Windsor Public Library Amateur Photo Contest
Windsor Public Library’s 2022 Amateur Photo Contest. This booklet collects all of the photos submitted for the contest, including the winners and honourable mentions:
An examination of The Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait, also known as The Arnolfini Wedding among other names, is a painting by Dutch artist Jan van Eyck. Completed in 1434, the painting has become one of the most well-known in Western art, not only because it is an incredible example of Early Netherlandish painting (part of the larger Renaissance movement), but also because of the discussion it has generated about its meaning and the symbolism it contains. There is much more to this painting than meets the eye.
Upon first looking at the painting, it might appear to be quite standard: it’s a portrait of a couple. Maybe a wedding portrait done in their home. However, take a closer look and your eye will be drawn to a number of different elements within the work: the detail of the clothing, the colours chosen, various items inside the room. You might also begin wondering, who are these two people? What is the writing on the wall over the mirror? Was there a purpose to this portrait?
Perhaps the first thing worth discussing is the identity of the couple depicted in the painting. We actually don’t know who they are. Not for sure, anyway. It was initially believed to be Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruges, and his wife, Giovanna Cenami. However, documentation has since been discovered that shows that Giovanni did not get married until over a decade after the painting was completed. As such, it’s believed that this could instead depict Giovanni’s cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and possibly his first wife, Constanza Trenta.
The portrait’s objective is also unclear. Many believe that this painting depicts either a wedding or a betrothal of the couple. It certainly looks plausible. And it can undoubtedly be interpreted that way. Look closely at the mirror: you can see that there are people reflected in it. It’s a reflection of the scene being painted. The figure in blue is said to be van Eyck himself. The couple can be seen before him. The figure in red is up for debate. Could it be the bride’s father, or a civil official? The writing just above the mirror is ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ – Latin for ‘Jan van Eyck was here 1434.’ For those that suggest that this is indeed a wedding portrait, they believe this is intended to show that van Eyck was acting as a witness to the marriage.
The painting gives a feeling of domesticity. The couple are shown in what is possibly their bedroom with their belongings. Art historian James Snyder posits in his book Northern Renaissance Art that the left side of the room where Giovanni is standing represents business – the window showing the outside, the dirty shoes from walking through the streets. The right side of the room where the woman is standing represents the domestic – the bed, the chair, the broom. These two worlds are linked through the couple holding hands. But that’s merely one interpretation.
To give a different perspective to the painting, I’ll bring up another theory. There’s a Youtube channel I’m a big fan of called Great Art Explained. The creator has done a video on this painting and this is where I initially heard this theory. In doing research for this post, I’ve learned that others have a similar interpretation. This theory requires the couple to be the cousin Giovanni di Nicolao and his wife Constanza. Some people believe that Constanza had died prior to this painting, and that this is a posthumous representation of her – a memorial. The video’s creator also believes that the chandelier may support this theory. According to him, the fact that there is one candle burning on Giovanni’s side, yet the one on Constanza’s side is extinguished, could lend credence to this being a memorial portrait.
Beside Constanza, next to the broom, is a figure of St. Margaret on the back of a chair. St. Margaret is the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women. Did Constanza die in childbirth? The book Art seems to agree that Constanza had passed, and states: “In the underdrawing [initial drawing to sketch out the painting] Arnolfini grips his wife’s hand firmly–here it is slipping through his fingers just as Constanza did.” Is Giovanni, with his black clothing, portrayed in mourning dress? And although it looks like the woman might be pregnant, if you look closely she merely has the fabric of her gown bunched up near her stomach. It’s suggested that this was done to show the wealth of the couple being able to afford so much fabric. Or, that her body is depicted in an exaggerated fashion that was common at this time, which emphasized child bearing and fertility.
Nothing inside the room is there simply to fill space, or merely act as a background. Everything seems to have a meaning. In between the couple is a little dog. Dogs in art can often symbolize loyalty, faith or fidelity. They can also symbolize lust. Art also wonders if it could be a reference to dogs portrayed on funerary monuments. The oranges on the windowsil perhaps again symbolize wealth, as fruit such as this would have been costly as it needed to be imported. At only 82.2 x 60cm, the painting is not very large at all, yet is packed with detail. The Youtube video from Great Art Explained embedded above is excellent if you want to go through each item in the room and what it may symbolize. Something to note here, too, is that the room itself might not be a bedroom at all. Great Art Explained’s creator doesn’t think so. Nor does art historian H.W. Janson.
So, is this painting a wedding or betrothal portrait? Or could it be a memorial to a man’s wife that had died, perhaps during childbirth? We’ll never know the true answer, or fully understand the meaning that van Eyck intended. But the endless discussion and fascination that this painting has inspired keeps us talking hundreds of years later. Jan van Eyck is rightly regarded as one of the best painters of his time period. His attention to detail in this painting – and all his paintings – is incredible. Hopefully this inspires you to take a closer look at this painting, or check out more work from van Eyck and other Early Netherlandish painters.
To get a very detailed look at the intricacies of this painting, I highly recommend viewing it at the National Gallery website here, where you can enlarge it. You’re able to see all the fine details this way. The National Gallery in London, England is where the painting is currently housed. The entire website is well worth exploring if you have the time. You can take a few virtual tours through the galleries (where the picture above was taken), and learn about the 2,300 paintings in their collection.
Art: Over 2,500 works from Cave to Contemporary by Ross King
Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by Ian Chilvers
History of Art by H.W. Janson
The Oxford History of Western Art by Martin Kemp
Northern Renaissance Art by James Snyder
Great paintings : [the world’s masterpieces explored and explained]
National Gallery – The Arnolfini Portrait
Great Art Explained channel
Films available on Kanopy