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April 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1405

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution. Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

Reviewed by Lorne Campbell

Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

1st February–30th April

by Lorne Campbell

This instructive, enjoyable and excellently organised exhibition is a unique opportunity to see at eye level ten panels from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck: the eight panels that are visible when the altarpiece is closed, which underwent conservation treatment by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIKIRPA) between 2012 and 2016;(1) and the Adam and Eve, which are the two outer panels of the upper register of the opened altarpiece. The last have not yet been cleaned but will be treated during the next phase of conservation, starting in 2021, together with the other panels of the top tier of the open polyptych. The cleaned panels of the lower register of the open polyptych are back in their glass box in the cathedral, together with the untreated panels of the upper register (Adam and Eve are currently replaced by full-size black-and-white photographs). The panels of the lower register, particularly the centre panel, the Adoration of the Lamb, are transformed. At last we are able to see what Hubert and Jan actually painted, freed from centuries of overpainting.

The panels in the exhibition are displayed in sets of two; each set is the focus of a themed section. Shown alongside them are five of the nine extant paintings signed by Jan van Eyck and three paintings that can be attributed with confidence to him. The exhibition is staged over thirteen rooms. The first six are used for introductory material, including a video presentation in room four. The second gallery shows a tapestry of the Passion of Christ (c.1445–55; Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels),(2) Flémallesque rather than Eyckian in style, and six documents concerning Hubert and Jan van Eyck. In gallery three are a painted view of Ghent dated 1534 (Stadsmuseum (STAM), Ghent) and pictures, manuscripts and objects that evoke life in fifteenth-century Ghent and at the Burgundian court. In room five are eight of Michiel Coxcie’s copies of panels from the interior of the Ghent Altarpiece, including his version of the stolen Just judges (1556–59; Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels), together with other paintings, a manuscript, a print and some printed books that refer to the brothers Van Eyck and their great altarpiece. In room six objects similar to items depicted in Eyckian paintings are displayed; relevant slides of details are projected on one wall.

The exhibition proper occupies galleries seven to thirteen. In gallery seven, part of which is focused on ‘Original Sin and Salvation’, visitors confront dramatically Adam (Fig.1) and Eve. The opportunity provided for close inspection reveals that the head of Adam, for example, has probably not been much altered by overpainting during the sixteenth and later centuries; his apron of leaves, however, like Eve’s, was surely extended by later ‘improvers’. Adam’s face, hair, beard, hands and body hair are rendered in extraordinary detail, whereas other areas are less carefully painted. As cleaning progresses, it will be interesting to discover whether the contours of Adam and Eve are as radically abstracted by straightening the lines and simplifying the arcs as the macrophotographs and infra-red reflectograms available on the ‘Closer to Van Eyck’ website suggest.(3) The copyist who produced the unattractive and free versions lent by the Real Sociedad Económica Aragonesa, Saragossa, was clearly worried by such simplifications and, very mistakenly, tried to improve on the originals.

Also in this room are two Eyckian paintings of the Crucifixion (c.1445; Ca’ d’Oro, Venice; and c.1430; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) as well as a drawing of the same subject (c.1445; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam) by Jan van Eyck and workshop and a painting of the Three Marys at the sepulchre by the workshop of Jan van Eyck (c.1440; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen). The visitor can compare the cityscapes of Jerusalem in the Passion scenes with the wonderful townscape below the Erythraean Sibyl in the Ghent Altarpiece. The section of the Virgin’s chamber below the Cumaean Sibyl, which introduces the subject of interiors, can be contrasted with St Jerome in his study by the workshop of Jan van Eyck (c.1442; Detroit Institute of Arts).

