Judith Flanders

The odd couple | 24 September 2011

Carola Hicks was an acclaimed art historian, and, as she phrased it, a biographer of objects, exploring the ‘lives’ of art-historical subjects from the Bayeux tapestry to the stained-glass windows of King’s College Chapel, and now Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Wedding Portrait’, deftly weaving together the history of the times in which the objects were created, art-historical analysis and a study of their afterlife, both how the pieces were treated by successive generations and what the cultural resonances of those treatments might tell us today.

‘The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait’, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434, may or may not be a portrait of a couple named Arnolfini, and may or may not commemorate their wedding, but it is certainly one of the greatest and most famous works of art of all times. Tiny (it measures only 32 x 23 inches), it conveys a mysterious sense of otherness; at the same time it depicts with almost eerie photographic realism the interior of a bourgeois merchant’s house in Bruges.

It is also the earliest surviving depiction of a full-length portrait whose subjects are neither royal nor aristocratic, and Hicks traces its path as the painting moved gently across Europe, handed on like a dynastic child, from a courtier, to Marguerite of Austria, then to Philip II of Spain, then to Joseph Bonaparte, who added it to his baggage as he fled the country, only for it to be looted by a British army officer after the Battle of Vitoria.

It was then offered to the Prince Regent who, belying his reputation for artistic discernment, refused it (after hanging on to it for more than a year). It was finally purchased for £600 by the nascent National Gallery, and has since remained one of the prizes of the collection, influencing artists from Holman Hunt to David Hockney.

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