What is Art? Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 18 May 2017

What is Art?

The famous genius of realism in Northern Europe during the Renaissance was Jan van Eyck, who is a Flemish artist who was extremely successful in the area of using precise detailing and vivid lively colors. Van Eyck’s artwork and masterpieces were created in oil, usually on wood. As a painting technique, oil was used to better achieve exquisite effects of elements like light and color, rather than the method of using frescoes, which was used the Florentines at the time. Van Eyck succeeded as an artist who created portrays for people like nobles and merchants.

Much like the Italians, most of the time he would integrate the faces of his patrons in the painting, putting them into scenes of religious significance. In the year of 1434, van Eyck was commissioned to create a painting for a couple. This famous painting is known as Arnolfini and His Bride. It is painted with tempera and oil on a panel. Hence the title of the painting, this is very much a representational painting that represents the wedding of this couple. Actually, it is more like a portrait that serves as a pictorial wedding certificate.

Not only does it show the couple, but it also shows great details of the matrimony, as well as symbols that implicate fertility and fidelity. Van Eyck’s incredible work of art, Arnolfini and His Bride, in its own little way can be compared to as new and revolutionary as the works of the Italian Renaissance artists Donatello and Masaccio. A quiet and plain corner of the physical real world now has the ability to be placed onto a panel, as if it were pure magic. By using various visual elements in his painting, Van Eyck is able to tell the audience of not only what is going on in the painting, but what is going on in society at the time.

He cleverly beautifies the nature of Arnolfini and His Bride by painting each an every detail and object, making it stand out and taking on its own life. One can see the great texture and detail on the clothing of the couple, which creates so much realism, bringing the figures to life. It is amzing how he uses chiaroscuro on the clothing to show the grooves and the folds. Using the element of light, van Eyck is able to portray a main source of light coming in through the window panel shown on the left side, which reflects off of certain surfaces and objects.

Van Eyck also makes use of complementary colors (red and green). Due to the fact that these two colors are opposite to each other, they seem to appear exceptionally lively when they are used together. He paints the bride in a green outfit and paints the furniture and the bed red. By placing the two colors side by side, he is able to make each color appear louder and more noticeable. Although the painting does not show a lot of motion going on, it still captures the viewer’s attention. It is clear to see that there is a certain balance, harmony, and unity that is present in the painting.

The first thing the viewer would probably look at is right at the center of the painting. First, the hands of the couple, then, slowly moving up, the peculiar mirror that is placed on the back wall. I think that the placement of the mirror and the chandelier shown right above it, along with the center of the painting where the couple’s hands are together, is quite significant. By doing this, is seems that van Eyck has an imaginary line in the center of the painting. If the viewer really pays attention, there is a very interesting thing that van Eyck has done to his painting.

If you cover up one side of the painting (bride’s side), the half where Arnolfini is standing is painted with very dark colors and hue, mainly black and brown. If you do the exact opposite and cover the side where Arnolfini is standing, you will be able to see very bright, brilliant, and lively colors such as green, red, white, and a little bit of blue on the bride’s sleeve. Van Eyck painted a masterpiece with a surface that almost seems like it is reflective. The intensity of the colors allow for the viewers to capture the essence of realism and to be able to enter into Arnolfini’s world, even if it was for one second.

The painter also used exquisite varieties of of lighting and shading to increase the illusion of three dimensionality. By using different visual elements in Arnolfini and His Bride, Van Eyck is able to offer the viewers a great amount of insight pf van Eyck’s extraordinary skills and the Flemish life in the fifteenth century. From the title of the painting, Arnolfini and His Bride, I think that it is pretty safe to say that the painting was some form of wedding certificate so show the marriage of this couple, Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride Giovanna Cenami.

Van Eyck ingeniuously surrounds the Italian merchant and his young bride with symbols that the depict their marriage. Each symbol is painted in a very precise and detailed manner than stuns viewers. Almost every single little detail in the painting has a meaning and is interepreted as a symbol. In other words, van Eyck captures countless iconographic characteristics in his painiting. This means that he uses a series of symbols that have a certain or specific meaning behind it. Each and every symbol serves as a purpose to tell or add to the story.

How the couple is placed in the painting is very significant. The bride is standing by the bed, which could represent the role of caretaking. Arnolfini is placed near the window panel, which could represent his role in the outside physical world. While Arnolfini seems to be looking at the viewer, his bride is looking at her husband almost in a very obedient manner. I think that this was used to depict gender roles. The fruits, oranges, could probably represent fertility or maybe even wealth and prosperity probably because only the wealthy could afford these kinds of fruits.

The clogs by Arnolfini’s feet could symbolize a certain kind of respect for the wedding ceremony that was going on and it could also show that the event happened on a holy ground. Like in many other paintings, when a dog is present, it probably refers to and depicts fidelity. I think the reason van Eyck chose green for the bride’s dress is to sybolize hope, probably of becoming a good wife and of becoming a good mother someday. The little veil-like cap on her head means purity. Behind the couple, the furniture, the bed and the opened curtains are of a bright red color.

This could serve as a reference to the union of the marriage, passion and love, and the consummation of the marriage. On the bedposts is a very tiny statue of St. Margaret, which is the saint of childbirth. On the statue, there is also a little brush that is hanging from it, that could mean cleanliness, or domestic work and care. On the other side is a rosary that is hanging, which shows faith and belief in Christianity. Above the Arnolfini’s, there is a single lit candle that is placed on a chandelier with seven branches. This alludes to the presence of God in the room.

It also could have easily been that this was a Flemish tradition, where a candle is exchanged during a holy matrimony. I think that the mirror serves many purposes in this painting. There is a mirror in the middle of the room that serves as a sense of perspective in the small room and it also serves as a vanishing point. The mirror is painted with so much precision and detail that it is completely breath-taking. There are ten very small medallions that portray the scenes from the Christ’s last hours, the Passion of the Christ.

However, even more breath-taking is the unbelievable reflection in the mirror. Van Eyck places himself present as a witness in the ceremony along with another person. He also signs the painting (right above the mirror) “Johannes de Eyck fuit hic. 1434. ” (which means “Jan van Eyck was here. 1434”). Seeing how the mirror is in a convex shape, I think that this suggests that it is the all-seeing eye of God that is present and there to watch the wedding. I personally think that Jan van Eyck is one of the most talented and influential artists of his time.

His use of lively colors and intricate sybolism intrigues me very much as a viewer. I think that van Eyck is able to suck the viewer into the room and into the painting with his magnificent talent. The whole painting, from top to bottom and left to right is so significant, in a way that it comes to life and is able to tell its own story. I think what makes his such a great artist and what distinguishes him from other artists in history is his pecision in details. It is truly amazing. His use of visual elements such as perspective, harmony, unity, balance, light, space, etc. makes the painting a whole.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 18 May 2017

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