The next gallery, devoted to ‘Saints in Landscapes’, centres on Jan’s signed St Barbara (1437; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). In gallery nine are the signed Virgin and Child at the fountain (1439; Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) and its slightly larger replica (private collection), ascribed here unconvincingly to ‘Jan van Eyck and workshop, c.1440’ but more probably the work of a slightly later copyist. With them are a related drawing (c.1510; Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin) attributed to Gerard David, related miniatures in two very different manuscripts and an anonymous painting, Virgin and Child in a niche (c.1500; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

In gallery ten the panels of Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate with prophets from the Ghent Altarpiece face Jan’s Annunciation (c.1430–35) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington. In gallery eleven the Ghent Altarpiece’s panels of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, painted to imitate sculpture, are shown close to the Annunciation (c.1435) from the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, alongside three alabaster apostles by the Master of Rimini (c.1430; Liebieghaus, Frankfurt), displayed against and reflected in a block of polished black marble. On the same wall are the twelve drawings of the apostles by the workshop of Jan van Eyck from the Albertina, Vienna (c.1440), which are strangely disparate in style, while on the facing wall are drawn and painted copies (c.1510–15; Musée Grand Curtius, Liège; and Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome) of the Virgin in a church (Gemäldegalerie), which could not travel, and a version of the lost Maelbeke Virgin (1600–50; Groeningemuseum, Bruges). The latter hangs opposite a case containing the two early drawn copies (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg; and Albertina).

In another case in this room is the Turin-Milan Hours (c.1420 or c.1435; Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin), which contains miniatures by ‘Hand G’, an artist close to the Van Eycks. When this reviewer visited the exhibition the miniature on show was the Birth of the Baptist, with its wonderful initial and bas-de-page showing the baptism of Christ in a panoramic river landscape; since mid-March the Requiem Mass has been displayed.

Room twelve contains the most sensational display. Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut, the two donor portraits from the Ghent Altarpiece, are shown alongside Jan’s signed Portrait of a man (‘Leal Souvenir’) (Fig.2), cleaned for the occasion and much improved in appearance and his signed Jan de Leeuw (1436; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). When this reviewer saw the exhibition, these paintings were accompanied by Jan’s signed portrait of his wife, Margaret (1439; Groenigemuseum). This has now returned to Bruges for the exhibition Van Eyck in Bruges in the Groeningemuseum, which opened on 12th March. Its place in the Ghent exhibition has been taken by a donor portrait by a follower of Jan (c.1430–40; Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig). Also in this gallery are another portrait by Jan, Baudouin de Lannoy (c.1435; Gemäldegalerie), cleaned for the exhibition, and the problematic man with a blue hood (c.1430), often attributed to Jan himself, but more probably the work of a highly skilled follower, from the Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu.

This last gallery, devoted to ‘The Divine Portrait’, centres on the copy in the Groenigemuseum of one of Jan’s lost Heads of Christ. This cannot hold its own against the Man of Sorrows by Petrus Christus (c.1450; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery), which, although very small, is much the most impressive picture in the room. Also in this gallery is a drawing (Fig.4) of Jan’s lost portrait of Isabella of Portugal, painted in January 1429. To this reviewer’s knowledge, the drawing has never before been exhibited outside Lisbon and is sometimes dismissed as an invention.(4) Although the themes chosen for the exhibition would not have allowed it, it would have been interesting to see the drawing together with the Leal Souvenir, the portrait of Joos Vijd and the Cumaean Sibyl from the altarpiece (Fig.3). The Sibyl’s clothes resemble those of Isabella; both their round hats would have been recognised by contemporaries as distinctively Portuguese – Mathieu d’Escouchy, describing the Feast of the Pheasant at Lille in 1454, observed twelve ladies acting the parts of the twelve Virtues, each of whom wore ‘a round hat in the Portuguese fashion’ (‘un atour tout ront, à la fachon de Portingal’).(5) Cumae is near Naples, not Lisbon, and it is unclear why the sibyl is dressed in Portuguese attire.

