Through the looking glass: what the pre-Raphaelites took from Van Eyck

The most radical artists of the Victorian age fixed their gaze on 15th-century Netherlands.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Such was the grip exerted on the arts in Britain by the Italian Renaissance that the first early-Netherlandish painting didn’t enter the National Gallery until 1842. That picture was Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434, depicting Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, a merchant from Lucca resident in Bruges, and his second wife. It was sold to the gallery by a Scottish soldier who had acquired it in Spain in mysterious circumstances during the Peninsular War.

The portrait became an object of instant fascination and sparked a scholarly debate that still rumbles on: who are the sitters? Is the woman Giovanni’s first wife or his second? Does the picture celebrate a marriage, a betrothal, a pregnancy – or is it an Annunciation disguised within a domestic interior? The acquisition also sparked an interest in van Eyck, who was widely (if erroneously) thought to have invented the technique of oil painting and whose attention to detail, skills as a colourist and ability to depict light on reflective objects seemed nothing less than magical.

Shortly after the painting was first hung in Trafalgar Square, it was seen by a group of teenage artists from the Royal Academy Schools, which then shared the same building. It had a profound effect on them and in 1848 Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt were among the seven founder members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The PRB rejected the idealisation, both spiritual and physical, of the High Renaissance as exemplified by Raphael and, inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait and the work of other “primitives” such as Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling and Dieric Bouts, looked instead to the close imitation of nature and the spiritual integrity of 15th-century Netherlandish art. The word “brotherhood” was an indication of their wish to emulate the craft traditions of the medieval guilds.

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait

The brotherhood lasted for only about five years but its influence was much longer lived, with second-generation PRBs numbering Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris and its style filtering into the arts and crafts and aesthetic movements as well as the end-of-the-century decadence of Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley.

A small exhibition at the National Gallery (in conjunction with Tate Britain), “Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites”, seeks to place the Arnolfini Portrait at the head of this family tree and mixes early Netherlandish works with those by the PRB and its heirs. It is a very curious show. It promises to be an examination of the aesthetic shock delivered by van Eyck’s painting and how his minute observation (look at the half-millimetre stubble on the chin of his 1433 self-portrait) and manner of endowing everyday objects – a wooden shoe, an orange – with symbolic significance were taken up by the PRB. It rapidly turns, however, into a study of the artistic afterlife of one thing: the convex mirror that is such a feature of the Arnolfini Portrait.

Mirrors, with their hints of mystery, feature in innumerable PRB paintings, from Holman Hunt’s allegory of moral rebirth The Awakening Conscience (1853) and Ford Madox Brown’s gurning Take Your Son, Sir! (1851-57) to pictures illustrating Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” by Holman Hunt, Elizabeth Siddall and John William Waterhouse (Millais’s sumptuous 1851 painting Mariana substitutes glowing stained glass for a mirror). Rossetti hung so many convex mirrors in his Cheyne Walk house that one visitor complained that wherever he looked he found himself staring back.

The curators then, for unexplained reasons, leave the PRB behind and follow their looking-glass world down the rabbit hole and into the 20th century (bizarrely by way of Velázquez’s Las Meninas – because it, too, has a mirror in it and it once hung with the Arnolfini Portrait in the Spanish royal collection) with paintings featuring mirrors by minor artists such as William Orpen and Mark Gertler. There is no mention, however, of the second most famous convex mirror in art, the self-portrait by the mannerist painter Parmigianino of 1524 – perhaps because he was exactly the type of artist the PRB rebelled against.

This strange mirror fixation is all very well – the exhibition is called “Reflections” – but it leaves little room for other, teased and interesting aspects of Jan van Eyck’s influence. There is only passing mention of the PRB’s imitative use of white underlayers to give their colours greater translucence, and a mere nod to how their formal poses and sharp focus owed as much to the invention of photography as to van Eyck. There is nothing on the landscape backgrounds that are such a feature of early Netherlandish paintings and that became a distinct strand of PRB art in the hands of the likes of John Brett and William Dyce, disciples of Ruskin’s creed of “truth to nature”.

Curiously, the painters of the brotherhood didn’t acknowledge van Eyck’s pervasiveness until late in their careers: it was only as an old man that Burne-Jones recalled that it was while standing in front of the Arnolfini Portrait that he made up his mind “to do something as deep and rich in colour and as beautifully finished in painting”. This beautifully presented exhibition is itself deep and rich in colour but it is also a frustratingly partial examination of the influences that shaped the PRB, and a pale reflection of the show it might have been. 

The exhibition runs until 2 April 2018

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer