Friday, 1 December 2017

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Fig.1 Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini 
and his Wife and ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’,1434, Oil on oak,
82.2 x 60 cm, National Gallery, London
© The National Gallery, London
The exhibition “Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites” at The National Gallery in London highlights the influence that Van Eyck and his use of mirrors had on the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Pre-Raphaelites and Van Eyck
Van Eyck’s 15th century Portrait of Arnolfini and His Wife (fig. 1) inspired the 19th century English painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rosetti to form the society of the Pre-Raphaelites. These artists aspired to capture the sincerity and spirituality they saw in pre-Raphael Italian and Flemish art, and they held as their ideal Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

The Unexpected World Inside the Picture
From Van Eyck, they observed many lessons including the use of deep and rich colors and the depictions of scenes with elaborate texture. They were most enamored by the presentation of another distinct universe within a picture through the use of a mirror, as seen in the Arnolfini Portrait. In the round mirror in the background, Van Eyck inserts his own image, demonstrating that the painter himself was present as a witness to the wedding of the couple.

Fig.2 William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience,
1853, Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm
© Tate, London (T02075)
Captivated by the Mirror
Many of the Pre-Raphaelites painted interiors that included a mirror. Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (fig. 2) contains a large mirror reflecting a garden. The woman who was sitting on the lap of her lover sees the garden up ahead, and her conscience is suddenly awakened. The painting captures the moment when she rises to stand and attempt to escape her degenerating life. The mirror also plays an important role in the story of Lady Shalott from the Arthurian legend that was a favorite theme of the Pre-Raphaelites. A curse on the Lady of Shalott deems that she will die if she looks directly outside, so she can only view the outer world through a mirror. In John William Waterhouse’s painting, the mirror that reflects the outside has a large crack in it, alluding to the fate of death that awaits the Lady simply because she had wished for a glimpse of the man she loved.

“Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites” Exhibition until April 2, 2018

The National Gallery, London
Trafalgar Square
London WC2N 5DN
The United Kingdom
+44 (0)20 7747 2885
Opening Hours:
Daily  10:00-18:00
Friday 10:00—21:00
1 January and 24–26 December