Stephan Kemperdick has examined the connections between the portrait of Isabella, the portrait of Joos Vijd and the Leal Souvenir.(6) Jan painted Isabella in January 1429, and the other paintings were completed on 6th May 1432 and 10th October 1432 respectively. The copyist of Isabella’s portrait (who may have been reproducing an earlier copy of the original) was not a good draughtsman. He seems to have misplaced Isabella’s near eye, which is too low and too far from her nose. Nonetheless, his copy can be taken as relatively accurate and demonstrates that Jan did not apply to Isabella the distortions with which he depicted the man in the Leal Souvenir, and indeed the subjects of all his other portraits, who have narrow shoulders and short arms. Knowing that the portrait was to be inspected by Philip the Good, Isabella’s prospective husband, Jan may have been afraid that, unless he described her with complete accuracy, Philip might think her malformed.

Dispersed through the last galleries are statues, including two from the west portal of the collegiate church of St Peter and St Guy, Anderlecht (c.1440), and nine Italian paintings, most of which look decidedly and uncomfortably out of place in the presence of work by Van Eyck and his most gifted imitators. Domenico Veneziano’s Annunciation, from the predella of the altarpiece he painted for S. Lucia de’ Magnoli, Florence (c.1442–48; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), makes abundantly clear the differences between the interests and ambitions of the Netherlanders and the most progressive Italians, intent on using mathematical perspective and accurate rendering of scale to reproduce a measured and simplified version of reality. In the volume of essays that accompanies the exhibition Paula Nuttall discusses the manifold distinctions clearly and elegantly, with reference to works that could not be included in the exhibition.(7) The Italian connections are confused by the fact that the labels and wall texts fail to explain that the Master of Rimini was not Italian but came from Northern Europe (probably the Low Countries) and that the painter Stefano da Verona, to whom is attributed Madonna of the Rose Garden (c.1420; Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona), was the son of Jean d’Arbois, one of the Burgundian court painters.

Most regrettably, there is no catalogue. A list of exhibits is given in the well-illustrated and informative exhibition guide, although the English translation is sometimes awkward.(8) The large and heavy book of essays is handsomely illustrated and includes colour reproductions of the principal exhibits. Dimensions are given in the list of illustrations but not in the captions. The erudite, informative and readable essays are by a formidable team of scholars. Among them, Maximiliaan Martens, Astrid Harth, Frederica van Dam, Matthias Depoorter and Hélène Dubois discuss the ‘optical revolution’ of the exhibition title and stress the erudition of Jan van Eyck. They give more space to his possible intellectual interests than to his probable artistic sources – it is indicative that Pliny has thirteen citations in the index, Fazio twenty-five and Apelles ten, whereas the most admired of Jan’s predecessors, Jean Bondol, Melchior Broederlam and Henri Bellechose, have two, five and one respectively.

Of course, all the authors agree that Jan did not invent oil painting; but there is a suggestion that he brought the technique, fairly suddenly, to an unprecedented level of perfection. Jan’s unsurpassed mastery of the oil technique, which presumably involved a prodigious knowledge of pigments, oils, resins, siccatives and thinners, must have been founded upon the experience of many generations of artists. The retable of about 1270 in Westminster Abbey, London, incorporates sophisticated painting executed in linseed oil some 150 years before Hubert and Jan van Eyck began their careers. Pol de Limbourg and his brothers were working on the Très Riches Heures (Musée Condé, Chantilly) of the duc de Berry in 1416, when they and the duke all died; by then, the brothers Limbourg had achieved an astonishing perfection of draughtsmanship and delicacy in rendering tonal transitions. The brothers Van Eyck could have been acquainted with many interrelated artistic traditions.

