Why Van Eyck: An Optical Illusion is beyond doubt ‘a once-in-a-lifetime experience’

This blockbuster exhibition of the Netherlandish Old Master’s works is like nothing ever likely to be staged again. Happily, via MFA Ghent’s Facebook page, a live online tour with its curator is being offered at 6pm GMT (1pm in New York) on 8 April


From left: Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), The Annunciation, c. 1434-1436 (detail). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, c. 1428-1430. Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu (Romania)

Intricately detailed and ablaze with brilliant colour, the mesmerising paintings of early 15th-century Flemish master Jan van Eyck (1395?-1441) are among the most groundbreaking works in the history of Western art. 

‘His extraordinary handling of oil paint allowed him to express the acuteness of his observations as no one had achieved before,’ declares Dr Susan Foister, Deputy Director of the National Gallery in London.   

In February the largest Jan van Eyck exhibition ever staged, Van Eyck: An Optical Illusion, opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. Described by the curators as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ exhibition, it features more than half of the approximately 20 surviving Van Eyck works. They include the eight recently restored exterior panels of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), Van Eyck’s magnificent altarpiece created in collaboration with his brother Hubert for St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent — plus more than 100 works by Van Eyck’s most talented peers and followers.

The effect of showing so many Van Eyck masterpieces in one exhibition is ‘mindblowing’, according to Till-Holger Borchert, Director of Musea Brugge, who has collaborated on the exhibition. ‘Optical Illusion  is staged in a sequence of galleries, so not all the Van Eycks will be in one room,’ he explains. ‘They will be experienced one after another, which will change our ideas about what “Flemish Primitive” means.’ 


Jan van Eyck (Maaseik?, c.1390-Bruges, 1441), Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, c.1428-1430. Oil on panel. 22 x 17 cm. Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu (Romania)

Van Eyck’s virtuoso handling of oil paint on panel paved the way for a new painterly aesthetic — known today as early Netherlandish painting — which combined extraordinary realism with bold, vibrant colours. His exquisitely executed portraits and altarpieces featuring minutely realistic depictions of surface effects, light and shadow garnered him commissions and followers far and wide. 

His ability was ‘second to none’, affirms Foister. ‘He was the artist in demand all over Europe.’ 

Van Eyck was also a shameless self-promoter, frequently proclaiming his artistic identity in his paintings. In contrast to his European contemporaries, he regularly signed his name and dated his works. He even adopted a personal motto, which can be translated from the Flemish as, ‘As well as I can’. 

‘He was a very self-conscious artist,’ says Foister. ‘He must have felt very secure in the value others put on his painterly skills.’


Jan van Eyck (Maaseik?, c. 1390-1441), The Madonna at the Fountain, 1439. Oil on panel. 19 x 12 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp ©www.lukasweb.be -Art in Flanders vzw. Photo: Hugo Maertens

Little is known of Van Eyck’s origins. It is thought that he was born in around 1390 near Maastricht in what is modern-day Holland, and began his career as an illuminator. In around 1422, he took up a position in The Hague as an artist at the court of John of Bavaria, Count of Holland.

After the death of John III in 1425, Van Eyck moved to Bruges, where he became court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, then one of the most powerful men in the Low Countries.


Jan (c.1390-1441) and Hubert van Eyck (c. 1366/1370-1426), The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432. Outer panels of the closed altarpiece. Oil on panel. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent © www.lukasweb.be

Over the next 20 years or so, Van Eyck painted many religious commissions as well as portraits of Burgundian courtiers, local nobles, clergymen and influential merchants. Today, however, only around 20 authenticated Van Eyck works survive, all of which reside in public institutions around the world.

Of these, perhaps the most famous is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, above, also known as the Ghent Altarpiece. Dismantled many times over and looted by Napoleon and the Nazis, it was finally reassembled after the end of the Second World War. Following a major restoration project that began in 2012, the eight outer panels will now go on display outside of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral once again. 

‘The last time that parts of the Ghent Altarpiece were shown together with other works by Van Eyck was in the Musée Napoléon in Paris between 1800 and 1815, and in Berlin between 1830 until 1918,’ explains Till-Holger Borchert. ‘It is unlikely that the Ghent Altarpiece or substantial parts of it will ever be lent again. So, this is your chance. It really is once in a lifetime.’


Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), The Annunciation, c.1434-1436. Oil on panel, transferred onto canvas. 92.7 x 36.7 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

In addition to the Ghent Altarpiece, star exhibits include Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir) (1432), below, one of three Van Eyck paintings in the collection of the National Gallery in London. The portrait depicts an unidentified sitter in three-quarters view with clear, blue eyes, holding a scroll. This is the first time the work has been loaned by the institution since its acquisition in 1857.


Photographed before its recent restoration: Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir or Tymotheos), 1432. Oil on panel. 33.3 x 18.9 cm. The National Gallery, London. © The National Gallery, London

So why now? ‘Portrait of a Man  is of the same date as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,’ explains Foister. ‘To be able to place these two works of very different scale alongside one another in the same physical space will greatly advance our understanding of the artist and his genius.’

Portrait of a Man has also recently been extensively restored. The removal of layers of yellowed varnish and dirt have made it ‘extraordinarily three-dimensional in a way that it wasn’t before,’ says Foister. ‘Now it is no longer brown, we can actually see it properly.’


Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441). Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, 1436. Oil on panel. 33 x 27.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wenen, Gemäldegalerie

Other standout exhibits include a group of medieval manuscripts; a portrait of the Bruges goldsmith Jan de Leeuw from 1436, above, on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; and Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon (c. 1428-30), which depicts the sitter in three-quarters view holding a ring.


Master of the Llangattock Hours and Willem Vrelant (Southern Netherlands, active 1454-1481), The Llangattock Hours, c. 1450, The Annunciation. Tempera, gold leaf, gold paint and ink on parchment. 264 x 184 mm. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Madonna at the Fountain (1439) and The Annunciation Diptych (c. 1433-1435), an outstanding example of grisaille painting, will hang alongside a selection of 15th- and 16th-century copies of paintings by Van Eyck that have been lost over time.

Van Eyck’s influence on later generations of artists has long been the subject of scholarly research and international exhibitions. More recently, disciples have included surrealist pop artists Mark Ryden and Marion Peck; and the Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

Botero’s love affair with Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) appears to have begun in the 1960s. Since then, he has revisited the the work on numerous occasions, tweaking his composition each time. In 2009 Christie’s sold The Arnolfini (after Van Eyck) (1997) for $842,500.

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‘The main aim of this exhibition is to share our enthusiasm for Van Eyck with as many people as possible,’ says Till-Holger Borchert. ‘We are bringing to life his revolutionary technique as never before.’ 

Van Eyck: An Optical Illusion, 1 February-30 April, Museum of Fine Arts Ghent

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