure of God in the central front panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is wearing this fabric. He imitated the silk fabrics of the cloths of honour behind the Deesis of the Ghent Altarpiece by making use of applied brocade. This was a relatively new and complex technique in the 15th century. Using tin moulds, Jan Van Eyck made gilded and painted reliefs which he then attached to the painting. Not only did he paint all the fabrics in a realistic manner, he also depicted the seams on the characters' clothing. So Jan Van Eyck was more than just a painter!
Jan Van Eyck's talent went far beyond the perfection of oil painting and the depiction of clothes, he had an excellent eye for detail and represented even the smallest miniatures as realistic figures. In his Portrait of a Man, you can see stubble on the subject’s face, and you can also notice the stubble hairs and the imperfections on Joos Vijd’s face in the Ghent Altarpiece. A fun fact: the Portrait of a Man is supposedly a self-portrait of Jan Van Eyck. This not only tells us that men in the 15th century grew their beards like real hipsters, it also tells us the story of a man with an incredible eye for detail! All the objects in his paintings are therefore painted with the greatest accuracy. This testifies to the fact that the artist worked meticulously and studied everything up close before painting it on panels!
The way in which Jan Van Eyck depicts light and shadow is phenomenal! He plays this trump card even on the smallest of paintings. The volume of the Virgin Mary’s hands on the central front panel the Ghent Altarpiece is shaped by the play of light and shadow. Jan Van Eyck brings the most static figures to life. He also paints reflections on his panels without any hesitation. Just think of the Arnolfini Portrait: if you look closely, you can see a mirror in the mirror behind the newlywed couple, showing their reflection and perhaps even Jan Van Eyck’s reflection!
No mountain is too high for Jan Van Eyck! According to some, the master's paintings are one of the earliest examples of atmospheric perspective. He paints objects in the background more blurred, with weaker colours and contrasts, so that it seems as if these objects are actually further away. This phenomenon is particularly evident in The Ghent Altarpiece. The tops of the mighty mountain range on the Knights of Christ panel are painted blurrier than the knights themselves. If you want to admire the painting techniques of Jan Van Eyck with your own eyes, be sure to plan a visit to Ghent!
Van Eyck and The Ghent Altarpiece
Who was Jan Van Eyck, and what makes the Ghent Altarpiece so special? Discover more on these pages!