More details of all the illustrations, except for the first one, can be found on our own website. Click on them for larger images, sources and further comments. The first image (below right) is Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433 (© National Gallery, NG222, Sunley Room), kindly supplied by the gallery, like several of the others, for purposes of this review. — Jacqueline Banerjee
Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait (1454, National Gallery) entered the collection of the National Gallery in 1842. Having spent much of its then four hundred year history in private collections, the painting was put on public display in 1843 for the first time. The Times reported that in that year alone nearly half a million people had visited the painting. Interest spread partly through the British popular press which, via contemporary technology, was able to widely distribute woodcut prints of the painting, thereby making the image of The Arnolfini Portrait available to all. Additionally, and in this context more importantly, the students of the Royal Academy Schools had easy access to the painting for at that time the Academy Schools were in the east part of the National Gallery building. It was here that artists John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt, who were soon to become known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, saw the work.
The National Gallery's current exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites takes this nineteenth century interest in The Arnolfini Portrait and seeks to unpeel its impact and influence upon both the technical construction and the jewel-like colours of Pre-Raphaelitism from the 1840s through to the early twentieth century.
The exhibition has been co-curated by Alison Smith from the Tate and Susan Foister from the National Gallery. It is an intimate affair of forty-three paintings many of which are drawn from their respective collections. The Arnolfini Portrait hangs at the end of the main Sunley room and various works, including one or two letters, sketch book pages, press cuttings and photographs, are displayed. The premise for the show seems to follow on from recent scholarship, such as Jenny Graham's 2007 text Inventing van Eyck: The Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age and Claire Yearwood's 2014 thesis The Looking-Glass World: Mirrors in Pre-Raphaelite Painting 1850-1915 and although the catalogue doesn't mention G. P. Landow, the exhibition walks in the path of his ground-breaking 1979 book William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism.
The Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait presents a man and a woman who were members of the Arnolfini family. The man is probably Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who was living in Bruges in 1452, and it is likely that the woman is his second wife. The pale rather solemn-faced Giovanni wears a heavy fur tabard, which would originally have been purple but has now faded to a mix of dark red and blue tones. Upon his head is a black hat made of straw, and he wears pointed boots. His right hand is raised, in a manner which is somewhere between soothing and commanding. His left hand is extended out and he holds the lady's hand, whose palm rests upon his.
The lady is dressed in a bright green fur-trimmed gown which is looped up over her stomach, creating a decided suggestion of pregnancy. Her underdress is a beautiful blue and the sleeves appear to have had a diamond fold, which may have once been more pronounced. Her hair is fashionably plaited and made into two horns, with a white linen headdress over the rest of her hair. Her demeanour is gentler than Giovanni's although there is a pinch to her nose which suggests a level of character not born out by the submissive bow of her head.
The couple stand within a domestic interior, for this is a secular painting, one which is vastly different from the religious images that the National Gallery had up until that point been collecting. The domestic symbolism and the realism of the painting, as well as its pristine condition, excited the Victorians, as did its ambiguity. Is the scene a wedding or celebration of a couple and their impending offspring? The pregnant bump of the lady was something the Victorians commented upon, although we often now accept the style of dress as being a fashionable one, albeit one which evokes the idea of fertility. However, in the context of the present exhibition it is the mirror to which the curators have given most attention, and which, since the painting's arrival in 1843, has garnered much comment.
This mirror, which hangs next to a string of prayer beads, is a circular convex one with ten small circular scenes depicting the Passion of the Christ. The beads and painted scenes, are of course religious in nature, but van Eyck threads these divine symbols with his own message, albeit one that remains ambiguous. In the mirror, if one looks carefully, one can see the backs of the Arnolfini couple reflected. Between them are two male figures, one in red and the foremost one in the same bright blue as we have already observed in the lady's underdress. Above the mirror, are the words "Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434" which translates as "Jan van Eyck was here 1434," so it is possible that van Eyck is the figure in blue, entering his own picture in order to proclaim his authority. In this context Giovanni's raised hand is a welcome sign to the artist, who may well have been his friend. The mirror acts as a means of conveying more than just parts of the interior beyond our sight. It is a device that opens up layers of meaning and additional layers of dialogue. This dialogue is not just between van Eyck and his sitters: it is a conversation between the painting's viewers, contemporary and historical, and van Eyck. Thought of in this way, the mirror becomes a vortex between different time periods, between artist and collectors, and between successive generations of artists — with the Pre-Raphaelites being the main visual respondents.
The Victorian Response
A page from a Burne-Jones sketch book with notes of the Ghent Altarpiece (the words "v Eyck crucifixion" can clearly be seen on the right).
