Considered one of the most complex paintings in the history of western art, The Arnolfini Portrait executed in 1434 by the Flemish master Jan Van Eyck continues to intrigue art historians and art lovers alike. The painting is extraordinary for its intense realism and pictorial illusionism coupled with a plethora of symbolic elements that continue to conflate our reading of this enigmatic work centuries after it was completed.
Fernando Botero--a perennial and devoted student of the history of art and of visual culture is known for his many citations of old master and modern paintings. His particular love affair with Van Eyck's wedding portrait appears to have begun in the 1960s and has continued throughout much of his career during which time he has re-visited the Flemish master's creation on numerous occasions offering up multiple versions of the iconic double portrait whilst bringing his own unmistakable vision and penchant for disproportionate and voluminous forms.
Indeed with each version Botero has tweaked the composition most notably the relationship between the sitters and the space they occupy. And, perhaps no version is as complex and more nearly approximates the original source than the present example executed in 1997. As is characteristic with much of Botero's work from the 1980s onwards, the environment asserts a greater visual significance in his paintings no longer a mere backdrop on which to superimpose his corpulent characters. And while here as elsewhere the figures remain the main protagonists, it is interesting to note this formal shift and its impact on how we perceive the two figures relationship to space and the larger world they inhabit. In the current work, the use of orthogonal lines echoed by the ceiling beams, the wooden floor boards, the window frame and bed canopy not only introduce the dramatic effects of linear perspective and depth to the composition but magnetically thrusts the viewer's attention to the center of the composition to where our wedded couple have joined hands in a symbolic gesture of their matrimonial union.
Here too Botero employs a greater number of architectural and decorative motifs that more closely replicate those utilized by Van Eyck--the chandelier, mirror, and cushioned chair in the center, the open window to the left of the groom, the elaborately upholstered red canopy bed to the right of the bride, and the barely visible Persian rug peeking out from under the bed. Other details appropriated from the original work include the small lap dog and the slippers at the bottom of the composition as well as the meticulously arranged oranges on the window ledge and table below. And while many of these elements are less embellished in Botero's painting and perhaps not as symbolically charged, here as in the Flemish painter's version they are critical to providing a context--valuable tools for deciphering the private, domestic world of our newlyweds. Moreover their well-appointed space coupled with their opulent garments provides valuable insight with regards to their public lives and social standing.
But alas, Botero's painting is less concerned with simply replicating the original source or commenting on that era's social mores and habits. Rather what makes the The Arnolfini (after Van Eyck) exciting is the manner in which the artist utilizes the formal tropes associated with western art and pictorial illusionism to simultaneously assert and undermine notions of truth and "realism" in painting. Indeed while Van Eyck meticulously and seamlessly rendered every detail in his painting with an almost photographic verisimilitude, Botero is consistently reminding us of the artifice involved in constructing that visual world. And despite his use of the traditional representational devices of perspective and depth, the relationship between the physical space and the couple remains incongruous. Likewise Botero inserts himself in the reflection of the "painting" in the gilded mirror in a sly gesture more reminiscent of Velásquez in his epic Las Meninas than in an homage to Van Eyck. Similarly the curious open window with the orange still life motif recalls the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte's 1933 La condition humaine--another potent and wry reminder by the Colombian master of the fragile limits between reality and representation.