The old Flemish master Jan van Eyck was described by Giorgio Vasari as an alchemist who invented oil painting, he was a skillful diplomat sent on secret missions, and his mastery was such that his appearance in the annals of the he history of art has sometimes been compared to the arrival of a comet from space. Myths can sometimes be created to explain such a genius, but a new exhibition opening this week at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, the largest ever devoted to the artist, will put his works to the fore. .
Van Eyck: an optical revolution brings together around half of the 20 to 22 existing autograph works, with several notable international loans as well as sections of the Ghent altarpiece (1432, also called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) —The masterpiece that Van Eyck created with his brother Hubert — on loan from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.
The idea of mounting such an exhibition arose after the museum began to host the 2.2 million euros public restoration of the Ghent altarpiece. The exterior panels, which were restored in the first phase of the project, between 2012 and 2016, will be included in the show along with two unrestored interior panels of Adam and Eve.
The exhibition is a “unique opportunity to see the panels up close,” explains exhibition co-curator Frederica Van Dam. If the altarpiece had a living and itinerant past: it was withdrawn from Saint Bavo during the Reformation, stolen during the Napoleonic wars, returned in 1919, two panels were stolen in 1934 (one of which is still missing), it was moved again during WWII – the only time any of its panels (the Adam and Eve pair) were included in an exhibit was in 1902. Additionally, the cathedral said this would be the last time that the panels of the altarpiece would be loaned for an exhibition.
For the exhibition, the panels will be installed in pairs – Adam and Eve, the grisailles of the two Saint Johns, the Annunciation panels, the two interior and exterior views, and the portraits of the donors – with a thematic exhibition organized around of them. “This way it is much easier to have a dialogue between the panels and other works by Van Eyck,” says Van Dam. “Previously, before the restoration, the Ghent altarpiece was a bit different from other Van Eyck panels, in terms of color but also in style,” Van Dam explains. “And now we know why, because of severe overpainting in the 16th century. This is the first time that we can see that these panels really correspond to the work of Van Eyck.
“He perfected the technique of oil painting [to create] effects of depth, light, texture, etc.
Two other works were “freshly restored” before the exhibition: Portrait of a man (Leal Souvenir) (1432) from the National Gallery in London, which reveals a “great difference in that you can observe much more the qualities of Van Eyck”, and Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy (c. 1435) from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, where “now you can see the fur and smell the different hairs of the fur [hat]Van Dam says.
Little is known about Van Eyck’s early years, and this, coupled with the lack of surviving works from his predecessors, has led to his impact being compared to the arrival of a comet of darkness. He was probably born around 1390 at or near Maaseik, now in eastern Belgium. Records indicate that he worked in The Hague for John III Duke of Bavaria-Straubing, before being appointed court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who ruled over large areas of the lowlands. Van Eyck lived in Lille and later, in the early 1430s, moved to Bruges where he established his workshop and remained until his death in 1441.
Van Eyck’s period as court painter to Philip the Good meant that he had not only money and resources, but also access to libraries, the intelligentsia of the time and the ability to to travel. He was said to have been a skilled diplomat and was sent on several secret missions, details of which are still unknown. “He had [many] more opportunities to see things than the average person in the late Middle Ages, ”says Van Dam. It is very likely that he went to Jerusalem, and he may also have traveled to Spain and Italy. We know for sure that he traveled to Portugal in 1428 to paint the future wife of Philip the Good, Isabella of Portugal. “He had the chance to observe a different landscape than what we are used to here in the Netherlands,” explains Van Dam. “You can see palm trees in the Ghent altarpiece, for example.”
“He had this amazing hand-eye coordination,” Van Dam says. Van Eyck’s exceptional powers of observation, enriched by his travels, are one of the main explanations Van Dam and his fellow conservatives have put forward as to “why Van Eyck is such a genius” and why they called the show Optical revolution.
“Van Eyck also had to have theoretical knowledge,” says Van Dam. “What we see in his paintings is not only possible through sheer powers of observation.” He is said to have studied “geometry” by the 15th century historian Bartolomeo Fazio. “It seems, at first glance, a little strange, because if you look at Van Eyck’s paintings, he did not consider mathematical perspective like his contemporaries in Italy did,” Van Dam explains. But “we realized that geometry was a general name for different branches of science of which optics was one of the most important studies.”
Then there is the management by Van Eyck of the medium he has chosen. Although he did not invent oil painting, as Vasari claims, “he perfected the technique of oil painting,” says Van Dam. It had been around for centuries, but the addition of a drying agent back then made a huge difference. “That way he could make the technique much more manageable and could work in different layers, both opaque and transparent” to create “effects of depth, light, texture, etc.”
Visitors will be able to compare Van Eyck to “his most talented contemporaries in Italy”, thanks to exceptional loans, including that of Masaccio The Virgin and Child (1426) of the Galleria degli Uffizi and that of Fra Angelico Saint Francis receiving the stigmata (c. 1430) from the Vatican. The latter will be exhibited in a gallery with the two almost identical versions of Van Eyck Saint Francis receiving the stigmata (c. 1435-40 and c. 1440), on loan from the Galleria Sabauda in Turin and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Another highlight of the loan, used to demonstrate the skill with which Van Eyck was able to render two-dimensional sculptures, is a trio of recently restored alabaster figures from the Altarpiece of the Crucifixion of Rimini (around 1430). They will be featured alongside the pair of grisaille St Johns from the Ghent altarpiece and Van Eyck The Annunciation diptych (c. 1433-1435), from the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Although the Rimini altarpiece “sounds Italian, it was really made here in the Netherlands,” Van Dam explains. There is no evidence that Van Eyck saw these specific works, but “it is very likely that he would have seen the same type of sculpture,” she adds.
Bringing together so many works by Van Eyck was a “difficult” task “because they are the most valuable objects in the collections”, explains Van Dam. The exhibition is supported, among others, by the City of Ghent, which has launched a campaign entitled “OMG! Van Eyck was here ”- and visitors will no doubt be delighted that so many works by Van Eyck come to visit.
• Van Eyck: an optical revolution, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, February 1-April 30