In the 1400s as Italian Renaissance painters were perfecting their art, up north it seemed that one particular Flemish painter had already perfected the art of oil painting. Painting like this had never been seen from any other artist of the time. At the time, his secret to oil painting had been a mystery. Today we know Jan van Eyck must have used optics to capture such intricate details, but in many ways it is still a mystery as to how he painted them so exquisitely and perfectly.
Van Eyck's date of birth is uncertain, but was probably around 1390. He is often traditionally credited with the invention of oil painting, but we know this is incorrect as there is documentation from Theophilus Presbyter on oil painting in his On Divers Arts written in the 12th century. Though many of the human figures in Van Eyck's paintings are conceptualized in form, he still no doubt perfected the art of oil painting in ways that no other painter of the time came close to. His work is notoriously known for almost microscopic details of jewels and gold painted to perfection.
Van Eyck's greatest masterpiece to depict such details is the Ghent Altarpiece. Though it is one of Van Eyck's earliest works and the figures are conceptualized, there is an astonishing realism, and almost photographic quality that practically no Italian Renaissance artist of the time ever captured. The altarpiece is a among the first paintings to incorporate a technique known as trompe l'oeil, where the figures seem to have such a natural 3-dimensionality and life-likeness that one would expect them to walk right off the panel and into our reality. This can be seen particularly in Van Eyck's painting of Adam and Eve on the altarpiece.
Another of Van Eyck's mysterious masterpieces is his Arnolfini Wedding, currently displayed at the National Gallery in London. Van Eyck only has a few masterpieces that we can admire today, but each one no doubt played a crucial role in influencing many of the great northern European painters, and certainly still influence painters of oil to this day.
Jan Van Eyck
Detail from Ghent Altarpiece
oil on wood