( Originally Published 1955 )
One of the great masters of Flemish painting, he produced an art of cultured refinement, intellectual depth, and surpassing visual beauty. Developing out of the miniature tradition of the Boucicaut Master and the painting style of Broederlam, he was a realist who painted the world in all its detail and richness, who sought not the monumental, but a transfigured reality pervaded by complex and subtle symbolic meaning and expressed in pictorial terms of space and light. Born in Maaseyck, the records show that he worked as a miniaturist for the Duke of Bavaria, John of Holland (1422-25), and in 1425 began a service for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, which lasted until his death. In 1426-27 he was in Lille and in 1428 went on a mission to Portugal to paint a portrait of the Infanta Isabella, prospective wife of Philip. He settled in Bruges c.1431 and as a cultured gentleman-painter was a highly esteemed member of the court. Efforts have been made to ascribe to him certain pages of the Turin-Milan Hours, executed (1412-17) for William IV, Duke of Bavaria, by analogy with early undated panel pictures in which the space dominates the small figures: for example, the Diptych of the Crucifixion and Last Judgment (Metropolitan), and the Crucifixion, the Madonna in the Church, and the Man with the Pink (all in Berlin). The earliest dated work, and obviously of his maturity, is the Ghent Altar, dated on completion 1432, and probably begun in 1427 on commission for Jodicus Vydt by Hubert and completed by Jan (now reassembled in St. Bavon, Ghent). In its attempt to assimilate the monumentality of Hubert, Flemalle, and Sluter to his own pictorialism, it marks a transition to his mature style. This altar of the Glorification of the Mystic Lamb has a grandeur of conception which may be due to Hubert. The other works of Jan's maturity are mostly signed and dated: the Tymotheos (1432), the Man with Turban (1433), and the Arnolfini portrait, 1434 (all in London) ; the Ince Hall Madonna (1433, Melbourne) and the Van der Paele Altar (1436, Bruges). Other works of this period not signed and dated but usually accepted are the Cardinal Niccolo Albergati (c. 1432, Vienna), the Tommaso Arnolfini (c.1434, Berlin), the Mellon Annunciation (c.1434, Washington), the Giustiniani Altar (c.1435, Dresden), the Rolin Madonna (c. 1436, Louvre), and the Madonna and St. Luke (c.1437, Frankfort). In the last years of his life his style became more austere, as in the unfinished St. Barbara (1437, Antwerp), the Madonna of the Fountain (1439, Antwerp), and his Wife Margaret (1439, Bruges). This phase is also shown in the unsigned Madonna with Carthusian, perhaps completed by Petrus Christus (c.1439, Frick Collection), and the St. Francis (Johnson Collection, Philadelphia), the Turin version of which may be a copy. His style was too subtle, intellectual and personal to achieve the popular effect and influence of van der Weyden's, and though he did have some influence he never created a school.