The Flemish painters Hubert (died 1426) and Jan (ca. 1390-1441) van Eyck were the founders of the early Netherlandish school of painting.
In the third decade of the 15th century an elaborate technique of painting in oil glazes on wooden panels emerged and was perfected in the Low Countries. Although ultimately the brothers Van Eyck cannot be credited with its discovery, they were the acknowledged leaders of this new practice. The brilliant coloration, luminous surfaces, and detailed precision of their paintings remain to this day one of the greatest achievements of Western art.
The birth dates of Hubert and Jan van Eyck are unknown, but it is generally held that Hubert was the elder and Jan was born about 1390. According to a 16th-century tradition, their place of birth was Maaseyck near Maastricht in the province of Limburg.
Jan is first heard of between 1422 and 1425 at The Hague, where he held the title of peintre et varlet de chambre to John, Count of Bavaria-Holland. The general background and early training of the two artists, however, can only be surmised, as Jan already had apprentices when he arrived at The Hague. After the count's death Jan moved to Bruges, where on May 19, 1425, he assumed the title of peintre et varlet de chambre to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Jan retained this title until his death. He also served the duke as a kind of roving ambassador, traveling to Spain in 1427 in search of a bride for his employer and to Portugal in 1428. On the latter occasion Jan was successful in obtaining the hand of Isabella, the Infanta of Portugal, for Philip. Their marriage took place at Bruges on Jan. 7, 1430.
In 1432 Jan is recorded as owning a house in Bruges, and about this time he married Margaret, who bore him 10 children. Jan's great reputation during his lifetime is evidenced by numerous accounts and documents as well as a large gift that the Duke of Burgundy gave Margaret van Eyck on Jan's death.
Hubert van Eyck
While Jan van Eyck is the best-documented Flemish artist of the 15th century, there are so few records relating to Hubert that some art historians have strongly doubted his very existence. Moreover, not a single painting survives that can be attributed without question to Hubert. Indeed, but for the evidence of a quatrain painted on the frame of the famous Ghent Altarpiece, it is unlikely that his identity would have survived his own time. In translation the verse reads: "The painter Hubert van Eyck, greater than whom none was to be found, began this work and Jan, his brother—second in art—having carried through the task at the expense of Judocus Vyd, invites you by this verse to look at what has been done, 1432."
Although the question has not been laid completely to rest, most authorities today accept the authenticity of the inscription. In the opinion of Erwin Panofsky and others, the hand of Hubert is discernible on parts of the interior wings of the altarpiece. According to this view, Hubert's style, as seen, for example, in the high-horizoned landscape of the central panel, is far less progressive than Jan's.
Despite several attempts to attribute paintings to Hubert, none has met with any substantial measure of acceptance. The work scholars most generally agree upon, however, is an Annunciation in New York that is sufficiently archaic in its conception and treatment to merit a date in the first quarter of the 15th century.
Jan van Eyck
Among the surviving works of Jan van Eyck, the earliest is probably the diminutive Virgin in a Church in Berlin (ca. 1425). Although the treatment of the figures of the Virgin and Child is relatively conservative, the conception of architectural space, filled with a softly diffused and atmospheric light, is totally new. A similar handling of a warmly lighted interior space can be seen in the Annunciation in Washington (ca. 1428), but in addition there is a new feeling for weight and volume in the figures of the Virgin and the angel Gabriel. Also present is a strong sense of the tangible reality of objects, each of which is invested with sacred and supernatural meaning. This type of "disguised symbolism" partially derives from the somewhat earlier works of Robert Campin (the Master of Flémalle), but Jan raised it to a new level of consistency and meaning.
The Ince Hall Madonna (1433) is the first independent panel among a dozen surviving signed and dated works. It also contains the inscription of Jan's personal motto, Als ick kan ("As best I can"), an indication of the painter's great self-esteem as well as his somewhat princely aspirations. Like almost all of Jan's paintings, this work is a landmark of Western art for the numerous innovations in style and technique.
From approximately the same period is the unsigned Madonna with Chancellor Nicholas Rolin. A work of extraordinary clarity and precision, it shows the shrewd and powerful chancellor of Burgundy kneeling at prayer before the Virgin and Child. Every detail of the landscape and architectural setting is rendered with such exactitude that these sacred events have become profoundly real. The painter's use of bright primary hues overlaid with numerous transparent glazes enlivens the entire surface of the painting, which glows with the intensity of a precious jewel.
The famous double portrait Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife is signed and dated 1434. This brilliant panel, as Panofsky has shown, functioned both as a portrait and a legal document to commemorate the sacrament of marriage between an Italian banker and his wife. The strong piety and intense spirituality of this painting are characteristic of the mature phase of Jan's art. At the same time the painter's feeling for space, lighting, and plastic form reaches new heights of actualization. A further tendency toward monumentality and static immobility can also be witnessed in this panel.
These stylistic qualities attained their finest expression in the Madonna of Canon George van der Paele with Saints Donatien and George. Of all Jan's surviving works, this brilliant panel (1434-1436) most fully realizes the painter's twin goals of pictorial richness and spiritual grandeur.
Only a few paintings are known from Jan's last years. The Lucca Madonna can probably be dated after 1436; the strangely archaic Virgin at the Fountain is signed and dated 1439. With only minor variations both works retain the formal beauty and compositional balance of Jan's mature style.
As a portraitist, Jan van Eyck has few rivals among northern painters. His keen and objective vision, in combination with an intuitive reserve, endows his subjects with both individuality and dignity. The portrait Tymotheos, which is thought to represent Philip the Good's court musician Gilles Binchois, is signed and dated Oct. 10, 1432. With characteristic Eyckian precision, the sitter is depicted in a dense spatial ambient from which he emerges through a boldly directed use of lighting.
In the Man in a Red Turban (1433), which is probably a self-portrait, the penetrating glance of the eyes involves the spectator more directly with the sitter. Through this remarkable innovation Jan was able to achieve the result, so aptly described by one writer, that "it is the viewer that is the observed, not the observer."
With the single exception of Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck was the most influential Flemish painter of the 15th century. The technical brilliance and formal balance of his style served as a model to generations of painters (including Rogier) both north and south of the Alps.
Further Reading on Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Since the rediscovery of the Van Eycks in the 19th century, many studies of them have appeared. The most complete work in English is Ludwig von Baldass, Jan van Eyck (1952); it contains a thorough catalog of the works as well as a full bibliography up to 1952. For the most authoritative survey of the Van Eyck problem as well as a brilliant appreciation of their art see the relevant chapters in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (1953). C.D. Cuttler, Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel (1968), is a recent excellent summary.