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Jan Van Eyck
Jan van Eyck is probably the most famous name in the history of Netherlandish painting. Little is known of his early life, but by the 1420s he was already a painter of some renown, employed by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, who presided over one of the most illustrious courts in Europe. An outstanding artist, Van Eyck was also a skilful diplomat and undertook numerous ambassadorial journeys for the Duke.
Through the centuries successive writers have paid tribute to Van Eyck's technical mastery, calling him 'the king of painters' and crediting him with the invention of oil painting. His glowing images are remarkable for their special reality and naturalistic detail, while his combination of the minute and the monumental led one art historian to comment that 'his eye was at the same time a microscope and a telescope.'
The Duke's Emissary
For the last 16 years of his life Jan van Eyck worked at the court of Philip the Good. The Duke made use of his skills as both painter and diplomat, sending him on numerous secret missions.
Only a few years after his death in 1441, Jan van Eyck was being hailed on both sides of the Alps as one of the greatest painters of the age. Although some of the legendary status he rapidly acquired has been stripped away he was long credited with being the 'inventor' of oil painting his fame has continued undiminished to the present day. Now, as in his lifetime, he is the most renowned painter of the Early Netherlandish School. In spite of such celebrity, and the intensity of the research that has been devoted to him, knowledge of his life as an artist is limited. We know nothing about what he did before he is first recorded in 1422, when he was probably in his 2ds or early 30s. Although from then on his life is well documented, little of the information refers to his surviving work. A large part of his work has disappeared, and all his dated paintings belong to the last 10 years of his life. Van Eyck was probably born around 1390 in the small town of Maaseyck (from which he took his name), about 15 miles downstream on the River Maas (Meuse) from Maastrict.
We do not know where or with whom he trained as an artist, but the strict guild system of the day would have demanded he learnt his craft thoroughly, for several years in the workshop of a master, before he could be admitted to the painters' Guild of St Luke. We first hear of him in 1422, when he was in The Hague, serving as painter and varlet de chambre (equerry) to Duke John of Bavaria. As painter to the Duke, Van Eyck would probably have been occupied with the decoration of the restorations to the Binnenhof, the ducal residence, but nothing of this work survives.
A NEW EMPLOYER
In January 1425 John of Bavaria died, but Van Eyck soon found a new post working for Philip the Good, the powerful Duke of Burgundy, to whom he was appointed as painter and varlet de chambre in May 1425. Philip travelled extensively in the administration of his states and had various residences, including ones at Bruges, Ghent, Hesdin and Lille. Immediately after his new appointment, Van Eyck was summoned to the court, then at Lille. Court documents relate that Jan was employed 'because of his aptness in the art of painting about which the Duke had heard from people in his service, and which he himself recognized in the person of Jan van Eyck.' Jan clearly had something of a reputation, which brought him now to one of the most sumptuous and cultivated courts of Europe. The document continues: 'Relying on his loyalty and honesty, the Duke appointed him to the normal honours, privileges, freedoms, rights and remunerations pertaining to the office.' Initially the contract was for a year only, renewable annually, thereafter, but Van Eyck was to stay there for many years. Indeed, even when financial re-organization caused Philip to reduce his household in December 1426, Van Eyck's services were retained.
The duties of a court painter were far more wide-ranging than is implied by the modern term 'fine art'. Jan was expected to turn his hand to whatever the Duke demanded. Besides the painting of portraits and decoration of princely residences, he would have designed court costumes and ornamentation for tournaments, ceremonies and festivities. Painting shields, staining banners, colouring statues, and even designing surprises such as the 'entremets' (fantastically fashioned food) for banquets would have been his tasks.
Moreover, Van Eyck's duties extended beyond those of an artist, for he apparently had great skill and tact as a diplomatic courtier. As early as 1426, he was entrusted with the confidential duties of a secret pilgrimage, and what the court accounts describe as. . A certain secret journey which likewise he f the Duke] has ordered him to make to certain places that are not to be disclosed'. Over the next 10 years Van Eyck was employed on several such secret missions. Van Eyck's travels brought him into contact with painters of other towns, especially in Flanders, where there were several major art centers within short distances of-each other. On 18 October 1427, he celebrated the feast-day of St Luke with members of the painters' guild at Toumai, and was awarded a gift of wine. On this occasion he must have met Robert Campin, the leading painter in Tournai, who was breaking away from medieval conventions with a bold, realistic, sculptural style.
PORTRAIT OF A BRIDE
Van Eyck's presence in the bourgeois town of Tournai may have been due to the matrimonial ambitions of Philip the Good. Although he had been twice married, Philip had no heir, and was looking first to Spain and then to Portugal for a new bride. The unsuccessful embassy sent to negotiate terms in Spain returned by way of Tournai, and Van Eyck was perhaps among the envoys. In October the following year, he was certainly one of the party sent to King John I of Portugal to negotiate for the hand of his eldest daughter, Isabella. The sea voyages were long and arduous, meeting with unfavorable weather that imposed long stopovers in England, and Jan was away for more than a year. His role as a painter was significant on this mission. The ambassadors had a portrait of the face of Isabella painted 'from the life' by 'Jan van Eyck, varlet de chambre to the Duke of Burgundy and an excellent master of the art of painting', as the chronicler of the mission describes him. This gave Philip the chance to see the face of his proposed bride. Sadly, the portrait is lost.
The long negotiations finally proved successful; Isabella was brought safely to Sluis in Zeeland by Christmas Day 1429, and the wedding party arrived at Bruges on 8 January 1430. With Philip married, Van Eyck's life may have been a little quieter, providing the time for him to complete his greatest work, the huge altarpiece for the Cathedral of St Bavon in Ghent (p.942). This had apparently been begun by his brother Hubert and left unfinished at his death in 1426, and for such a large, private undertaking, Van Eyck would have required the Duke's permission.
A FAMILY MAN
At about this time, Van Eyck married a woman named Margaret. And he acquired a house in the northern area of Bruges, the district of the Court and of important buildings belonging to foreign powers. He was becoming a family man. At least two children were born to the Van Eyck’s, and Philip of Burgundy displayed his respect for Jan by agreeing to become godfather to one of them.
During the 1430s, Van Eyck had time and opportunity to paint for other patrons. For Chancellor Nicolas Rollin, infamous for avarice and pride, he painted a devotional piece and in 14345 he worked for the city authorities, colouring and gilding six statues for the facade of Bruges City Hall. It was perhaps with a view to this commission that the Mayor of Bruges had visited Jan's workshop in July 1432 and left behind him gratuities for the master's apprentices.
However, Van Eyck was still in the service, and at the call, of the Duke. His salary had been converted to a substantial annual pension for life, and Philip valued his work highly. Indeed, in 1435, Philip himself intervened with the bureaucrats in the accounting office at Lille, who were obstructing the payment of Van Eyck's pension. Philip wrote of his fear that their action might cause Van Eyck to leave his service, saying '. . . we wish to arrange for certain important works with which he is to occupy himself, and we could find no other artist to our liking who is so accomplished in his art and science.
Apart from an interruption in 1436, when he was employed on yet another secret journey to 'foreign lands', Van Eyck continued his life in Bruges. Then, after 16 years association with Philip the Good, he died in June 1441. His high position at court entitled him to burial at the Church of St Donat, the ancient burial place of the counts. Philip paid tribute to his life and work by granting his widow a gratuity 'in consideration of her husband's services and in commiseration with her and her children's loss.'
Writer - Marshall Cavendish