In the 15th Century, a period known as the Northern Renaissance emerged in northern Europe in countries such as Germany, France, and Belgium. Unlike stylized art from earlier eras, artwork from the Northern Renaissance focused on the concept of naturalism. This naturalistic art visually mirrored the real world. Artists created incredibly lifelike and realistic images by utilizing new techniques of perspective, detail, proportion, use of oil paint, and more. Throughout the Northern Renaissance, artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Claus Sluter, and numerous others, expanded and perfected the use of naturalism in their artwork.
One of the most prominent artists in the Northern Renaissance was Jan Van Eyck, a highly regarded Flemish painter. In his early career, Van Eyck painted Books of Hours- small prayer books, which included lavish paintings of sacred and everyday scenes. Van Eyck was skilled at creating the tiny illustrations that filled these written manuscripts. Van Eyck later became a visionary regarding the artistic style of naturalism. Some of his most famous paintings include the Ghent Altarpiece, Madonna with Chancellor Rolin, and the Arnolfini Portrait.
In 1432, Jan Van Eyck completed the Ghent Altarpiece within a cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. This huge, folding altarpiece was one of the first examples of naturalism in the Northern Renaissance. The altarpiece is covered in detailed, religious paintings and, when open, portrays the redemption of man. The interior paintings depict lifelike images of God, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Adam and Eve, and other religious scenes. One of the most esteemed panels on the altarpiece is the representation of Adam. He is proportionate, his skin appears tanned, his body creates shadows, he renders movement, and he is visually identical to a living being. Since the Ghent Altarpiece was first displayed, the public has been astounded by its realism. People were amazed by the lifelike, humanistic qualities of the altarpiece, which were completely revolutionary paintings at this time. Contrary to beliefs that he invented a new kind of oil paint, Van Eyck was the first person to use layering and glazes to create deep, rich colors that realistically reflect light.
After the fame of the Ghent Altarpiece, Jan Van Eyck became a renowned portrait artist because of his ability to paint people so accurately. During this period, portraits became less expensive and for the first time middle class people could afford to have their image preserved through paintings. In 1434, Van Eyck produced his most mysterious portrait, the Arnolfini Portrait. This portrait is a full-length image, depicting a man and a woman holding hands within a lavishly decorated room. The man stands solemnly with one hand raised while the woman, who appears to be pregnant, holds one hand over her stomach. Records show that this portrait was commissioned by the wealthy Arnolfini family however, it is unknown exactly who and what is represented in the painting. Although some historians believe the portrait represents a wedding, recent theories speculate that the painting illustrates a widowed husband and his deceased wife. On one side of the painting, where the husband stands, the candles above him are lit and the mirror is surrounded by images of Jesus’ life. On the side of the wife, the candles have burnt out and the mirror includes images from after Jesus’ death. Although we may never know what the Arnolfini Portrait truly represents, theories about its history continue to intrigue and puzzle viewers.
The contributions of Jan Van Eyck are a vital aspect of the Northern Renaissance and the artistic style of naturalism. His realistic paintings continue to astound viewers and inspire artists to create lifelike images, nearly 600 years later.