There is a persistent belief that Jan was a faithful copyist of nature. Having developed unequalled powers of observation and unmatched skills in reproducing nature in a completely convincing way, he seems to have concluded that he could distort natural appearances for his own purposes. As mentioned above, he gives the sitters in his portraits narrow shoulders and short arms. His humans are often far too big for their surroundings and he depicts people and angels on several different scales. In the Ghent Annunciation, Gabriel and the Virgin are contained under an extremely low ceiling, placed there to support the prophets and sibyls, who are half the size of the angel and the Virgin. They are smaller than the statues of the two Sts John, themselves rather smaller than the donors, who are slightly less than life-size.(9) The large-faced, narrow shouldered Ghent donors are cramped into their narrow niches, which are barely plausible spaces for them to occupy. At the same time, Jan introduced hardly noticeable spiders’ webs spun across the visible corners of both niches.(10) At once extravagant in his efforts to introduce credible details and highly economical in all other parts of his pictures, he painted spontaneously and at great speed, with delight and with verve. The work of his imitators, even the most accomplished among them, looks laboured in comparison. Although it is relatively easy to distinguish Jan’s work from that of his followers, it is less easy to classify their productions, especially when they are painting pastiches based on Jan’s works. The exhibition provides an unrepeatable opportunity to make such classifications; but, much more importantly, it offers a unique chance to observe carefully and at close quarters the genius of Jan van Eyck.

1. For the restoration, see H. Dubois: ‘The Art of Conservation XV. The conservation history of the Ghent Altarpiece’, THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE, 160 (2018), pp.754–65.

2. The dates and attributions given in this review are those assigned by the curators of the exhibition.

3. ‘Closer to Van Eyck’,, accessed 5th March 2020.

4. The drawing was discovered by the French art historian Louis Dimier (1865–1943), who bought it, apparently early in 1921, ‘chez Parsons’, 45 Brompton Road, London, a business that had been inherited by the brothers Henry Edwin George Parsons and Frederick John Parsons; see L. Dimier: ‘Les Primitifs français, V, Règnes de Charles VII et de Louis XI’, Gazette des beaux-arts 6, no.20 (1938), pp.81–102, at p.94. It was purchased in 1992 for the Lisbon archive from the dealer Vasco Teles da Gama. E. Dhanens: Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Antwerp 1980, p.133, did not believe that the drawing was a copy after Jan’s lost portrait; but compare K. Bauch: ‘Bildnisse des Jan van Eyck (1961)’, in idem: Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, Berlin 1967, pp.79–122; C. Sterling: ‘Jan van Eyck avant 1432’, Revue de l’art, 33 (1976), pp.7–82, at pp.33–34; B. Fransen: ‘Jan van Eyck and the portraiture of his predecessors’, in S. Kemperdick and F. Lammertse, eds: exh. cat. The Road to Van Eyck, Rotterdam (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen) 2012, pp.76–79.

5. G. du Fresne de Beaucourt, ed.: Chronique de Mathieu d’Escouchy (Société de l’Histoire de France), Paris 1863–64, II, p.226; repeated in H. Beaune and J.-J. Maulbon d’Arbaumont, eds: Mémoires d’Olivier de La Marche (Société de l’Histoire de France), Paris 1883–88, II, p.372.

6. S. Kemperdick: ‘Early texts on some portraits by Jan van Eyck’, in C. Currie et al., eds: Van Eyck Studies, Papers Presented at the Eighteenth Symposium for the Study of Underdrawing and Technology in Painting, Brussels, 19–21 September 2012, Paris, Leuven and Bristol CT 2017, pp.310–24, at pp.310–13.

7. M. Martens, T.-H. Borchert, J. Dumolyn, J. De Smet and F. Van Dam, eds: Van Eyck, An Optical Revolution, Veurne and Ghent 2020.

8. Exhibition guide: M. Depoorter and L. Van Den Abeele: Van Eyck, An Optical Revolution. 112 pp. with numerous col. ills. (Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, 2020), €15. ISBN 9–7890–829713–8.

9. M. Postec and G. Steyaert: ‘The Van Eycks’ creative process. The paintings from (under)drawing to the final touch in paint’, in B. Fransen and C. Stroo, eds: The Ghent Altarpiece, Research and Conservation of the Exterior (Contributions to the Study of the Flemish Primitives, CSFP 14), Brussels 2020, pp.194–247, at p.234.

10. Ibid. p.238.