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Who is Jan van Eyck?

Little is known about the life of Jan van Eyck. Van Eyck is born around 1390. He has an older brother, Hubert, and a younger brother and sister, Lambert and Margareta. All of them are painters, from the Maasland, possibly from the city of Maaseik in the former prince-bishopric of Liège. It isn’t know what training he receives or what his character is like. Nor do we even know what he looks like, although it is assumed that ‘Portrait of a man’ (1433, National Gallery, London) is a self-portrait.

After a stay in Lille, Jan settles in Bruges in 1432 and probably marries Margareta van Eyck in 1432 or 1433. The portrait he paints of her (1439, Groeninge Museum, Bruges) is the first known portrait of a painter’s wife. It’s the closest we can come  to Jan van Eycks personal life… Jans handwriting is known through notes in Maasland’s dialect, written on a drawing assumed to be by cardinal Niccoló Albergati (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden). In 1434, Jans first child is baptized in the Sint-Donaas church in Bruges.

Jan van Eyck dies on July 9th, 1441. In the spring of 1442, his brother Lambert places the mortal remains of his brother in the since disappeared Sint-Donaas church in Bruges. Only a sketch of his grave plate has been handed down to us. Jans daughter Livina enters the Sint-Agnes convent of Maaseik in 1449 or 1450. Around that time, Margareta van Eyck sells the house in Bruges and the painter’s studio ceases to exist.

Court painter and diplomatic traveler

Jan van Eyck spends his entire life moving in the highest circles. He is greatly appreciated and is well paid for his services. We have to wait until 1422 until we get a picture of Jan working as a court painter in the ‘Binnenhof’ in The Hague, under Count Jan of Bavaria-Straubing (1374-1425). After the death of his patron in 1425, Van Eyck moves to the Southern Netherlands. From May 19, he is appointed court painter of the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good (1396-1467). He holds the title of ‘varlet de chambre’ and must be available to the Duke at all times.

Van Eyck makes various diplomatic missions, sometimes with far-flung destinations whose precise location is kept secret. Architectural details in early works by Van Eyck suggest that the painter visits Jerusalem during this time. At the end of 1428, Van Eyck travels to Portugal with a Burgundian delegation. For the upcoming marriage between Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, he paints two portraits of the bride on the spot. Van Eyck may be on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela during this campaign; he meets King Juan of Castile and Mohammed, King of Granada.

As ich can

Jan van Eyck is a personality and signs his works, a fact which is very rare at that time. In the ‘Arnolfini portrait’ (1434, National Gallery, London) he places ‘Jan van Eyck fuit hic’ on the painted wall (‘Jan van Eyck was here’). On the frames of several works he also paints his personal motto ‘Als ich can’ (‘As good as I can’). This testifies to a remarkable degree of self-awareness for an artist of his time.

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

According to the quatrain, the inscription on the lists of the outer panels of ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, the patrician Joos Vijd gives the assignment for the work to Hubert van Eyck, Jan’s older brother. After the death of Hubert in 1426, Jan takes over with the help of assistants. On May 6th, 1432, the polyptich is inaugurated in the chapel of the couple Vijd-Borluut in the Sint-Janskerk (now St. Bavo’s Cathedral) in Ghent. ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, more commonly know as ‘The Ghent Altarpiece’ today, is the largest and most important work handed down by the Van Eyck brothers. The impact of the polyptich on Western painting is enormous. All the spectacular achievements of Van Eyck’s optical revolution have already crystallized in this early masterpiece, the outer panels of which are the centrepieces for ‘Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution’.