Man and wife — the greatest marriage portraits in art history
Andrew Graham-Dixon offers his shortlist for an imaginary exhibition of favourite paintings inspired by love and marriage
I was lucky enough to get married last summer. It was a quiet ceremony in a tiny neo-Gothic chapel in a remote corner of Scotland. Friends took photographs, in which everyone present looks happy but ruffled, and a little squinty: a strong northwesterly had sprung up just as we were leaving the church, and the sun was shining directly into everybody’s eyes.
Looking at our joyfully imperfect pictures set me thinking about other, much earlier images inspired by love and marriage: more formal images, created in more formal times. Never having previously given it much thought, I realised that some of my favourite paintings fall into the category — one way or another — of marriage pictures. In the spirit of André Malraux’s musée imaginaire, I found myself putting together an imaginary exhibition devoted to the subject. So here is my shortlist of pictures to include.
First, The Arnolfini Marriage, by Jan van Eyck, from the National Gallery in London. Painted in 1434, it is one of the earliest and eeriest Renaissance paintings to depict a married couple. Despite the traditional title, it is not certain that the people in it are actually Mr and Mrs Arnolfini.
Leaving aside the
enigma of their identity, this pinched and wary man and his
porcelain-skinned wife were surely valued by Van Eyck, to
judge by the extravagant flourish of the artist’s signature
on the wall above the convex mirror behind them. ‘Jan van
Eyck was here,’ it declares, suggesting that the picture
may have been a gift: a lasting reminder of Van Eyck’s presence
at the propitious moment of their union.
It is a secular portrait, in the sense that it shows the couple
holding hands at home after their wedding, having kicked
off their clogs, rather than in church making their vows.
But it is nonetheless as heavily freighted with symbolic
detail as any altarpiece.
A candle has been lit in the brass chandelier above the couple’s
heads, despite the milky Flemish daylight bathing the room:
the unextinguishable flame of true love. A beady-eyed terrier
stands guard at their feet: the dogged embodiment of fidelity. A tall Gothic chair at the back of the room, on the bride’s side,
is decorated with a carving of St Margaret, whose legends
associate her with chastity; and below the carving hangs
a broom of twigs, for cleanliness and therefore purity.
One of the most magical aspects of Piero della Francesca’s portraits is their landscape background, which is still recognisable today
There is another, lower chair against the back wall, carved
with a gargoyle: similar grotesques can still be seen on
churches today and were once believed to ward off demons,
but this one hovers just above the intertwined hands of husband
and wife, the painter’s way of keeping evil spirits away
from his newly married friends. The apples scattered on sideboard
and windowsill may amount to another form of well-wishing:
a prayer that the union between husband and wife may prove
fruitful. The bunched folds of her dress, green as a meadow
in spring, are gathered by the bride at her own belly, as
if in intimation of future pregnancies.
Secondly, a pair of conjugal portraits painted in Italy some
30 years later: Piero della Francesca’s twinned profile paintings
of Battista Sforza and her husband Federigo da Montefeltro,
in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. They might be Italian, but
Piero’s paintings show the strong influence of Northern Renaissance
art, both in their fineness of detail and their very format,
namely that of the profile portrait, first developed in Van
Eyck’s home city, Bruges, by a younger Flemish master,
For all that, these portraits could only have been painted
in the very peculiar world of the Italian city-state in the
late 15th century. Federigo, unforgettable in his pillar-box
hat and matching red tunic, with his thick curls of black
hair, was a successful condottiere : a mercenary
general, who made fortunes leading his armies into battle
on behalf of the frequently beleaguered rulers of neighbouring
A highly effective bully boy, he was also a humanist and scholar,
as well as the owner of one of the largest libraries in Italy
— into which he would allow only manuscripts, not printed
books, which he despised as vulgar. Widely read in the classics,
he was a quintessential Renaissance man, in the sense that
most of his points of self-comparison were drawn from the
Marching across Italy at the head of his armies, he saw himself as a latter-day Caesar, and that, I suspect, was a powerful reason for his decision to have himself and his bride painted in profile: that was also how the Caesars of Rome had been
depicted, on their coinage. Strengthening this network of
associations, each portrait has a painting on its reverse
side showing Federigo and Battista, just like an emperor
and empress, riding on a chariot in triumph.
Rembrandt had loved and lost, while Vermeer went from health and good fortune to madness and death in a few short days
Federigo liked to be seen as a no-nonsense military man, without
preciousness or vanity: hence his instruction, to Piero,
to paint him warts and all (four warts, to be precise). But
these portraits speak inevitably of a certain kind of vanity.
