Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck was a Flemish painter active in Bruges and is generally considered one of the most significant Northern European painters of the 15th century. Only about 23 surviving works are confidently attributed to him, of which ten, including the Ghent altarpiece, are signed and dated. Little is known of his early life, but his emergence as a collectable painter generally follows his appointment to the court of Philip the Good c. 1425, and from this point his activity in the court is comparatively well documented.

Neither the date nor place of Jan van Eyck's birth is documented. It is not known where he was educated, but his use of Greek and Hebrew alphabets in many of the inscriptions in his works indicate that he had been schooled in the classics. From the coats of arms on his tombstone, it is believed he came from the gentry class. The first extant record of his life comes from the court of John of Bavaria at The Hague.

Following the death of John of Bavaria in 1425, van Eyck entered the service of the powerful and influential Valois prince, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. He resided in Lille for a year and then moved to Bruges, where he lived until his death in 1441. A number of documents record his activities in Philip's service. He was sent on several diplomatic missions on behalf of the Duke, such as his difficult journey to faraway Lisbon to prepare the ground for the Duke's wedding to Isabella of Portugal. Van Eyck's task was to paint the bride, so that the Duke would be able to form a picture of Isabella before the marriage. The princess was probably not particularly attractive, and that is exactly how Van Eyck painted her. He showed his sitters as dignified but did not hide their imperfections.

As court painter and "valet de chambre" to the Duke, van Eyck was exceptionally well paid. His salary alone makes Jan van Eyck an exceptional figure among early Netherlandish painters, since most of them depended on individual commissions for their livelihoods. Jan van Eyck produced paintings for private clients in addition to his work at the court. Foremost among these is the Ghent Altarpiece painted for Jodocus Vijdts and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. Started sometime before 1426 and completed, at least partially, by 1432, this polyptych has been seen to represent "the final conquest of reality in the North", differing from the great works of the Early Renaissance in Italy by virtue of its willingness to forgo classical idealization in favor of the faithful observation of nature.

Exceptionally for his time, van Eyck often signed and dated his frames, then considered an integral part of the work. It is because of his habit of signing his work that his reputation has survived and that attribution has not been as difficult and uncertain as with other first generation artists of the early Netherlandish school. Over the following decade van Eyck's reputation and technical ability grew, mostly from his innovative approaches towards the handling and manipulating of oil paint. His revolutionary approach to oil was such that a myth, perpetuated by Giorgio Vasari, arose that he had invented oil painting.

It is known from historical record that van Eyck was considered a revolutionary master across northern Europe within his lifetime; his designs and methods were heavily copied and reproduced. The years between 1434 and 1436 are generally considered his high point when he produced works including the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna and Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. He married the much younger Margaret around 1432. He died young in July 1441, leaving behind many unfinished works to be completed by workshop journeymen; works that are nevertheless today considered major examples of Early Flemish painting. His local and international reputation was aided by his ties to the then political and cultural influence of the Burgundian court.