van Eyck: ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ and why we don’t wave back
I’m stood in front of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery, London, wondering why viewers queue so quietly to look at this image, and make such small gestures with their fingers, rather than run, talk loudly and wave as they do in front of others.
We, the viewers, seem to be caught in the doorway, or so the mirror tells us, although the composition might lead one to think that we are slightly closer to the couple. Are we, the internal spectators in our reflected complementaries, are we actually participating? Is there anything about the behaviour of the Arnolfini’s that makes any connection with us, apparently there in the room with them? They seem completely self-sufficient. We are anonymous witnesses, of the right social standing perhaps, but not active participants. Timeless witnesses perhaps with “a distinctive access to the content of the picture” as Richard Wollheim put it. Our access though is not to all areas. This is an, apparently, formal painting, as internal spectators we are not allowed through the velvet rope to the VIP area. The Arnolfini’s might defer to the court of Phillip the Good that is socially above them, but it doesn’t look as though they are going to let the future get away with too much familiarity. As far as they are concerned, they own the future, we will never be allowed beyond the door.
Our role in looking at this painting now, is not a passive one, (as Linda Siddel reminds us in, ‘Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait: Stories of an Icon’, Cambridge University Press, 1993) nor was it when it was made. Ultimately, this is a painting about relationships, between people of different ranks, of different genders, between people and things. It is a painting that stands at the beginning of capitalism, I’m sure that van Eyck was no more aware of social/ cultural/ political or economic change than any other literate and aware participant in the upper ranks of Northern European society. But, the relationship between these people tells us, at the end of capitalism, where we have come from. It doesn’t tell us through some complex arcane code known only to initiates, it tells us through the ways in which people and things interact. We understand these interactions by looking at them; something artists are good at doing.
The figures in the doorway are clearly not a threat and they are known to the dog at least; it is not in guard dog mode. In the same way, the curled sleeping acceptance by the dog in Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’, tells us of the probable status of that viewer.
The Brussels Griffon in the Arnofini painting, a small expensive breed, indicates the notions of defence and power that a larger dog might display without the actuality
(Van Dyck’s portrait of the young Charles the Second with his hand on an enormous mastiff springs to mind) . It is a contemporary and ironic reworking of theme of guard dog; it is quite literally a toy.
Look at the Arnolfini dog’s mouth, it has the semblance of a smile (Jack Thomas in ‘Arnolfini: Reflections in a Mirror’, one of the many fictionalisations of the painting, devotes chapter 27 to the dog, calling it Hendrik). That turning up of the left hand side of the dog’s mouth, makes the viewer aware of the other mouths on show.
Along with strong verticals, the other dominant compositional arrangement in this painting is the upward curve of their joined hands. In his analysis of pictorial composition at the Bauhaus, Paul Klee made much of this type of arrangement. Lines or forms moving upward in an image move from ‘very bad’ to ‘very good’, in an arc points ideally related in tension create equilibrium, therefore harmony. A general shape we could call, simply, a smile.
Look at her mouth, on her left, the side closest to us, there is a highlight where the cheek meets the lips. They are a very cute, pursed pair of lips, idealised like much of her face; the eyebrows in particular. But look further at that mouth, the highlight can also be read as a smirk, her eyes might be solemn, fixed on a blank middle distance, but that is not a solemn mouth, she is thinking about something less elevated. Look again at his expression, look at his mouth, surprisingly full and sensual when you really examine it closely. Look at his eyes, they are, like hers, staring blankly. But, there is a turn to his left, towards her, in the position of those eyes. He is trying unsuccessfully, not to look at her. If you look carefully, he is not as old as that pallor might make one think at first, a pallor emphasised by all that ultra-fashionable black clothing. They are both pale, presumably underlining that, although they make money through trade, they are not artisans. His face is clear and relatively youthful, no lines, or fat or jowls,
compare with the man in the red turban to your left to see evidence that van Eyck can paint older male faces with great accuracy. Despite the need for formality and solemnity the eyes, of the Arnolfinis his in particular, appear to be sliding towards each other. This is a couple who can’t wait for everyone to leave the room.
Craig Harbison champions such an approach (in Chapter 4 of the ‘The Play of Realism’), like most other academics he over-determines the exactitude of the iconography, although I think his basic point stands: that there is a keen personal as well as a legal and financial relationship here. Ffor confirmation, look at the red cloth on the edge of the bed, see how it echoes the diagonal folds of her green dress and makes the parallel vertical folds of the hanging, potent, thrusting red bolster that much more emphatic.
A visual image, these are not literary, textual mysteries. This painting is far more straightforward than the professionals give it credit for. The details you are looking for, are those you would expect to look for when seeing a painting of two people entering some sort of relationship. These representations have the mass, and presence of figures, this is after all one of the earliest, full figure, standing double portraits of ‘ordinary’ people, therefore they relate to each other in the ways we might expect.
We respond then to the content, two people, but to come back to my original point, why do we respond in this particular manner?
“The entirely eccentric position of the central vanishing point reinforces the impression of a representation determined not by the objective lawfulness of the architecture, but rather by the subjective standpoint of a beholder who has just now appeared; a representation that owes its especially “intimate” effect in large part to this very perspectival disposition” (Erwin Panoksky: Perspective as Symbolic Form’, page 69)
If you are still not sure, watch how viewers behave in front of it. They stand, usually in couples, their poses unconsciously mirror those represented, like people falling into step as they walk together, or more likely people starting to adopt the accent of those to whom they are talking, and this painting does talk to us.
Whereas, watch viewers in front of that other personal favourite: Het Steen, a grand painting about land and reward. Viewers walk about in front of Het Steen, they make gestures they speak loudly, I can always hear what they say in front of Het Steen, never the quiet confidences, the whispered exchanges about what they are witnessing in front of the Arnolfini portrait.