The quality and finish of The Arnolfini Portrait impressed all. Edward Burne-Jones proclaimed: "it's the finest picture in the world" and intended to create something similar and, according to Ruskin, Rossetti, also meant to paint a van Eyckian painting, the nearest example being The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849, Tate), which is displayed (Lago 136, Ruskin XXXVI: 409). But despite the central figures of Pre-Raphaelitism taking an interest in the painting there is little written evidence of their thoughts or responses to van Eyck or The Arnolfini Portrait. Interestingly, and this detail is not given on the exhibition labels, van Eyck isn't recorded in their "List of Immortals" or mentioned in records of the Brotherhood's formation. A Burne-Jones sketch book from the V&A collection with notes of the Ghent Altarpiece has been included, but the general lack of recorded Pre-Raphaelite interest in van Eyck, and therefore in the show, is a little discomfiting. The curators perhaps preferred viewers to linger over the finer visual relationships, which are readily observable.
The Pre-Raphaelite Mirror
Left to right: (a) William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853). (b) Ford Madox Brown's Take Your Son, Sir! (1851, unfinished). (c) Hunt's The Lady of Shallot (1886-1905).
The mirror became an established motif in Pre-Raphaelitism: it appears in early works like Hunt's middle-class interior in The Awakening Conscience (1853, Tate) and Ford Madox Brown's Take your Son, Sir! (1851, unfinished, Tate). Both of these exhibited works are seen as responses to the domestic secular space of the van Eyck, only with spiritual, and in Hunt's case moral, Victorian overtones. Hunt's woman is captured at the moment of her epiphany, and the three mirrors collectively broaden the possibilities open to the woman through her newly-discovered truths. The outside world is revealed to her as she casts off her sinful life — which Hunt underlined not with a faithful van Eyckian dog, but a cat toying with a bird.
In the mirror in the Brown painting, Brown can be seen holding his hands out to receive the baby, in the middle-class interior which is reflected. Maybe Brown was imagining the narrative beyond the one which van Eyck painted, maybe even the arrival of the imagined Arnolfini baby? Or perhaps Brown was examining the problem of nineteenth century illegitimacy — something he was no stranger to, with his own (at that time) mistress being the model.
Left to right: (a) Hunt's Il Dolce far Niente (1859-1875). (b) Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49). (c) Elizabeth Siddal's Lady at Her Loom (1853).
As with van Eyck, the device of the mirror toys with the viewer. Hunt is particularly adept at this, firstly applying it as a source of metaphysical truths before departing from the van Eyckian realism into a more poetic space, as in the wonderful The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905, Manchester) and the exquisite Il Dolce far Niente (1859-1875, Private Collection). Where Hunt's miniature realism reflected van Eyck in the defined interior of The Awakening Conscience, by the time he directly references a convex mirror in Il Dolce, he has cropped the scene to focus upon the nubile woman and has blurred the reflection. This is one of Hunt's most Rossettian works. Conversely, Rossetti does not really fit the mirror brief for this show: his two contributions are The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Lucrezia Borgia (1860, Tate). We may argue, as Landow has, that it is in Rossetti's poetry the resonance of Flemish art can be found (61-140).
One of the most refreshing inclusions is Elizabeth Siddal's The Lady of Shalott (1853, Maas Gallery). In amongst the various details, Siddal's version has a wonderful uncluttered calm to it — one could argue her floorboards share a van Eyckian simplicity. The curators seem to be arguing that Siddal utilised the van Eyckian mirror as a means of observing domestic, spiritual and professional spaces for women, but one could be forgiven for thinking that they felt any work with a mirror to be worthy of inclusion. Hunt's work of the same name shows detailed observation of the Passion of Christ mirror from The Arnolfini Portrait, and this religious detailed observation is a welcome insight into the Pre-Raphaelite engagement.
The overall domestic interior of the van Eyck painting also inspired the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites. Burne-Jones' picture of his daughter, Margaret Burne-Jones (1885, Private Collection) which a Pall Mall Gazette critic described as having "a mirror worthy of van Eyck" (82) is one such example. Margaret sits in front of, perhaps looking at, a domestic space which the viewer can see being reflected in the convex mirror. She sits demurely in a Marian blue dress: she is the Virgin prior to her marriage (indeed this image was painted only a few months prior to her wedding to John William Mackail). However, it seems that Margaret does not inhabit the domestic space as reflected in the mirror, because her physical world is void of any domestic detail. The foreground, which would typically depict the real domestic space, becomes inverted with the ideal dreamlike world and the "real" domesticity is contained within the mirror. Burne-Jones secures Margaret forever within the dream-like world of his making, not the domestic space of another man's which he relegates to the beyond. In doing so, Burne-Jones allows Margaret's youthful idealism to remain intact, or rather she remains virgo intacta.
