Acquired by the National Gallery, London, in 1842, the Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck informed the Pre-Raphaelites’ belief in empirical observation, their ideas about draughtsmanship, colour and technique, and the ways in which objects in a picture could carry symbolic meaning.
The exhibition will bring together for the first time the Arnolfini Portrait with paintings from the Tate collection and loans from other museums, to explore the ways in which Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) and William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), among others, were influenced by the painting in their work.
What the critics say
The show provides an unmissable opportunity to study Van Eyck’s masterpiece at close quarters (it is hung lower than usual, without its customary barrier) as well as enjoy a number of major Pre-Raphaelite works on loan from Tate Britain. The Pre-Raphaelites admired Van Eyck’s rich jewel-like colours, his minute oil technique, his domestic and religious symbolism, and his intensely natural light effects; the show argues convincingly, if a little simplistically, that this early 15th century picture helped usher in a new type of British painting.
In principle this exhibition’s thesis – that the National Gallery’s purchase of this masterpiece in 1842 had a seismic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – appears plausible enough. Sure, why not, but why should we care? Yet it completely fails even to prove that case. The paintings chosen do not demonstrate any important connection between Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites.
There is no doubt that Reflections, at the National Gallery, is beautifully designed. But its argument, about the impact of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait upon 19th-century British art, proves tenuous in the extreme. Van Eyck was a genius at summoning a simulacrum of reality, of course, but he was also a master at balancing complex, fiddly passages, such as the elaborate green sleeve of the woman’s dress in the Arnolfini Portrait, or the intricate structure of the brass chandelier, with areas of calm, such as the plain floorboards. The Pre-Raphaelites, by contrast, were gluttons for embellishment, cramming their pictures with clashing surfaces and textures, to the point of surfeit.
Looking at the early work of the Pre-Raphaelites alongside pieces by Van Eyck, there is a clear correlation of styles. The minute precision of the scenes depicted, the use of jewel-bright tones and a fascination with symbol-filled domestic interiors all demonstrate the influence of these early developers of oil painting. The problem is that the correlation is both blindingly obvious and yet not obvious at all. There is very little textual or practical evidence to say that members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thought much about Van Eyck at all.
- 2 October 2017 – 2 April 2018
- Location: Sunley Room
- Admission is £10 on weekdays (Monday–Friday) and £12 on weekends (Saturday–Sunday)
- Pre-book online and save £2