Seventy odd years before Leonardo and Michelangelo did their thing, Jan van Eyck was doing stuff with paint you wouldn’t believe.

Van Eyck painted some of the most realistic paintings ever seen at the time. Take a look at the The Arnolfini Portrait painted in 1434.


This is one of his most famous works and the detail in it is excessive. Go to the National Gallery website and take a closer look:

  • Zoom in on the mirror looking back into the room and you will see the painter himself looking back at you.
  • Look at the tiny paintings around the mirror that seem to depict the Stations of the Cross.
  • How long did it take him to do the brush by the bed?
  • Did he really need to paint that second gargoyle below Arnolfini’s wife’s hand?

One thing’s for sure I’d have definitely booted that dog out of the way and saved myself a full day’s work.

To put his genius into prospective, in Italy for 50 years after The Arnolfini Portrait they were still doing things like this in churches:


Sorry Fra Angelico, it’s great but The Arnolfini Portrait is a massive leap away from the past. The reason the Van Eyck portrait is so different from Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is the new way in which Van Eyck used paint.

People have said he was the inventor of oil painting. I wish that was the case but E. H. Gombrich said he wasn’t so that’s that. Oil painting was used by the Indians and Chinese about a thousand years earlier but it was Van Eyck and his Flemish buddies in the North who made it popular and used it to its full potential.

Van Eyck’s realistic depiction of natural light and surface reflections was made possible by his use of oil medium. The drying time of oil can be controlled more effectively than other mediums, this allowed him time to use wet on wet techniques and build up the details in translucent layers.

If you want to know more about his painting technique have a look at this

There is no doubt that Van Eyck helped kick off the Renaissance with his fancy techniques and eye for detail. Once the Italians got the hang of it there was no going back.

Jan van Eyck
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