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Jan van Eyck (or Johannes de Eyck) (Dutch: [ˈjɑn vɑn ˈɛjk]; before c. 1390 – before c. 9 July 1441) was a Flemish painter active in Bruges and is generally considered one of the most significant Northern European painters of the 15th century. The few surviving records indicate that he was born around 1390, most likely in Maaseik. Outside of the Ghent Altarpiece completed with his brother Hubert van Eyck, and the illuminated miniatures ascribed to Hand G —believed to be Jan— of the Turin-Milan Hours, only about 23 surviving works are confidently attributed to him, of which ten, including the Ghent altarpiece, are signed and dated.
Little is known of his early life, but his emergence as a collectable painter generally follows his appointment to the court of Philip the Good c. 1425, and from this point his activity in the court is comparatively well documented. Van Eyck had previously served John of Bavaria-Straubing, then ruler of Holland, Hainault and Zeeland. By this time van Eyck had assembled a workshop and was involved in redecorating the Binnenhof palace in The Hague. After John's death in 1425 he moved to Bruges and came to the attention of Philip the Good. He served as both court artist and diplomat and became a senior member of the Tournai painters' guild, where he enjoyed the company of similarly esteemed artists such as Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. Over the following decade van Eyck's reputation and technical ability grew, mostly from his innovative approaches towards the handling and manipulating of oil paint. His revolutionary approach to oil was such that a myth, perpetuated by Giorgio Vasari, arose that he had invented oil painting.
It is known from historical record that van Eyck was considered a revolutionary master across northern Europe within his lifetime; his designs and methods were heavily copied and reproduced. His motto, one of the first and still most distinctive signatures in art history, ALS IK KAN ("AS I CAN"), a pun on his name, first appeared in 1433 on Portrait of a Man in a Turban, which can be seen as indicative of his emerging self-confidence at the time. The years between 1434 and 1436 are generally considered his high point when he produced works including the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna and Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. He married the much younger Margaret around 1432 at about the same time he bought a home in Bruges. Records from 1437 on suggest that he was held in high esteem by the upper ranks of Burgundian nobility while also accepting many foreign commissions. He died young in July 1441, leaving behind many unfinished works to be completed by workshop journeymen; works that are nevertheless today considered major examples of Early Flemish painting. His local and international reputation was aided by his ties to the then political and cultural influence of the Burgundian court.
Neither the date nor place of Jan van Eyck's birth is documented. The first extant record of his life comes from the court of John of Bavaria at The Hague, where payments were made to Meyster Jan den malre (Master Jan the painter) between 1422 and 1424 who was then a court painter with the rank of valet de chambre, with at first one and then two assistants. This suggests a date of birth of 1395 at the latest. However, his apparent age in the London probable self-portrait of 1433 suggests to most scholars a date closer to 1380. He was identified in the late 1500s as having been born in Maesheyck, diocese of Liège. This claim still considered credible on etymological grounds, considering his surname translates as "of Eyck". The claim is supported by the fact that his daughter Lievine was in a nunnery in Maaseyck after her father's death. It is not known where he was educated, but his use of Greek and Hebrew alphabets in many of the inscriptions in his works indicate that he had been schooled in the classics. From the coats of arms on his tombstone, it is believed he came from the gentry class.
Jan van Eyck has often been linked as brother to painter and peer Hubert van Eyck, because both have been thought to originate from the same town in Belgium. One of Jan's most famous works, the Ghent Altarpiece, is believed to be a collaboration between the two, begun c. 1420 by Hubert and completed by Jan in 1432. Today it is difficult to decide which of the music-making angels and saints, pilgrims and praying figures are by Jan and which by Hubert. Another brother, Lambert, is mentioned in Burgundian court documents, and there is a conjecture that he too was a painter, and that he may have overseen the closing of Jan van Eyck's Bruges workshop. Another significant, and rather younger, painter who worked in Southern France, Barthélemy van Eyck, is presumed to be a relation.
Van Eyck is often thought to be the anonymous artist known as Hand G of the Turin-Milan Hours. If this is correct, the Turin illustrations are the only known works from his early period. Most of these miniatures were destroyed by fire in 1904 and survive only in photographs and copies.
