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Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery

October 14, 2017

ArtsPainting | by Candid Magazine

When Dutch master Jan van Eyck’s modest picture of a wealthy couple clad in velvet and furs appeared on the walls of the National Gallery in 1842, no one could have guessed the shock waves that would follow. One of the most recognisable paintings ever made, the curious ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ was the first Early Netherlandish work in the gallery’s collection and became the face that launched a thousand copycat 19th century ships. For its autumn show, the National Gallery has set itself the challenging task of unravelling van Eyck’s artistic influence, while also making Victorian art sexy again.

For one group in particular the Arnolfini was like a match to some dry kindling. The rag-tag ‘Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood’, led by seductive poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and child prodigy John Everett Millais, clamoured around van Eyck as the antidote to popular late Renaissance painting. Up in arms, the Brotherhood embraced an earlier style, epitomized by van Eyck’s miraculous sense of naturalism in a rich mosaic of colour, texture and secret meanings.

‘The Arnolfini Portrait’. Jan van Eyck, 1434. Oil on oak 82.2 x 60 cm. © The National Gallery, London.

But what was all the fuss about? For one thing van Eyck’s masterpiece is cloaked in mystery and has layers of symbolism that we are still untangling. The affluent man and woman at the centre of the painting clasp hands as if they are about to be married, but it’s unclear whether she is pregnant or just dressed in a fashionable frock of the period. In the mirror between them, decorated with images of the Passion of Christ, another couple bear witness to the scene, one of which is thought to be the artist himself. Then of course there is the artist’s defiant inscription ‘van Eyck was here’ scrawled on the wall. We could argue about these riddles for days…

And the Victorians weren’t the only super-fans of van Eyck. Diego Velázquez was also a keen member of the club, using the mirror as the powerful lynch pin for his ‘Las Meninas’ (1656). At the National Gallery, the mirror is the central link between van Eyck and the rebellious Pre-Raphaelites. Reappearing with reflections of medieval knights, damsels and femmes fatales, the mirror creates illusion and psychological intrigue. An entire room is even given over to the Arthurian ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’ moment from the ‘The Lady of Shalott’, when a young girl imprisoned in a tower sees the outside world only through the reflections of a mirror. Seduced by the image of one handsome Sir Lancelot, she turns to see him properly and the glass cracks, cursing her forever. Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse and Sidney Meteyard’s dazzling takes on the subject are a pleasure to see in the flesh, but arguably fail to cement van Eyck’s place in all of this.

The Lady of Shalott. William Holman Hunt, about 1886-1905. Oil on wood 44.4 x 34.1 cm. © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

In terms of works on display, the National Gallery has assembled a dreamy selection of Victorian paintings and drawings with key loans from Tate, the Scottish National Galleries and the V&A. There are star attractions from each of the Brotherhood as well as the generations that followed including William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Wolfram Onslow Ford, Mark Gertler, William Orpen, Charles Shannon and Ford Maddox Brown.

Take your Son, Sir! Ford Madox Brown. 1851-92, Oil on canvas 70.5 × 38.1 cm. © Tate, London (N04429)

There are also some quieter moments from Simeon Solomon and Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddall that should not be missed. But while there are plenty of high points for Victorian art lovers to enjoy, the National Gallery’s message does not hit home and van Eyck is left feeling all at sea.

Words by Alice Godwin

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery, until 2 April 2018