The Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck - 1434 – National Gallery London

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The Arnolfini Portrait is a ground breaking masterpiece that has attracted a lot of discussion over the years.  Academics have struggled with the symbolism and meanings of the painting.  My interest is the abstract composition of the image.



I am first struck by the settledness of the image, it is strongly held in place and positioned in the frame.  There are lines of energy framing the image, created by various pictorial elements.  3 verticals on both the left and right-hand sides created by either side of the window and the side of the man’s face and hand at the top, the strong verticals in his clothes and the shoes at the bottom. Similarly, there are three verticals on the right-hand side, created by the bed posts, the sides of the woman’s face and the strong folds in the clothing.

2 supporting lines frame the bottom of the image, created by the folds in the woman’s clothes, the dog, and the shoes on the left-hand side.   Similarly, there are two lines framing the top, joining up the horizontals in the bed frame, the window from and levels in the candelabra.


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The centre of the image, at the level of the held hands is boxed by vertical lines joining up the sides of the mirror, verticals in the candelabra, the side of the chair behind them and either side of the dog.  While horizontally, by the horizontals in the bed, the level of their hands and the window frame.


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The key centre of interest is the mirror in the back ground rather than what one might expect, the held hands.  The mirror itself is dark surrounded by light and is full of detail.  A diamond shape surrounds the mirror, made by the faces of the couple, their joined hands and the bottom of the candelabra.  Perhaps this is something to do with Jan van Eyck’s desire to make his own mark.  There is a figure in blue in the mirror, which may be himself, with his name written in large letters above it, on the wall.  This level of self-promotion in a painting was very unusual in the period. It has been thought that this influenced Los Meninas, the masterpiece by Velazquez from 200 years later.


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The centre of the image is dominated by a series of triangular shapes pointing downwards,  towards the mirror and the joined hands, but also echoed by similar triangular shapes on the vertical line.  This splits the image into two halves, left and right. Interestingly the compositional device for creating drama in the left side and the right side are completely different.  On the left it is all about the contrasts of dark and light, while on the right, it is all about the colour contrast of red versus green.  Modern painters would recognise the strength of the red versus green contrast as being colour opposites on the colour wheel.  Interestingly, colour theory of that type dates to well after Jan van Eyck.  The devices break into the opposing halves in small amounts unifying the image that otherwise would be very unbalanced.