Following the death of John of Bavaria in 1425, van Eyck entered the service of the powerful and influential Valois prince, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. He resided in Lille for a year and then moved to Bruges, where he lived until his death in 1441. A number of documents published in the 20th century record his activities in Philip's service. He was sent on several diplomatic missions on behalf of the Duke, and worked on several projects which likely entailed more than painting, such as his difficult journey to faraway Lisbon along with a group which was intended to prepare the ground for the Duke's wedding to Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck's task was to paint the bride, so that the Duke would be able to form a picture of Isabella before the marriage. With the exception of two portraits of Isabella of Portugal, which van Eyck painted at Philip's behest as a member of the 1428-9 delegation to seek her hand, the precise nature of these works is obscure. The princess was probably not particularly attractive, and that is exactly how Van Eyck painted her. He showed his sitters as dignified but did not hide their imperfections.
As court painter and "valet de chambre" to the Duke, van Eyck was exceptionally well paid. His annual salary was quite high when he was first engaged, but it doubled twice in the first few years, and was often supplemented by special bonuses. His salary alone makes Jan van Eyck an exceptional figure among early Netherlandish painters, since most of them depended on individual commissions for their livelihoods. An indication that van Eyck's art and person were held in extraordinarily high regard is a document from 1435 in which the Duke scolded his treasurers for not paying the painter his salary, arguing that van Eyck would leave and that he would nowhere be able to find his equal in his "art and science." The Duke also served as godfather to one of van Eyck's children, supported his widow upon the painter's death, and years later helped one of his daughters with the funds required to enter a convent.
Jan van Eyck produced paintings for private clients in addition to his work at the court. Foremost among these is the Ghent Altarpiece painted for Jodocus Vijdts and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. Started sometime before 1426 and completed, at least partially, by 1432, this polyptych has been seen to represent "the final conquest of reality in the North", differing from the great works of the Early Renaissance in Italy by virtue of its willingness to forgo classical idealization in favor of the faithful observation of nature.
Exceptionally for his time, van Eyck often signed and dated his frames, then considered an integral part of the work (the two were often painted together, and while the frames were constructed by a body of craftsmen separate to the master's workshop, their work was often considered as equal in skill to that of the painters). His signature "ALS IK KAN" ("As I Can") is taken from the Flemish saying "As I can, not as I would". It is because of his habit of signing his work that his reputation has survived and that attribution has not been as difficult and uncertain as with other first generation artists of the early Netherlandish school.
Many of his works are heavily inscribed with lettering in mixtures of Greek, Latin and the vernacular. They seems to serve different fuctions depending on the type of work on which they appear. In his single panel portraits they give voice to the sitter, most notably in Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, where the Greek lettering on the frame which translates as My husband Johannes completed me in the year 1439 on 17 June, at the age of 33. As I can. By contrast the inscriptions on his public, formal religious commissions are written from the point of view of the patron, and there to underscore his piousness, charity and dedication to the saint who he is shown accompanying. This can be seen in his Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, reads An inscription on the lower imitation frame refers to the donation, "Joris van der Paele, canon of this church, had this work made by painter Jan van Eyck. And he founded two chaplaincies here in the choir of the Lord. 1434. He only completed it in 1436, however."
In the earliest significant source on van Eyck, a 1454 biography in Genoese humanist Bartolomeo Facio's De viris illustribus, Jan van Eyck is named "the leading painter" of his day. Facio places him among the best artists of the early 15th century, along with Rogier van der Weyden, Gentile da Fabriano, and Pisanello. It is particularly interesting that Facio shows as much enthusiasm for Netherlandish painters as he does for Italian painters. This text sheds light on aspects of Jan van Eyck's production now lost, citing a bathing scene owned by a prominent Italian, but mistakenly attributing to van Eyck a world map painted by another. Facio records that van Eyck was a learned man, and that he was versed in the classics, particularly Pliny the Elder's work on painting. This is supported by records of an inscription from Ovid's Ars Amatoria, which was on the now-lost original frame of the Arnolfini Portrait, and by the many Latin inscriptions in van Eyck paintings, using the Roman alphabet, then reserved for educated men. Jan van Eyck likely had some knowledge of Latin for his many missions abroad on behalf of the Duke.
Jan van Eyck died in Bruges in 1441 and was buried in the Church of St Donatian, which was later destroyed during the French Revolution.
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