Jan Van Eyck

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Van Eyck, Jan


Born circa 1390, in Maeseyck (?), Limburg; buried July 9, 1441, in Bruges. Flemish painter.

According to documents, van Eyck worked on the decoration of a count’s castle in The Hague in the years 1422-24 and in 1425 became court painter to Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, whose domains extended to the Netherlands. In 1427 he went to Spain, and in the years 1428-29 to Portugal. About 1430 he settled in Bruges. Some of his paintings were signed with the motto: “Als ick kan” (As I can). He also painted miniatures.

Van Eyck’s largest work is the Ghent Altarpiece (a polyptych in the Cathedral of St. Bavon in Ghent). According to a later inscription on the frame it was begun by the painter Hubert van Eyck and was completed by Jan in 1432. Hubert, Jan’s elder brother, worked in the 1420’s in Ghent, where he died in 1426. It is impossible to ascribe any painting to him with complete certainty. The question of Hubert’s artistic works and his participation in the work on the Ghent Altar-piece remain debatable. It is virtually impossible to discern the hand of more than one master in the pictorial execution of the altarpiece; apparently, it was painted entirely by Jan. Hubert could only have begun the work on the central panels of the altar (Adoration of the Lamb and the three figures above it), whose composition is the most archaic. The altar consists of many pictures of various kinds, including a landscape with many figures (Adoration of the Lamb) and a spacious interior with a city view visible through a window (The Annunciation), the figures of Adam and Eve, and portraits of donors.

With the exception of the Madonna in a Church (late 1420’s, Picture Gallery, Berlin-Dahlem), van Eyck’s authentic paintings were all done in the 1430’s. The most outstanding paintings are Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (circa 1436, Louvre, Paris), Madonna of Canon Van der Paele (1436, Municipal Art Gallery, Bruges), the triptych Madonna in a Church (1437, Picture Gallery, Dresden). Van Eyck is the first great European portrait painter and an originator of the bust-length portrait at a three-quarter turn (Tymotheos, 1432, and Man in a Red Turban, 1433, National Gallery, London; portrait of Margaret van Eyck, the artist’s wife, 1439, Municipal Art Gallery, Bruges). Van Eyck also painted a portrait of the Arnolfini couple (1434, National Gallery, London), who are pictured in a room of the burgher’s house. Only religious scenes and portraits by van Eyck have been preserved, but sources also mention his compositions on secular subjects.

Drawing on the achievements of his predecessors and contemporaries, primarily Robert Campin, van Eyck came to the principle of realism, which was new in European art of that time. Moreover, most of van Eyck’s pictures do not tell a story and have a calm, contemplative character. An extremely careful painting technique brings out the beauty of every object, which it invests with realistic volume, density, weight, and a characteristic surface structure. Nature, people, and objects become strikingly and vitally convincing under van Eyck’s brush. A special role in this is played by his treatment of space, light, and air. Van Eyck is equally interested in man and the world around him, so that the landscape, the interior, and the still-life all have an important place in his compositions. The details and the whole are integrally related: a blooming plant or a precious stone on the Madonna’s garment equally reflects, as it were, the beauty of creation, while the panorama-like landscape in the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin gives the effect of a collective image of the universe. Van Eyck’s art is distinguished by a profound understanding of the conformity of everything that exists with certain laws, and this is expressed in the carefully thought out, strictly substantiated structure of his works.

The resolution of the creative tasks envisioned by van Eyck called for new artistic means. He has often been called the inventor of oil painting. This technique was known before, but van Eyck was the first to use it in a new way, taking advantage of the aesthetic expressiveness of the fine, transparent layers of pigment, placed one over the other. Van Eyck’s technique, which makes it possible to achieve color of exceptional force, depth, and richness as well as great subtlety of light and shade and color variations, has played an important role in the history of world painting.

Van Eyck’s art, while it is mainly religious, reflects the beauty and diversity of reality in an innovative manner and has been an important influence on the development of realism. It has played a decisive role in making easel painting an art form that gives a highly convincing picture of reality. Van Eyck’s works marked the beginning of the Renaissance in the Netherlands and to a considerable extent determined the development of Flemish painting, the range of its problems and interests, its artistic means and possibilities, and its peculiar national character.


Egorova, K. S. Ian van Eik. Moscow, 1965.
Nikulin, N. N. Ian fan Eik. Leningrad, 1967. [Album.]
Friedländer, M. J. Die altniederländische Malerei, vol. 1. Berlin, 1924.
Baldass, L. Jan van Eyck. London, 1952.
Panofsky, E. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, vols. 1-2. Cambridge (Mass.), 1953.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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