Jan Van Eyck - Jean Arnolfini And His Wife
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The distinctive value of this early Flemish work lies not in brilliant colors or in spirited action, but in the exquisite precision with which it handles small realistic details of light and texture, and the clarity with which it organizes them in deep space. Its charm is slow but increasing: one's eyes must adjust themselves to this different world of dignified repose and sombre shadows. The astonishing illusion of reality in some lighted parts may be first to attract attention: the way the chandelier hangs in empty space, with the exact lustre of old metal; the convex mirror focussing tiny reflections; the woman's head and fur sleeve; the sandals; the hands—all with microscopic details of surface visible. One feels the fine accuracy with which atmosphere is rendered: not rich, hazy or sparkling, but the cool, clear twilight of a north-country-interior, shed through space with infinitely subtle gradations.
Yet if this were all, the picture would be no more than skilled mechanical copying of nature. It becomes art only through selection, emphasis and organization. These qualities become evident by contrast with inferior works in similar vein—say the Crucifixion by the Master from Delft (2922), or Crivelli's Annunciation (739), cluttered with sharp linear details. Here it is only a few accented areas that stand out in luminous, microscopic accuracy. Other, broader surfaces of clothing, wall and floor are subordinated,, plain and dull. Even the man's face is modelled in comparatively broad, simplified planes. Thus the eye is led unfailingly to follow the sequence of emphases, with large, quiet, unconfusing stretches in between. These sequences reward the eye in a decorative way by defining a simple,. balanced pattern of lines (including the chandelier above) converging toward the clasped hands. Over it plays a soft melody of rising and falling highlights, and beneath it glows a dark harmony of reds and browns, half-realized in the gray-green dusk.