When you
visit the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you can’t miss the painting by Jan van
Eyck; Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele.

Jan van
Eyck was one of the Early Netherlandish painters (Flemish Primitives). This
group of artists worked in the 15th and beginning of the 16th
century in flourishing cities as Bruges, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai and Brussels.
Some of the most known names were Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes,
Hans Memling, Dirk Bouts and Gerard David.
In those centuries the Southern part of the Netherlands was the centre of
economic and political power. With all those trading partners converging in
that area these artists soon made name and fame in all of Europe.

Jan van
Eyck introduced a style that was never seen before. With an unprecedented eye
for the tiniest detail, a perception-based view of the visual reality. It is
remarkable that the innovations of van Eyck run surprisingly similar with the
developments in Florentine paintings. There are a lot of speculations on the
ties between van Eyck and his Italian colleagues, but tangible proof is still
missing.

Portrait of a man (supposed self-portrait)

Jan van
Eyck is also the personification of the transition from an anonymous, modest
painter to an educated, self-aware and famous individual. He put his signature
and a date on many of works, on the frame or hidden in the painting. His motto
“Als ich can” (roughly translated to “If I can”) is found on several frames.
All this points to the fact he was proud and aware of his standing and
craftsmanship, an attitude that will become typical for the artists of the
renaissance.

Where Jan
van Eyck was born is uncertain. The family name could refer to the Belgian city
Maaseik. And it’s generally accepted that this could indeed be the birthplace
of little Jan. Some documents dating from the 16th century confirm
this assumption.

However the
Township of Arendonk has also strong arguments in which it claims to be the
birthplace of little Jan. Art-historical the exact birthplace or origin of a
painter was less important. Less important than the place where he learned his
profession. And when I look at the statements this Township makes, they could
be right.
In the Altarpiece of Ghent (Lam Gods) there is a prophet kneeling (centre
panel) with an open book. The text reads: “Iste
erat electus alios eligi nec licet testis deest et eis esto testis est igitur
Jan van der Moelnere ex Arendonca civitate
”. This handwritten text by Jan
van Eyck names the nickname Van der Moelen. This name that be found in the town
documents of Arendonk, next to the signature of Jan van Eyck…

Also when
Jan van Eyck was born is controversial. There are no authenticated sources that
can verify anything. So everything is done through interpretations of the
documented events during the life of Jan van Eyck. There is a document that
states that Hubert – the brother of Jan – was born around 1366 and that Jan was
considerably younger. Today the year 1390 is the most accepted date of birth
for little Jan.

The first
documents telling us where Jan van Eyck was, date back to 1422. Then he was
already named a “Master”, had one assistant and worked for Jan van Beieren,
Duke of Holland and living in Den Haag (The Hague). When Jan van Beieren died
in 1425, Jan van Eyck moved to Bruges. Documents tell us that on May 19th
1425 Jan van Eyck was the court painter of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (grandfather
of Mary of Burgundy, whom I mention several times during my walk).

In August
of 1426 Jan van Eyck is paid for two trips in order of Philip the Good. The
first is a pilgrimage he makes in the place of the Duke. The second trip
however is classified as a “secret mission”, bringing the artist to “distant
countries”. Nothing more is mentioned in the documents found. It is suspected
that Jan van Eyck travels to the Holy Land, passing Italy and further on to the
Ottoman Empire.

Jan stayed
in Tournai from 1427 until 1432. On May 6th 1432 the Altarpiece of
Ghent is ready. The son of Philips the Good and Isabella of Portugal, Joos van
Gent is baptised there on that day. Unfortunately shortly after, in 1434, Joos
van Gent dies. It is also in 1432 Jan van Eyck settled permanently in Bruges.
His house and workshop was in the Gouden Handstraat 6.

In 1434 he
paints the Arnolfini Portrait and it’s assumed he receives the order for Virgin
and Child with Canon van der Paele, that he finishes in 1436.
In 1436 he goes on another “secret mission” for the Duke of Burgundy. He must
have been a type of James Bond!
In the years that follow he makes more works. One thing I found strange… Next
to a couple of secret missions I also found a payment for “some panels and
other secret objects” in 1440. He really was a spy, I think.

Jan van
Eyck died on July 9th 1441 and was buried on St Donathian’s
Cathedral cemetery. In 1442 the body was moved to the choir inside the
cathedral.

With
bringing name and fame to Bruges, it is safe to say Jan van Eyck was one of our
most important painters ever.

Today, his
works can be found all over the world. In Belgium there are two works in
Bruges, two in Antwerp and the Altarpiece in Ghent. But in Berlin, Dresden,
Frankfurt, Vienna, Rotterdam, Paris, Madrid, London, Turin, Sibiu, New York,
Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington you can admire his works. Except for
Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and London I haven’t seen other works. Have you noticed
them and did you know it was a Flemish artist you were looking at?

I’ll be telling you more about a couple of his works, as the symbolism is sometimes really fun!