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Biography of Jan van Eyck

Flemish painter
Movement: Northern Renaissance

Van Eyck Biography

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Jan van Eyck biography

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The Importance of Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck (Dutch: [ˈjɑn fɑn ˈɛik], before c. 1390 – 9 July 1441) was an Early Netherlandish painter active in Bruges and one of the most significant Northern Renaissance artists of the 15th century. Outside of the Ghent Altarpiece completed with his brother Hubert van Eyck, and the illuminated miniatures ascribed to Hand G—believed to be Jan—of the Turin-Milan Hours, only about 25 surviving works are confidently attributed to him, all dated between 1432 and 1439. Ten, including the Ghent altarpiece, are dated and signed with a variation of his motto, ALS IK KAN (As I (Eyck) can), always written in Greek characters, and transliterate as a pun on his name.

Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including commissioned portraits, donor portraits (with the donor kneeling before a seated Virgin Mary) and both large and portable altarpieces. He worked on panel, either as single panels, diptych, triptychs, or polyptychs. He was well paid by Philip, who sought that the painter was secure financially and thus had artistic freedom and could paint "whenever he pleased". His work comes from the International Gothic style, but he soon eclipsed it, in part through a greater emphasis on naturalism and realism. Van Eyck utilised a new level of virtuosity, mainly through the use of oil as a medium; the fact that oil dries so slowly allowed him more time and more scope for blending and mixing layers of different pigments. He was highly influential and his techniques and style were quickly adopted and refined by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden and later generations of Early Netherlandish painters.

paintings of Jan van Eyck

Early life

Little is known of Jan van Eyck's early life and neither the date nor place of his birth is documented. The first extant record of his life comes from the court of John of Bavaria at The Hague where, between 1422 and 1424, payments were made to Meyster Jan den malre (Master Jan the painter) who was then a court painter with the rank of valet de chambre, with at first one and then two assistants. This suggests a date of birth of 1395 at the latest. However, his apparent age in the London probable self-portrait of 1433 suggests to most scholars a date closer to 1380. He was identified in the late 1500s as having been born in Maaseik, then a diocese of Liège. This claim is still considered credible on etymological grounds, considering that "Van Eyck" means "of Eyck" which is an old variant spelling of "eik". It is also supported by the fact that his daughter Lievine was in a nunnery in Maaseik after her father's death. Further the notes on his study preparatory drawing for Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati are written in the Maasland dialect.

He had a sister Margareta, and at least two brothers, Hubert (died 1426) and Lambert (active between 1431 and 1442), both of whom were also painters. Yet the order of their births is not known. Another significant, and rather younger, painter who worked in Southern France, Barthélemy van Eyck, is presumed to be a relation. It is not known where Jan was educated, but he had knowledge of Latin and used the Greek and Hebrew alphabets in many of the inscriptions, indicating that he was schooled in the classics. From the coats of arms on his tombstone, it is believed he came from the gentry class. This level of education was rare amongst painters, and surely made him more attractive to Philip as Valet de chambre.

Court painter

an Eyck first served John of Bavaria-Straubing, then ruler of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland. By this time van Eyck had assembled a small workshop and was involved in redecorating the Binnenhof palace in The Hague. After John's death in 1425 he moved to Bruges and came to the attention of Philip the Good c. 1425. His emergence as a collectable painter generally follows his appointment to Philip's court, and from this point his activity in the court is comparatively well documented. He served as both court artist and diplomat and became a senior member of the Tournai painters' guild. On 18 October 1427, the Feast of St. Luke, he travelled to Tournai to attend a banquet in his honour, also attended by Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden.

Jan van Eyck has often been linked as brother to painter and peer Hubert van Eyck, because both have been thought to originate from the same town in Belgium. One of Jan's most famous works, the Ghent Altarpiece, is believed to be a collaboration between the two, begun c. 1420 by Hubert and completed by Jan in 1432. Today it is difficult to decide which parts of the altarpiece are by Jan and which by Hubert. Another brother, Lambert, is mentioned in Burgundian court documents, and there is a conjecture that he too was a painter, and that he may have overseen the closing of Jan van Eyck's Bruges workshop.


It is known from historical record that van Eyck was considered a revolutionary master across northern Europe within his lifetime; his designs and methods were heavily copied and reproduced. His motto, one of the first and still most distinctive signatures in art history, ALS IK KAN ("AS I CAN"), a pun on his name, first appeared in 1433 on Portrait of a Man in a Turban, which can be seen as indicative of his emerging self-confidence at the time. The years between 1434 and 1436 are generally considered his high point when he produced works including the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna and Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. He married the much younger Margaret probably around 1432, about the same time he bought a house in Bruges; she is unmentioned before he relocated, while the first of their two children was born in 1434. Very little is known of Margaret, even her maiden name is lost - contemporary records refer to her mainly as Damoiselle Marguierite. She is thought to have been of aristocratic birth, though from the lower nobility, evidenced from her clothes in this portrait which are fashion but not of the sumptuousness worn by the bride in the Arnolfini Portrait. Later, as the widow of a renowned painter Margaret was afforded a modest pension by the city of Bruges after Jan's death. At least some of this income was invested in lottery.

Van Eyck undertook a number of other journeys on Philip's behalf between 1426 and 1429, journeys described in records as "secret" commissions, for which he was paid multiples of his annual salary. Their precise nature is still unknown, but they seem to involve his acting as envoy of the court. In 1426 he departed for "certain distant lands", possibly to the Holy Land, a theory given weight by the topographical accuracy of Jerusalem in The Three Marys at the Tomb, a painting completed by members of his workshop c 1440.

In 1671, Gerrit van Uylenburgh organised the auction of Gerrit Reynst's collection and offered 13 paintings and some sculptures to Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. Frederick accused them of being counterfeits and had sent 12 back on the advice of Hendrick Fromantiou. Van Uylenburg then organized a counter-assessment, asking a total of 35 painters to pronounce on their authenticity, including Jan Lievens, Melchior de Hondecoeter, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, and Johannes Vermeer.


Jan van Eyck died in Bruges on 9 July 1441 and was buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Donatian. As a mark of respect, Philip made a one off payment to Jan's widow Margaret, to a value equal to the artist's annual salary. After Jan's death, Lambert van Eyck continued to run the workshop, and over the next few years Jan's reputation and stature steadily grew. Early in 1442 Lambert had the body exhumed and placed in a location inside St. Donatian's Cathedral. In 1449 he is mentioned by the Italian humanist and antiquarian Ciriaco de' Pizzicolli as a painter of note and ability, and he is recorded by Bartolomeo Facio in 1456. Giorgio Vasari credits him (erroneously) with the invention of oil painting in 1550.

-- wikipedia

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