How influential was Jan Van Eyck?

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                                 How influential was Jan Van Eyck?

It is argued that the development of realism in the north could not have happened without the influence of Italian art. Such an argument however fails to consider that there was a strong tradition of realistic representation in the north; most evident in the sculptures of Carl Sluter. This realistic approach to depiction had in turn its roots in the Sienese art of the trecento whose influence underpinned the move towards realism in both the north and Italy. Therefore it can be argued that the advent of naturalistic depiction was not sudden, it did not suddenly appear with Van Eyck; he fits in with the natural development of the trend. However Van Eyck's influence is discernable in his approach. He takes realism further than any of his predecessors in its hair-splitting minuteness. His approach is akin to an attempt to get as close as possible to the perfection of God by trying to reconstruct reality down to its minutes detail.

The care that Van Eyck took to depict in meticulous detail even the most insignificant object must have had a considerable impact in laying the foundations for the development of still-life, which became an important genre in Dutch and European art in subsequent centuries. The focused attention on every day objects, seeing them as sacred however insignificant, must have had an impact on the development of still-life. Looking for instance at the depiction of fruit in the Arnofini Wedding, the apple on the window sill, the oranges on the furniture, a gentle clear light falling on them. It is easy to see how such an approach could have sown the seeds for the development of still-life. By concentrating on that part of the canvas for a few moments it is possible to detect a tangible sense of tranquillity and spiritual peace, which are important features of still-life.

It can be argued that with Van Eyck we see the union of the human with the divine, the descending or manifestation of the divine upon everyday reality. However this manifestation is not overt, it is more felt rather than seen, something that is achieved primarily through the treatment of light. This can be seen in the translucent quality of the religious paintings as for instance the resplendent visual of the Van der Paele Virgin. The presence of the sacred or holy, which in Italian art of the time was portrayed by means of the halo, is depicted in Van Eyck through the creation of a sense of diffuse, subdued, yet luminous light. For instance in the “Rolin Madonna” the light comes from the right where the angel is; it is not related to the light from outside, therefore we have the implied presence of divine light. The influence of such a symbolic treatment of light can perhaps be seen in Filippo Lippi's 'The Tarquinia Madonna' where unusually for Italian art of the period there are no halos. The presence of the divine, like in Van Eyck, is suggested through the symbolic use of light. In ‘The Tarquinia Madonna’ behind the head of the Madonna Lippi has depicted an open door out of which comes a gentle, diffuse light, which seems to some extent to fulfil the role of a halo.

It can therfore be argued that the depiction of the divine in the shape of the gentle, diffuse, yet luminous light is one of the essential features of Van Eyck's art. It is especially significant that it is subtle yet pervasive. Such an approach and treatment of what can be termed as the light of God can to some extent be also seen in the late religious paintings by Rembrandt most notably in “Jacob Blessing the Son of Joseph”; where although there is no visible source of light the scene is infused with a soft light. The suggestion here is not that Rembrandt directly imitated Van Eyck. The influence can be considered on the basis that Van Eyck laid the premises upon which such a depiction could be attempted; that the divine could be portrayed in realistic depictions. Therefore it can be argued that Van Eyck initiated a shift in attitude that had an impact on subsequent artists.

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Consequently it can be argued that with Van Eyck we see the onset of a new understanding of how the divine is to be depicted and portrayed. Whereas medieval art was mainly preoccupied with the visionary portrayal of the otherworldly, Van Eyck's depiction of the divine was very much rooted in its manifestation in the living creation right in front of his eyes. His praise to God was given in the meticulous depiction of reality which reveals a wonder and love of creation. Consequently while it has been argued that with Van Eyck we see the secularization of art ...

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