arnolfini wedding, jan van eyck
Margaret Koster’s new suggestion, discussed above and below, that the portrait is a memorial one, of a wife already dead for a year or so, would displace these theories. Art historian Maximiliaan Martens has suggested that the painting was meant as a gift for the Arnolfini family in Italy. It had the purpose of showing the prosperity and wealth of the couple depicted. He feels this might explain oddities in the painting, for example why the couple are standing in typical winter clothing while a cherry tree is in fruit outside, and why the phrase “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” is featured so large in the centre of the painting. Herman Colenbrander has proposed that the painting may depict an old German custom of a husband promising a gift to his bride on the morning after their wedding night. He has also suggested that the painting may have been a present from the artist to his friend. 
The green of the woman’s dress symbolizes hope, possibly the hope of becoming a mother. The bright green colour is also indicative of the couple’s wealth; dyeing fabric such a shade was difficult, and therefore expensive.  Her white cap could signify purity, but probably signifies her being married. Behind the pair, the curtains of the marriage bed have been opened; the red curtains might allude to the physical act of love between the married couple.
Jan van Eyck. Portrait of Giovanni(?) Arnolfini and his Wife. 1434. The National Gallery, London
We’d be remiss if we didn’t address the rather pregnant appearance of Signora Arnolfini. Again, was this an accurate representation of the couple, a hope for the future, another allusion to Mary, or merely a fashionable dress?
Returning to the Arnolfini Portrait, there is also a second possibility, that this is a depiction of a second marriage, for which the records have been lost. Certainly the woman’s face appears particularly young, almost doll-like – although this youth is no indication that she was a second wife, as girls could be married before they were even teenagers at this time. Her appearance is very fashionable, with a high, plucked brow and specifically styled hair. Scholarship does not seem to think that she is pregnant although she does immediately appear that way, but rather that she was lifting a great deal of heavy, pleated cloth in order to show off her expensive blue underskirt. Of course, this could be a mistake and the cloth could have been simply intended to draw attention to her waist; there is after all, no mistaking the obvious bed behind her, symbolically decked out entirely in red – an inarguable signifier of love, and passion.
This brings us to the question: who were this couple? The male subject to the viewer’s left of the scene is most recently thought to be a Bruges merchant named Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, and the woman beside him his wife. However, there are several problems associated with the second half of this identification. The artist has clearly written on the painting, in ornate Latin, “Jan van Eyck was here 1434.” However, Giovanni’s wife had died in 1433, which presents the possible hypothesis: van Eyck had begun the work in 1433 while his patron’s wife was alive but she had died by the time he finished it, or it was simply a posthumous portrait. This theory is not unreasonable, and is supported by much of the visual content of the scene: the male figure’s loose grasp on the woman’s slipping hand, and the odd candles in the ornate chandelier – that on the man’s side is still whole and lit, while the opposite candle holder is empty aside from a few drips of wax, signifying that the man’s life light is still burning while hers has burnt out.
Even the room itself if not a literal record of the couple’s home. Although it looks as if van Eyck has simply removed a wall, close examination reveals inconsistencies. The chandelier cannot fit into the space it seems to occupy; there is no sign of a fireplace; the bed is too short and the ornate convex mirror on the back wall seems impossibly large. As usual, van Eyck created a perfectly convincing show of reality but altered things to fit his aesthetic purposes and perhaps also to accord with Arnolfini’s aspirations.
The house is of brick. Its window opens onto a garden, and a cherry tree can be glimpsed through the open shutters. The large and luxurious bed is covered with expensive red woollen cloth, and red cushions and fabric are scattered on the bedside chair and the bench. This is not a bedroom but a reception room, and the bed – the most expensive item of furniture in the house – is an essential part of its furnishings. The chair and bench are ornately carved, an oriental carpet lies on the floor and a splendid brass chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Even the carelessly scattered oranges indicate wealth; such fruit was extremely expensive. But this is not a palace: the floor is boarded and the walls are plastered rather than panelled or hung with tapestries. We are looking into a reception room in the comfortable, modern mansion of a wealthy merchant.
It is considered one of the most original and complex paintings in Western art, because of its beauty, complex iconography, geometric orthogonal perspective, and expansion of the picture space with the use of a mirror. According to Ernst Gombrich “in its own way it was as new and revolutionary as Donatello’s or Masaccio’s work in Italy. A simple corner of the real world had suddenly been fixed on to a panel as if by magic . For the first time in history the artist became the perfect eye-witness in the truest sense of the term”. The portrait has been considered by Erwin Panofsky and some other art historians as a unique form of marriage contract, recorded as a painting. Signed and dated by van Eyck in 1434, it is, with the Ghent Altarpiece by the same artist and his brother Hubert, the oldest very famous panel painting to have been executed in oils rather than in tempera. The painting was bought by the National Gallery in London in 1842.
The Arnolfini Portrait (or The Arnolfini Wedding, The Arnolfini Marriage, the Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, or other titles) is a 1434 oil painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. It forms a full-length double portrait, believed to depict the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife, presumably in their home in the Flemish city of Bruges.