Left to right: (a) Henry Treffry Dunn's watercolour of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872>. (b) William Orpen's The Mirror (1900). (c) John Phillip's Partial Copy of "Las Meninas" (1862).
This painting shares the liminal atmosphere for which Burne-Jones is now famous, but it also demonstrates the growing fashion for the middle-class purchase of mass-produced van Eyckian mirrors. In terms of middle-class domesticity the Margaret painting recalls Henry Treffry Dunn's watercolour of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872, Wightwick Manor). Rather than the dark domestic future awaiting Margaret, Rossetti's domestic space is an aesthetic one as exemplified by the blue and white porcelain, the Chinese bronzes and peacock feathers. The division between early Pre-Raphaelite interests in Christian narratives was by this time replaced within a secular space that further validated the visual mining of The Arnolfini Portrait.
By the 1900s, William Orpen stands out as the figure most consistently toying with the van Eyckian mirror for the purposes of displaying his own artistic identity. Orpen owned a convex mirror, which is on display in the exhibition, and employed van Eyck's display of his self (assuming we accept that hypothesis) in The Mirror (1900, Tate) in which we can see a reflection of a brass chandelier and Orpen can be seen painting. The work has been accused of being merely "an essay in assimilation" (Smith 70), and at this point in the exhibition, the show does feel a little laboured in its pursuit of the mirror. What perhaps saves it, is the design display: if you stand looking into Orpen's convex mirror from the left, you will not only see John Phillip's Partial Copy of "Las Meninas" (1862, Royal Academy) being reflected but you will also see The Arnolfini Portrait. This is a deliberately playful hanging, and it is this celebration of the Pre-Raphaelite engagement with van Eyck that is the show's most successful aspect.
Reflections of Velázquez
Whilst not as incongruous as the Charles Shannon inclusion The Bath of Venus (1898–1904, Tate), Phillip's Partial copy of "Las Meninas" is a little tangential; the relationship between The Arnolfini Portrait, Velázquez, and the Pre-Raphaelites is unlikely to seem immediately coherent to the average viewer without further explanation.
In 1558, The Arnolfini Portrait came into the royal collection of King Philip II of Spain where it would have been seen by Velázquez. But there is little obvious connection between the impressionistic style of Velázquez via Phillip (a now little known Victorian artist who wasn't a Pre-Raphaelite) and the van Eyckian psychological realism the viewer is asked to locate throughout the assembled images. Rather, the viewer is forced to accept the curatorial validation that the reflective ambiguity in the Phillip’s work is a van Eyckian legacy via the long-arm of Velázquez, and this conclusion is further rammed home via the arrangement of the Sunley Room’s physical mirrors. Rather than examining the thread of van Eyck's impact with detail, the exhibition's thesis is here shown to be purely related to mirrors.
If, as Smith argues, John Herbert's Sir Thomas More and his Daughter (1844, Tate) was the very first nineteenth-century visual response to The Arnolfini Portrait why was this work not included in the exhibition (see p.30)? We may speculate its absence was due to its lack of a mirror, although it would have made an interesting addition as it is not a well-known work. Another work, again one without a mirror, that would have added greater nuance is Hunt's Henry Wentworth Monk (1858, Ottawa). It would have been interesting to place this alongside van Eyck's Léal Souvenir (1433, National Gallery). Whether these absences were deliberate or not, it is clearly the reception of the mirror that has preoccupied Smith and Foister in their selection.
But despite these flaws, the clever playful display and rarely seen privately owned works are a real pleasure. Millais' Mariana (1851, Tate), which is used as the poster girl, is one of the few works that really grapple with van Eyckian realism in a meaningful way, and the exhibition would have benefited from more of this, and perhaps fewer paintings with mirrors. But it is unlikely this detailed scholastic thesis will be explored again anytime soon, and so the opportunity to see it should be relished, for it allows the psychological realism of van Eyck to be seen alongside the perceptual ambiguities of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Graham, Jenny. Inventing van Eyck: The Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age. Oxford: Paul Mellon Centre, 2007.
Lago, Mary, ed. Burne-Jones Talking, His Conversations 1895-1898 Preserved by his Studio Assistant Thomas Rooke. London: John Murray, 1982.
Landow, G. P. Replete withMeaning: William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. London: Paul Mellon Centre, 1979. [Victorian Web book: click here to access this electronic edition.]
Pall Mall Gazette. 5 May 1887.
Ruskin, John. Works. 39 vols. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London: Allen and Unwin, 1902-12.
Smith, Alison. Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites Catalogue. London: National Gallery, 2017.
The Times. 11 September 1846.
Created 23 October 2017