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The Optical Revolution

The optical revolution brought about by the Flemish master 600 years ago continues to fascinate, and to awaken awe and humility. Van Eyck was revolutionary in more than one way.

Oil painting technique

Oil was an impractical medium before Van Eyck. It was the master himself who perfected the composition of the paints, by adding siccatives to them. This shortens the drying time and makes the paint easier to manipulate, allowing him to achieve unprecedented colour effects.

None of Van Eyck’s predecessors can compete with him in this regard. Previously it was customary to highlight objects with gold leaf to add some sparkle. But Van Eyck can flawlessly imitate gold, and by extension he brings every material and every texture to life in his paintings.

The oil painting technique, greatly improved by Van Eyck, inspires painters throughout Europe and continues to linger until today.

Observation of the world

In addition, Van Eyck’s art is based on the observation of reality in such a way that it seems as if he sees the world it with different eyes than his predecessors. Portraits have never been as lifelike as with Van Eyck. His painting of natural phenomena, such as clouds and the moon, or of the splashing water in a fountain, is unseen.

Van Eyck not only wants to imitate, but also creates illusions. The portraits of the couple Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut, the commissioners of the Ghent Altarpiece, or the images of Mary and the angel Gabriel on the Annunciation diptych, seem so lifelike as if they were actually sitting in shallow niches. With that kind of trompe l’oeil effects, Van Eyck seems to compete with reality itself.

Painting optical light phenomena

Finally, Van Eyck’s meticulous observations also show a deep-rooted interest in the painting of light, so crucial to his optical revolution. People, utensils or interiors become three-dimensional through the light that shines on them, or even through the absence of light in the shadows.

Van Eyck’s light direction is simply brilliant, but he actually goes one step further. The hypothesis is that the painter not only relies on the direct perception and painting of the world, but that he also has knowledge of the operation of light. In other words, he not only gathers practical but also theoretical knowledge in order to reproduce the effects of light.