Picture Worth Many
It has been a labor of love and the challenge
of a lifetime.
Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Double Portrait, painted in 1434, has
been on Art History professor Craig Harbison's mind for more than
a quarter of a century. He studied with its most famous critic,
Erwin Panofsky, while in graduate school at Princeton in the late
'60s, and he has been publishing about it since the early '80s.
Harbison has written about the portrait four times and is incubating
a fifth consideration of the piece.
The painting is significant for a number of reasons. It is the
only surviving panel from 15th-century northern Europe that carefully
renders contemporary people engaging each other in a contemporary
interior. It is an early example of the skilled use of oil paints
because van Eyck was the first to perfect that medium. Its images
are realistic, almost photographic. And it exhibits a new level
of self-consciousness on the part of the artist with its convex
mirror suggesting the presence of two people in addition to the
couple in the painting - one of which could be van Eyck - and
a flourishing signature that translates "Jan van Eyck was here."
One of the reasons Harbison chose to attend Princeton was the
annual seminar Panofsky taught there. Panofsky, who worked at
the nearby Institute for Advanced Studies and volunteered his
time to Princeton graduate students, taught an approach to art
history in which one discovered the meaning of a work of art by
examining its details for their symbolic content. qqIn what may
have been his most famous analysis, Panofsky had earlier "solved"
the riddle of the Arnolfini Double Portrait, which he and others
before him called the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.
The painting's likely subjects, Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna
Cenami, were wealthy merchant-class Italians who became well-connected
in the Duke of Burgundy's court. Panofsky claimed that the exquisitely
rendered details symbolically pointed to a sacred marriage of
the two figures and that the painting could be seen as a kind
of legal document, a marriage certificate with van Eyck's signature
on the wall and what may be his reflection in a mirror as evidence
he bore witness to the event.
Rather than have his students rehash his own observations, he
asked them to study works he felt had not been sufficiently decoded.
"He would give out a problem for each student to seek the 'right
answer,'" Harbison said. "It was a very exciting idea at the time."
When Harbison was nearing tenure, he began to look beyond Panofsky's
approach to criticism in general and to the Arnolfini portrait
in particular. He used part of his sabbatical in 1977 to rethink
the role of symbolism and realism in understanding the double
portrait and other works.
"I had become sort of a rebellious Panofsky-ite," he said. "I
remember just sitting in the library here and thinking and thinking
and thinking about how I would redo Panofsky, what wasn't satisfying,
what wasn't answered about his work." Art historians and scholars
in other fields were looking at "facts" and artifacts in the context
of the social milieu that produced them.
"Social history was becoming increasingly important," he said.
"Panofsky had never really talked about what kind of people these
were. I went after the people in all of these van Eyck paintings,
researched about patrons."
The more he looked, the more relevant information he found.
"I'd think, 'Oh my heavens, this is really interesting; this
could be related to the painting,'" he said. "Panofsky didn't
think the painting was that socially conscious, and I did."
His book, "Jan van Eyck, The Play of Realism," came out in 1991,
the year after he published an important paper on the Arnolfini
Double Portrait, using a broader, more synthetic approach to the
piece than had traditional scholarship, which tended to limit
its focus to the realism or symbolism of the painting's details.
The paper called for recognizing the narrative function of the
painting, allowing for a range of often complex and layered meanings
for both its 15th- and 20th-century audiences. The article was
so important that the Renaissance Quarterly recognized it as one
of its two best papers in 1990. In 1995, he published "The Mirror
of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context,"
which applied some of his new ideas to a larger group of works.
He has a variety of active scholarly interests, including the
social origins and functions of 16th-century Flemish still-life
paintings, 16th-century northern artists in Italy, and sexuality
and gender issues in northern Renaissance art. Harbison will be
in Fairfield, Conn., April 16 at the Institute for Religious Education
and Pastoral Studies at Sacred Heart University, lecturing on
"The Religious Context and Meaning of Jan van Eyck's Mystic Lamb
Alter-piece." On Feb. 13 he appeared on WWLP, Channel 22 in Springfield,
discussing the symbolism of roses. He is researching and writing
a textbook that surveys northern Renaissance art. And he is still
pondering the Arnolfini Double Portrait.
Last fall the BBC produced a half-hour show, called "Renaissance
Secrets" and subtitled "The Mystery of the Marriage," designed
to encourage people to enroll in England's Open University. It
aired for the first time in late November on BBC-2 to an audience
of approximately 1.4 million. The segment opens and concludes
with Harbison in the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies
and follows him to Brugges, featuring his commentary throughout.
The "mystery" alluded to in the subtitle is the ever-elusive
answer to the question Harbison poses about the painting in the
first minute: "What is going on?"
Perhaps the biggest problem the show presents the reader is a
startling discovery, made after Harbison published his Renaissance
In the early '90s Jacques Paviot, a French naval historian found
something that challenged previously accepted beliefs about the
painting. While doing unrelated research, he stumbled across a
reference to what appears to have been what was generally accepted
to be happening in the painting: Arnolfini's wedding to Giovanna
Cenami. But the document Paviot found placed the wedding in 1447,
13 years after the date on the double portrait and six years after
van Eyck's death.
This raised questions among scholars as to the identity of the
woman and even the man in the portrait. Harbison had worked hard
to understand the world of Arnolfini in order to interpret the
portrait. What if the man weren't Arnolfini? But he saw in the
new "problem" evidence that suggested a new theory.
"I think it's an earlier image of the same man," he said. "One
of the things that they didn't bring out in the show is that an
odd thing about the painting - and the reason it became so famous
- is that it left the family. Within 15 years, it was a gift to
the court in Burgundy and ended up in the royal collection in
Spain. For some reason, the Arnolfini family gave it up.
"When I heard this thing about the marriage date, I thought,
'Oh, if this was a first wife and there were no offspring, then
the painting became superfluous.' Most of the paintings van Eyck
did remained in the family."
If there were no offspring, he mused, it may have been because
the painted couple had trouble conceiving and the painting could
be depicting a religious ritual associated with restoring fertility.
Harbison has been researching infertility in the Renaissance and
the rituals associated with eradicating it for several years.
Once again, all the carefully rendered details become important,
providing clues to the activity in the picture.
"The painting keeps drawing me back," he says during the show.
"It's so concise, so many things brought together so perfectly
that I think of it as a magnet which I simply cannot stay away
from. I can't put it aside and put it out of my mind for long.
... I look again, I read something else, another detail emerges.
The painting again shifts and changes and a whole new level of
mystery or intrigue is opened up."
"All works of art are mysterious," Harbison said in March. "There
have been periods in art history when there was a feeling that
you could penetrate the mysteries, you could ... get all the clues
in the proper order."
But few art historians believe that today, he said.
"Now we do almost nothing but social history. And that, too,
"Great paintings keep revealing themselves in different ways,
which is why I still believe in the 'Canon.' They keep people
occupied. This happens to be the one I got saddled with."