This autumn in the northern hemisphere the painting known as The Arnolfini Portrait by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck 1390-1441) will be on display in London at the National Gallery 2 October 2017 – 2 April 2018, alongside works by a nineteenth century group of English painters known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites will be displaying works connecting art and life across the centuries, including those catering to the ‘preferences and visionary vanities of half a dozen boys’, men who blew the nineteenth century art world in England apart.
Promising painters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais met at the Royal Academy School at London where hearing them criticise the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael’s Transfiguration another student commented “… then you are pre-Raphaelites”.
Laughingly they agreed and when the dashing Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) introduced himself to William Holman Hunt a triumvirate was formed. With the addition of William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner in 1848 they formed the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood and their legion of admirers and followers fuelled their rise to fame.
Pre-Raphaelite paintings with their meticulous attention to detail, glorious crystalline colours not only defined one of the most distinctive moments in English art history, but also today appeal to this generation’s ‘romantic ideals’.
Some of the popularity attached to the ‘Brotherhood’ may also be due to the very likeable English actor Aidan Turner (Poldark), who appeared as Rossetti in 2009 in a BBC television series called Desperate Romantics about the Brotherhood, helping to expand their ‘rock star status’.
The Arnolfini Portrait arrived at the National Gallery in 1842 a rare example of Early Netherlandish painting. Today it remains the only UK public collection holding works by Jan van Eyck, who has almost gained ‘rock star status of his own. His works were like a mirror of the visible world and very different to that of his colleagues in his day.
If we want to understand the way in which northern art developed we must appreciate the infinite care and patience of van Eyck, whose motto “Als Ich Kanne” I do what I can buys into his whole emphasis of bringing unprecedented realism to late medieval art.
During van Eyck’s age flattery became recognised as a deceptive illusion, and this was all bound up with vanity at a time when it was considered far better to please someone than alienate someone in a social setting.
The true sin of Narcissus studying and falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of crystal clear water in Greek mythology, lay in the preference he granted to his own singularity in a society where personal expression reflected power and glory.
How someone was presented became of major concern in society and in art with painting and literacy sharing an objective for that of increasing the value of an image.
The lover who wanted to please his lady could offer her a small painted portrait or a mirror set in a medallion. Nobles vied to have their portrait painted … ‘according to how they seemed and not how they were’.
Paintings during van Eyck’s time mainly served two functions, one decorative and one meant to issue a moral lesson using symbolism to reinforce ideas put forward in the literature of the period.
At the time Mirrors were fascinating and rare objects and through their lens from that time to this the material world worked its way well into our consciousness.
The Mirror affected the way in which we perceive others, as well as ourselves, accompanying the human quest to know and understand our identity.
Symbolically the mirror is a symbol of truth – it does not lie and it reflects pride – Satan’s image – while representing vanity and lust.
Van Eyck’s greatest triumph was in his painting of portraits placing them in a setting where light and shade merge imperceptibly and harsher contours are softened to unify the figure and its ambient atmosphere. They sent a powerful message to the viewer about the affluence of the middle class merchant of his day; those who would be able commission such paintings would value them as objects of prestige.
It was 1434 when Italian merchant Giovanni Arnolfini went to the Netherlands on business with his beloved Jeanne de Chenany.
Jan Van Eyck was 44 at the time and there was a vigorous demand for his work.He was commissioned to record the visitors and their betrothal, the convex mirror on the back wall reflecting the scene from behind, including the painter as a witness.
Van Eyck involved the viewer in the construction and meaning, completely astonishing the commentators of his day, and since, including The Pre Raphaelites who were in awe of his achievement hundreds of years later.
Involving the viewer directly, the convex mirror was placed at the centre of the composition and just like the eye of God over the world, van Eyck the artist was able to see what the spectator is unable to see.
The Pre Raphaelite brothers particularly admired his ability to render light effectively, reflecting it off varied and different textured surfaces.
Co-curated by Susan Foister Deputy Director and Curator of Early Netherlandish, German, and British Paintings at the National Gallery and Alison Smith, Lead Curator of British Art to 1900 at Tate, the exhibition will show off a wide range of exhibits from public and private collections including Rossetti’s ‘convex mirror’.
The Pre Raphaelites adapted the mirror as a device to explore and convey a complex psychological drama. It became part of the artist’s process of creation in which through his art, he or she is placed in a discrete but central role as a witness.
The “re-Raphaelites” work is marked by great beauty and a fondness for Greek and Arthurian legend passionately rendered, the craftsmanship superb as canvas after canvas was filled with allusion and symbolic implications.
The aspirations of the new generation in second half of the nineteenth century in England were very different from that of their parents, looking with distaste at much they had taken for granted. Their views were less dogmatic, manners smoother, their prose lighter and their morals easier.
Many of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s paintings featured female figures in interior scenes that incorporated the mirror as a device. Holman Hunt’s ‘Awakening Conscience’ (1853, Tate) ‘depicts a woman and her lover – using a mirror to reflect a view out of the window, an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from a life of shame’.
Paintings where the heroine is cursed to look upon the outside world through a mirror have interpretations by Hunt (about 1886–1905, Manchester City Art Galleries), John William Waterhouse (1894, Leeds Art Gallery), and Elizabeth Siddall (1853, The Maas Gallery, London) featured along with Rossetti’s ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ (1860–1, Tate) and Holman Hunt’s ‘Il Dolce far Niente’ (1866, Private Collection).
The Arthurian legend of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ thanks to the poem of the same title by Alfred, Lord Tennyson captured the public and brotherhood’s imagination. Other symbols appropriated from the Arnolfini portrait include a pair of pointed slippers; Hunt’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1886–1905, Manchester City Art Galleries); the hanging bed drapery and oranges in William Morris’s ‘La Belle Iseult’ (1858, Tate).
The hangings embroidered by his daughter May with Lucy Yeats for the bed at Kelmscott Manor were designed by Morris a teacher, campaigner and controversialist, who in the early 1850s championed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
All his life Morris tried to recreate the idyllic, almost medieval life; self sufficient, financially secure, practical in close contact with nature. Recent research has established the picture is intended to represent Iseult mourning Tristram’s exile from the court of King Mark, posed by Jane Burden who became his wife in April 1859.
Director of the National Gallery, Gabriele Finaldi says: “Van Eyck’s ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ had a mesmerising effect on the young Pre-Raphaelites who fascinated by its truth to nature and its elegant symbolism, brought about a revolution in British painting.”
While they lasted The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood enjoyed a glorious interlude that faded by the 1860’s, only to be taken forward by disciples and admirers of their achievements, including the very popular John Williams Waterhouse (1849-1917).
Waterhouse spent his early life in Italy, where history had an impact on his themes as well as those of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who were causing a stir on the London art scene the year he was born.
So with this earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea
Finally the popular movement more or less perished, as did so much of life and society, in the flames of World War I and World War II. However there are many who would not let them rest, and since the 1960’s The Pre Raphaelites have again captivated the public imagination.
Mastering reflection was a beginning that ended in the triumph of photography, climaxing with the ‘democratisation of narcissism.’* Sweet mirror, invented in order to know what our own gaze is unable to see…
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017