Died At Age: 51
Also Known As: Father of Oil Painting
Born Country: Belgium
Born in: Maaseik, Belgium
Famous as: Painter
Spouse/Ex-: Margaret van Eyck
siblings: Hubert, Lambert, Margareta
Died on: July 9, 1441
place of death: Bruges, Belgium
Who was Jan van Eyck?
Jan van Eyck was a Flemish painter who composed most of his works in Bruges in the first half of the 15th century. He is one of the pioneers of what later became the Early Netherlandish painting and one of the most important figures of Early Northern Renaissance Art. Fragmented records of his early life have survived, according to which he was originally from Maaseik, in today’s Belgium. Around 1422, he began working in the Hague. By that time, he had already established himself as a master painter with John III the Pitiless, ruler of Holland and Hainaut, as his patron. He then served in Lille as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In 1429, he relocated to Bruges, where he spent the remainder of his life. About 20 paintings ascribed to him have made it to the present day, along with the Ghent Altarpiece and the illuminated miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours. In his works, Van Eyck explored both secular and religious themes. Although his art originates from the International Gothic style, it did not take him long to overshadow it, partly due to his belief of giving more importance to naturalism and realism. Van Eyck was arguably the most prominent user of oil paint in the Renaissance Europe and influenced several Early Netherlandish painters with his technique and style.
Childhood & Early Life
Not much information is available about Jan van Eyck’s early life. Not even the date and place of his birth can be accurately ascertained. Not much is known about his parents either.
He was born sometime between 1390 and 1395, likely in Maaseik (then Maaseyck), and grew up with a sister, Margareta, and at least two brothers, Hubert and Lambert, both of whom were also painters.
Although the level of his education is a matter of debate, he knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew alphabets and utilized them in his inscriptions. This indicates that he was taught the classics, something which was quite rare among painters of the age.
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Service of John III the Pitiless
Van Eyck was employed by John of Bavaria-Straubing, ruler of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland, serving as a painter and valet de chambre. At some point before this, he had put together a small workshop and was part of the redecoration team of the Binnenhof palace in The Hague.
John passed away in 1425, and Van Eyck subsequently relocated to the city of Lille, where he joined the service of Philip the Good.
Patronage of Philip the Good
Duke Philip III of Burgundy did not have a permanent capital. Throughout his reign, he established his capital in various cities of his domain. When Van Eyck joined his service in 1425, Philip’s capital was in Lille. In 1429, it moved to Bruges, and Van Eyck moved with it.
His rise as a collectable painter more or less came after he received employment in Philip’s court. From this point onwards, the details of his life are much more readily available.
Philip made him a court artist and diplomat. Furthermore, he was selected to serve as a senior member of the Tournai painters' guild. On October 18, 1427, the Feast of St. Luke, he went to Tournai to take part in a banquet arranged in his honour, where Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden were also present.
Philip assigned to him a hefty stipend in order to give the painter financial stability and artistic freedom to paint “whenever he pleased”. In the ensuing decade, Van Eyck extended his popularity and technical skills predominantly through his unprecedented use of oil paint.
While the reputation of many of his peers receded over time, he continued to be a highly respected painter in the following centuries. Propagated by Giorgio Vasari, Van Eyck’s abilities with oil gave way to the myth that he was the first artist to oil paint.
His brother Hubert worked with him on the Ghent Altarpiece, a massive and complex polyptych altarpiece located in St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium. According to art historians, the painting was started by Hubert in 1420 and finished by Van Eyck in 1432.
During his lifetime, his artwork was hailed as revolutionary. His designs and methods were emulated and duplicated numerous times. The first appearance of his motto, ALS IK KAN ("AS I CAN"), a pun on his name, occurred in 1433 on ‘Portrait of a Man in a Turban,’ demonstrating his rising self-belief at this time. It is still one of the most recognizable signatures in the world of art.
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He created works like the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna and Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele between 1434 and 1436, marking that period as a high point of his career.
From 1426 to 1429, Jan van Eyck embarked on several journeys on his patron’s behalf. The nature of these travels is unknown, but they were mentioned in records as “secret” commissions. Philip used to pay several times his annual salary for these journeys, during which he probably served as the envoy of the court.
In 1426, he journeyed to the “certain distant lands”, likely the Holy Land. This notion is supported by the topographical accuracy of Jerusalem in ‘The Three Marys at the Tomb’, a 1440 painting finished by people working at his workshop.
In 1428, he embarked on a diplomatic mission to Portugal with the proposition of the union between Philip and Isabella of Portugal. He was told to paint the bride, so the Duke could see what she looked like before the wedding. The painting is now lost, but he likely employed his usual techniques of painting a portrait. He made all his subjects appear dignified, yet did not shy away from showing their imperfections.
Family & Personal Life
Jan van Eyck married Margaret, a woman who was significantly younger than him, likely around 1432. During this period, he purchased a house in Bruges. The couple had two children together, the first of whom was born in 1434.
Little to no information is available on Margaret. The scholars do not even know her maiden name. Van Eyck’s daughter’s name was Lievine; she entered into a nunnery in Maaseik following her father’s death.
Margaret was the subject of his 1439 oil on wood painting, named Portrait of Margaret van Eyck (or Margaret, the Artist's Wife). Noting the clothes in which her husband painted her, scholars speculate that she was from the lower nobility.
Death & Legacy
On July 9, 1441, Van Eyck passed away in Bruges and was laid to rest in the Church of St Donatian. Following his death, Philip gave Margaret a one-time remittance that was equivalent to the painter’s annual salary. The city of Bruges also allocated her a decent pension. At some point, at least a portion of this money was spent in lottery.
After Jan, his brother Lambert took over the workshop. In 1442, he moved Jan’s remains to St. Donatian's Cathedral.
Many of Jan’s works were incomplete and were later finished by his workshop journeymen.
In his 1454 work ‘De viris illustribus’, Genoese humanist Bartolomeo Facio provides a biography of Van Eyck. In it, Facio hails the other man as "the leading painter" of his day and lists him alongside Rogier van der Weyden, Gentile da Fabriano, and Pisanello as one of the foremost artists of the 15th century.