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Very little is known about the early life of Jan van Eyck, although few surviving records indicate he was born most likely in Maaseik, Belgium, around 1380-1390. Eyck’s first extant historical record comes from John of Bavaria’s court, at The Hague where from 1422 to 1424 shows payments made to Meyster Jan den Maire, which translates to Master Jan the painter, then a court painter with valet de chambre rank.
Jan van Eyck has served officially in many courts, first of them is for John of Bavaria-Straubing, ruler of Hainault, Holland, and Zeeland, being able to assemble a small workshop and involved in redecorating the Binnenhof palace. John died in 1425, and after that van Eyck moved to Bruges, coming to Philip the Good’s attention. He becomes more emergent as he is appointed to the court. Van Eyck served there as an artist, diplomat and a senior member of the Tournai painter’s guild. Within his time in the court, he completed a number of journeys on Philip’s behalf. The precise nature of those journeys is still unknown, described in records as “secret” commissions, although it seems to relate to him acting as an envoy.
His better-documented commission is a journey on behalf of Philip the Duke of Burgundy to Lisbon, along with a group responsible for preparing the ground for 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 takes place. He 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 portrayed 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 as well as technical growth, mostly because of his innovative approach towards manipulating oil paint.
Even living, he was considered a revolutionary painter for his period, being heavily reproduced by other painters. 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 died relatively young, around his fifties, in July 1441, in Burges, and was buried in the Church of St. Donatian’s graveyard. Duke Philip, as a sign of respect, 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, and after his death, his workshop was run by Lambert van Eyck. 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.