Jan van Eyck was a painter born in present-day Belgium who became a significant representative of Early Renaissance art and one of the main founders of Early Netherlandish painting. Van Eyck was an innovator who popularized oil painting, making complex arrangements of color and creating volume through subtle grading. The painter is still admired today for the high degree of realism in his paintings and his profound influence on Flemish art.
Very little is known about Jan van Eyck’s early life, although few surviving records indicate he was born most likely in Maaseik, Belgium, around 1380-1390. Eyck’s first existent historical records date from 1422 to 1424 in John of Bavaria’s court, at The Hague. Payments were made to Meyster Jan den Maire, translated as Master Jan the painter, who was then a court painter with valet de chambre rank.
Unusual for its time, Van Eyck was well versed both in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. While there’s no documentation of his education, his knowledge of such languages indicates he received education focused on Classic culture.
Jan van Eyck was born in a family of painters. His siblings Hubert, Lambert, and Margaret all became artists, with the latter being acknowledged for her miniaturist work. His brother, Hubert, was the one who began the famous painting Ghent Altarpiece - Adoration of the Lamb. Hubert was born in 1366 and was considerably older than his brother. He worked for the Duke of Borgonha and one of the most wealthy patrons of Ghent.
The Van Eyck family context is pivotal to understand the role that Jan had on the tradition of painting. Hubert van Eyck was probably the one that introduced the practice of painting to him, and it was through his clientele and their work that Jan van Eyck was capable of becoming one of the most important European painters.
Unfortunately, there was little documentation on Hubert van Eyck’s life during their time together. Most things regarding the brothers’ relationship are speculation, but there is the certainty that they worked together for years and in many pieces. There is a hypothesis that Lambert, the youngest of them, took charge of Van Eyck’s workshop after he passed away.
Jan van Eyck officially served in many courts. The first of them belonged to John of Bavaria-Straubing, ruler of Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland. There the artist assembled a small workshop and was involved in redecorating the Binnenhof Palace. Under John of Bavaria, there is the speculation that Jan and Hubert worked on a book of illuminations, which would be among the artist’s first work.
The painter’s primary medium was oil on canvas. Hubert was a profound connoisseur of artistic materials, and along with his brother, popularized the use of oil painting. Later championed by Vasari, it seems that the older van Eyck began spreading the rumor that they had invented the material. With this technique and their masterful use of glazing to reach new color complexity, they marked the history of art and painting. Among his most famous oil paintings is Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife.
During this period working for John, the painter had many assistants, and his fame started to grow. Van Eyck moved to Bruges after his patron died in 1425. The painter quickly emerged in the local art scene, came to Philip the Good’s attention, quickly emerging, and was appointed to the court. Van Eyck served there as an artist, diplomat, and a senior member of the Tournai painter’s guild. In 1427, he traveled for a ceremony in his honor, recognizing his status as a senior member.
Within his time in the court, the artist steadily gained the trust of Philip the Good, who admired his cultured background and developed a friendship with the master. Van Eyck wasn’t only the court painter of Philip. He also had the status of valet, which amounted to notoriety and distinction in the court.
Van Eyck completed many journeys on Philip’s behalf. Those journeys’ precise nature is still unknown, described in records as “secret” commissions, although it seems to relate to him acting as an envoy.
During the time that Jan worked at Philip the Good’s court, Hubert van Eyck started creating one of their most renowned masterpieces: Ghent Altarpiece - Adoration of the Lamb. The works of the altarpiece began around 1420. Hubert passed away in 1426 when he was 60 years old, leaving Jan to finish the artwork, which he did in 1432.
The painter concluded the Ghent Altarpiece the same year he married his wife, Margareta. He then bought a new house in Bruges, to which both relocated after the wedding. They had two children together, and there is little information about her. She can be seen in the 1439 painting Portrait of Margareta Van Eyck, from which some historians assume that she belonged to a lower nobility. After Van Eyck passed away, the city council of Bruges offered Margareta a pension.
The next year in the painter’s life is considered the beginning of his artistic peak. In the picture Man in a Red Turban, the painter signs for the first time als ich kan, which means “as I can.” The sentence also worked as a pun with his name and became his signature. In the next couple of years, he painted some of his most remarkable pictures.
One of his better-documented commissions was a journey on behalf of Philip the Duke of Burgundy to Lisbon and a group responsible for preparing the wedding between Isabella of Portugal and Duke Philip. Van Eyck was commissioned to paint the bride so that the Duke may see her before the marriage took place.
The artist spent nine months on this journey, returning to the Netherlands with the bride to be, Isabella. It’s worth noting that this portrait is lost, and it is known that the artist portrayed the Dukes’ wife slightly unattractive. His representation of his sitters most often shown the ugly truth of their appearance, representing every last imperfection, but never undignified.
With a court salary, Van Eyck saw himself free from commissioned work, giving him large artistic freedom. This freedom helped him gain a reputation and technical growth, mostly because of his innovative approach towards manipulating oil paint. Jan van Eyck was regarded for his skill in depicting different surfaces, such as clothes, furniture, the reflection of mirrors, and human skin.
Even in life, he was considered a revolutionary painter for his period. Dutch painting as a whole owes heavily to him. Between the years 1434 and 1436 is often considered the high point of his artistic career. Around this period, he painted The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, Our Lady of Lucca, Mary Nursing, and The Madonna with Canon van der Paele. Jan van Eyck’s paintings are, to this day, one of the stellar examples of how expression and realism can be intertwined in the art of painting.
Jan van Eyck died relatively young, around his fifties on July 1441, in Bruges. He was the first buried in the Church of St. Donatian’s graveyard. As a sign of respect, Duke Philip made a one-off payment to Jan’s widow, Margaret, to a value of a year’s worth of salary. He left many unfinished works. Even after his departure, his reputation continued to grow, so much that one year later, Lambert had Jan’s body exhumed and placed inside the Cathedral of St. Donatian.