In collaboration with Tate, the National Gallery puts the 1434 Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck in dialogue with the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Symbolists and sensualists alike will enjoy.
Pre-Raphaelites can usually be relied on to draw the crowds, but the National Gallery is taking no risk with this long-running winter show. The London gallery is teaming up Rosetti, Millais and Holman Hunt with one of its foremost treasures, the exquisite Arnolfini Portrait.
People have speculated that the Portrait depicts a wedding. Some have said it was a morganatic marriage, in which Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini is marrying beneath his station. Some have said his wife is pregnant. It remains to be seen what the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood understood by this composition.
Current thinking rejects the marriage theory. But the gallery intends to wed a 1434 masterpiece to a school of painting no less well loved, no less refined, but perhaps a little less groundbreaking. The 19th century pre-Raphaelites were not too interested in the preceding 300 years.
They valued draughtsmanship, technique and sensual finish; they placed symbolism above realism. They enjoyed mythical tales, and myth is a hallmark of this work.
Nobody can answer for the pair of figures pictured in the convex mirror. This detail is not just a technical tour de force, and a chance for Van Eyck to show off the potential of oil paint, it is also one of the most mysterious details in art history. For those who love both art and airport thrillers, these figures, the inscription, the beads and the single lit candle on the chandelier will be manna from heaven. Don’t miss.