It is clear enough that Federigo was immensely proud of having
captured a bride from the powerful Sforza family, rulers
of Milan. The most unusual aspect of these portraits is the
fact that she has been placed to the left, he to the right,
in reverse of the prevailing convention: usually the husband
precedes the wife in such paired portraits.
Whether the arrangement reflects deference on Federigo’s part
is, however, open to question. The truth is that he had lost
his right eye in a jousting accident when young, so he always
insisted that he be painted in left profile. The order of
the pictures was thus determined from the outset, not by
any chivalry on Federigo’s part, but by an accident of chivalry
in his past.
One of the most magical aspects of these portraits is their
landscape background, which is still recognisable today,
with some stretch of imagination, from the vantage point
of the palace Federigo built in the hilltop town that was
his fief, namely Urbino: the scorched hills and plains dotted
with trees, the river with sailboats afloat on its placid
expanse, the mountains blued by distance. It strikes me that
the ideal ruler and his wife are mirrors of one another,
just as the boats’ sails are mirrored in the surface of the
water far beneath them. Perfectly impassive, they occupy
a world so imperturbable that it has the quality of a dream.
What other marriage pictures would I choose? Surely
The Jewish Bride, from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam,
that mysterious and wonderfully tender depiction of a man
and woman embracing, in darkness, and perhaps under threat
of some hidden danger. ‘What an intimate, what an infinitely
sympathetic picture it is,’
Vincent van Gogh once wrote about it. ‘Rembrandt is so
deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are
no words in any language.’ And
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, also from the
Vermeer’s meanings are often elusive, but I suspect that we
are meant to understand that the woman in question is reading
a letter from her betrothed, who is away somewhere — hence
the map on the wall of her sunlit room — and that she is
hoping all will turn out for the best. Or perhaps she is
already married (the contours of her body suggest she may
be pregnant), in which case her position is yet more poignant.
Rembrandt had loved and lost, while Vermeer went from health
and good fortune to madness and death in a few short days.
So perhaps it is no wonder that the great Dutch painters,
living in their topsy-turvy world, revolving forever on fortune’s
wheel, understood so well the vulnerability that accompanies
While in Holland, metaphorically at least, I will have to choose
at least one courtship painting — not a painting of or about
marriage as such, but rather a painted invitation to marriage.
I am thinking of the most elaborate Valentine’s card in history,
Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, painted for an unknown sitter
but almost certainly intended as a gift to the woman he wanted
to make his own.
The man with the come-hither eyes, the cocked hat and the nonchalantly
out-thrust elbow is literally wearing his heart on his sleeve,
which has the emblems of passion stitched into it: Cupid’s
arrows, flames of love, lovers’ knots. What did the recipient
make of it, I wonder. It could go either way. But as marriage
proposals go, Hals’ masterpiece takes some beating.
The longer I think about it, the more possible exhibits spring
to mind. Renaissance paintings on marriage chests, for example
(there is a wonderful
pair in the Courtauld collection), from which developed
the later custom of presenting brides with mythological paintings
to welcome them into the family —
Birth of Venus being the most celebrated
of such nuptial gifts.
And what about the extraordinary
portrait of a man and wife, painted circa 60AD and recovered
from the ruins of ancient Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological
Museum in Naples? The man and woman in question were bakers,
and were proud of their ability to read and write, to judge
by the tablet and stylus each holds up so prominently. They
look so earnest, so hopeful, that I like to think they escaped
Pompeii before the volcano blew and set up shop in some other,
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Finally, I could not possibly omit the most memorable English
painting of marriage that I know:
Mr and Mrs Andrews. The painting hangs in the
National Gallery, not so far away from Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage,
and although they are very different from one another, they
do share some common ground. From an airless room in Bruges,
Gainsborough takes us to the open fields of a Suffolk estate,
to the age of the seed drill and of crop rotation.
The languorous Mr Andrews, so elegantly dishevelled that his clothes might
almost be falling off him, stands beside his young wife,
who is seated on a rococo parkland bench and radiant in a
dress as blue as the heavens. The clouds churn above them.
Mrs Andrews’ expression seems to mingle sangfroid and suppressed
excitement. Mr Andrews has his gun tucked under his arm,
while his dog sniffs the air in anticipation. The field in
which they sit, at harvest time, is demonstrably fertile.
Whenever I look at the picture I am reminded of a line from
Shakespeare: ‘He ploughed her, and she cropped.’ Times may
change but people’s hopes for marriage — love, a long life
together and a little one or two to bring up along the way
— do not change so very much, after all.
This article was first published online in December 2018