Text by Geoffrey Smith
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The direct stare of the subject of this picture contrasts with the detached demeanour of many of van Eyck’s sitters. Some scholars see this as evidence that the painting is a self portrait. However other portraits do exist by Jan where a similar direct gaze has been used, so why should this particular work be seen as a depiction of the artist?
Supporters of the theory would point to the trompe l’oeil inscriptions which look as if they have been carved into this rare example of a fifteenth-century original frame. The bottom edge is taken up with a Latin legend which translates as ‘Jan van Eyck made me 1433 21 October’. Along the top the Flemish words Als ich kan are inscribed — ‘As I can’ in English. This seems to be a shortening of a Flemish proverb, ‘As I can but not as I would (or wish)’, and it may also be that the artist intended the phrase to be a pun on his name; the two personal pronouns, ich in Flemish, written partially in Greek as IXH, were to be interpreted as ‘Eyck’. In any event the proverb implies some faux modesty on his part although it may not lead us any nearer to an interpretation of this picture as a self portrait. In fact the three words were something of a personal motto which were used on several other paintings.
The face of the sitter seems to materialise from the stygian depths of the very dark background. A light source plays on the face and headgear but does not penetrate elsewhere — our attention is thus fixed on the subject of the portrait and his extraordinary hat.
The wealthy and powerful denizens of the Netherlands at this time seem to have had a penchant for eye-catching hats. Giovanni Arnolfini chose an oversized hat for the famous double portrait. You might think that it was a courageous choice — the voluminous character of the hat over-accentuates his thin, angular, rat-like features. A similar hat appears in another van Eyck portrait, that of Baudouin de Lannoy and both van Eyck and his contemporary Robert Campin (probably to be identified with the painter known as the Master of Flémalle) painted other portraits of men with identical red turbans, albeit tied in a looser fashion. You can contrast van Eyck’s and Campin’s treatment of the subject as the latter’s picture is also in the National Gallery. So red turbans seem to have been all the rage and van Eyck’s representation of this particular example is a tour de force using the raking light to emphasise every fold and crease; the luminosity of the red pigment used for the turban also shows how he exploits the potential of oil paint to the full.
But it is the artist’s treatment of the face which is of course the greatest marvel. He has delineated every individual stubble hair on the chin and those of us who shave can almost feel that stubble catch annoyingly on the fur collar. It also looks as though the sitter may have enjoyed one too many glasses of wine before his sittings because van Eyck has taken his passion for veracity to the extent of outlining the burst blood vessels in the subject’s left eye.
The usual impassivity that one expects in a van Eyck portrait lends an air of inscrutability which compounds the mystery of who this is. Could this really be van Eyck? It would be nice to think so but of course we will never know.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1430 Robert Campin: Portrait of a Man; London, National Gallery
1433 Fra Angelico: Linaiuoli Madonna; Florence, Museo di San Marco