Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery

Arendse Lund peers into the Arnolfini looking glass and examines its influence on nineteenth-century painting in the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In 1842, a group of young men studying painting at the Royal Academy Schools were fed up with the overblown and hyperbolic gestures that littered the canvases of late-Renaissance artists. They became appalled by the sterile art of Neoclassicism championed by the academy. A turning point in their artistic careers came when the National Gallery purchased Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434). This work was the first Netherlandish work to enter the museum’s collection and changed how the aspiring young artists approached painting.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Royal Academy Schools occupied the east wing of the National Gallery; therefore, access to this new acquisition only required a short stroll through the gallery space. The aspiring artists training there – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt – would inevitably have had seen the Arnolfini Portrait on a regular basis. Rossetti, Millais and Hunt would certainly have noticed the painting style, which was so different from that of late-Italian Renaissance art. It was these artists that went on to found the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, a group which privileged artistic introspection and first-hand observation instead of the overdone expressions of Renaissance art. Whether this painting galvanized the artists to form an artistic brotherhood or not, the curators of the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, do make a convincing argument for the portrait’s enduring influence on them.

The opening to the exhibition is forgettable, perhaps a factor of the awkward layout of the gallery. The works on display seem unnecessary and visitors who are unfamiliar with the space won’t know which direction to go. However, one gem is the video, tucked away in the room to the far right, describing the journey of the Arnolfini Portrait from a relatively unknown artwork to its place of prominence at the National Gallery. The video depicts the curators in conversation about the painting and its influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; it is both an excellent insight into the curation of the show and good background on the Pre-Raphaelites themselves for those less familiar with them. Returning to the main gallery space, the ambitious nature of the exhibition begins to hit with the display of the Arnolfini Portrait itself.

The Arnolfini Portrait is one of those instantly recognizable paintings — at least by sight, if not by name. It features the Italian cloth merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini, a sombre man in a large black hat wearing a fur-lined coat, holding the hand of his wife, Giovanna Cenami, who is depicted in a heavy green dress, bunched up at the waist making her look pregnant. A dog patiently stands at their feet and a small, round mirror behind them reflects the scene back to the viewer.

Edward Burne-Jones, a later member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, once longingly described his own ambition “to do something as deep and rich in colour and as beautifully finished” as the Arnolfini Portrait. When this painting was acquired by the National Gallery, it was virtually unknown; now, it is one of the most famous examples of Early Netherlandish art and it’s easy to see why the Pre-Raphaelites were so taken with it.

The exhibition displays the Arnolfini Portrait alongside many of the paintings it inspired. One of the most striking is John Everett Millais’s Mariana (1851), based on Shakespeare’s character in the problem play Measure for Measure. The bright colors of Mariana’s dress and the stained glass window, the use of ordinary objects (such as the fallen leaves) for symbolic purposes, as well as the meticulous painting techniques, were all attributes of the Arnolfini Portrait that the Pre-Raphaelites so admired.

Even stronger evidence for the influence of Van Eyck on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and a theme of the exhibition as a whole, is the mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait and its persistent presence in works by the Pre-Raphaelites. The mirror was a technical triumph for Van Eyck, and he used it to enlarge the scene, much like mirrors in restaurants do today. In it, he painted the backs of the couple and added two witnesses looking at them — one of whom may be the artist himself. This method of using the mirror as additional space, reflecting subjects which may not be immediately apparent or outside the confines of the painting borders, fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites. Thus the show takes the visitor on a journey from mirrors as tools of reflection to ones of fragmentation; from an artistic device that reveals more of the physical scene, to one that betrays the internal struggle of those depicted.

This theme is playfully literalised and incorporated into the exhibition. Turning a corner, visitors are confronted by a convex mirror, which delightfully places them into the scene of the exhibit itself. The dark tonality of the paintings are mirrored in the dim lighting of the gallery space. The partial copy of Las Meninas (1862) hung on the far wall provides a reflected backdrop to a surprisingly intimate moment of the museum-going experience.

The progression of the show makes chronological and thematic sense, as the curators showcase the strengths of the Pre-Raphaelites and how the same subject matter was often replicated in many of their artworks. The penultimate room, however, shows the inspiration the artists drew from medieval and contemporary literature, including Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1833). In this highly anthologized poem, a cursed woman is forced to weave the scenes outside her tower but can’t look directly at them. Instead, Tennyson’s verse describes how: ‘before her hangs a mirror clear, / Reflecting tower’d Camelot.’ The Pre-Raphaelites became fascinated with this mythical woman of Arthurian legend, and John WIlliam Waterhouse’s painting, The Lady of Shalott (1888), captures this, as the lady powerfully turns and, entangled in her fateful weaving, gazes directly out at the viewer.

All the paintings, in this room in particular, pay close attention to the details of the soft woven fabrics of outfits and the traditional crafts, all of which alludes to the Pre-Raphaelite involvement with the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement began around 1880 and became one of the most profound design-movements of the modern era. Fans of William Morris will spot references to him in the exhibition video (complete with a brief image of a Kelmscott Press book) and his painting Le Belle Iseult (1858) is also displayed in the final room. Again, the pictorial specificities of the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings, together with their interest in hand-crafted artisan products subtly nods back to Van Eyck’s famous work and his eponymous cloth merchant figure, Arnolfini himself.

Critical opinion on the Pre-Raphaelites was divided in the nineteenth century, with Charles Dickens once referring to a Millais painting as “the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive and revolting.” However, their influence on contemporary art, modern design and “art for art’s sake” is unmistakable. While the Pre-Raphaelites were torn between a nostalgia for the past, focusing on medieval subjects and recoiling against late Renaissance artistic style, they also looked towards the future with their new artistic techniques, such as their near photo-realist depiction of natural detail.

The exhibition is an homage to the theme and influence of Van Eyck on the Pre-Raphaelites. Overall, the curatorial selection is convincing, the progression is logical and the art is beautiful. Its focus on the Pre-Raphaelite use of the mirror reflects on the development of the artists and their technique, turning this into something more than just another ode to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although the Arnolfini Portrait is always on display at the National Gallery, the context this exhibition provides elevates the painting and its Pre-Raphaelite successors. You will never look at a mirror in a painting in the same way again.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is at the National Gallery, London, from 2 October, 2017 – 2 April, 2018. For more information, visit nationalgallery.org.uk.


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