Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait by Carola Hicks

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Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait by Carola Hicks

Category: Art
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed close-up look at the renowned 15th-century painting known as the Arnolfini Marriage, as well as a history of its provenance and various owners.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099526896

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The Arnolfini marriage portrait, as it is generally if perhaps inaccurately known, painted by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, signed and dated 1434, has long been one of the most popular and enigmatic paintings of its time. Of modest size, a little less than three feet high, it is one of the oldest surviving panel pictures to be painted in oils rather than tempera. It is also regarded as the first work of art which simultaneously celebrates both middle-class comfort and monogamous marriage.

Not surprisingly, very little is known for certain about who the sitters are. The common assumption is that it is a portrait commemorating the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and his probably pregnant wife, who are seen at their home in Bruges. Is it a picture of the marriage ceremony, with the painter as a witness barely discernible in the mirror on the wall in the centre - or a celebration of their union? Is the man a highly individualised portrait, and the woman just a stock image, similar to the artist’s saints and Madonnas? Could it possibly have been an In Memoriam picture painted shortly after her death? Or could it possibly be nothing to do with the Arnolfinis, but a self-portrait of the artist and his wife instead?

Nobody will ever know for certain, but it is interesting to speculate on all possible theories that have been advanced over the centuries. It is equally fascinating to read about its history and provenance since it left the artist’s hand. Several chapters in this book relate the saga as it passed from the ownership of the sitters to various members of the Habsburg family, when it moved from Flanders to Spain and into the royal collection there. One of the Kings of Spain allegedly hung it in the lavatory. It was probably seen by Velázquez, who may well have been influenced by it when painting ‘Las Meninas’ (‘The maids of honour’), generally regarded as his greatest work. During the wars of the Napoleonic era it was appropriated from Madrid by Joseph Bonaparte, looted from his baggage by the British army under the Duke of Wellington, came into the collection of a Scottish army officer, and was offered to the Prince Regent who was unimpressed with it. It was purchased for 600 guineas by the National Gallery in 1842. With a couple of exceptions during wartime (it was believed to be near the top of Hitler’s wants list), it has been on display there ever since, being moved to the new Sainsbury wing in 1991. These days it tends to feature highly in polls of most-loved paintings in Britain, and has been much parodied and adapted by cartoonists as well as reproduced on every item of merchandise possible.

Interleaved with accounts of its various changes of ownership, the author – who died in 2010 shortly before completing the book, leaving the task to her widower – discusses every detail and motif in the painting. What is the significance of everything, including the clothes the gentleman is wearing, the lighted candle, the oranges, the rug, the wood carvings on the bed and other furniture, and the dog, a terrier known as the Brussels griffon, described as the most spontaneous element in an otherwise very carefully planned and structured picture? Everything visible in the picture has some meaning, and every detail is meticulously covered. For example, the fixtures and fittings of the window have their significance, in that they have glass in them – a luxury in the days when many people had to make do with shutters over them to keep out the cold, while the candles and brass chandelier are also an indication of wealth. The whole is painted in immaculate detail, as naturalistic as anything painted two centuries later by Vermeer, some of whose portraits are strikingly similar in approach.

Each detail of the picture is illustrated in black and white within the relevant chapter. There is also a 12-plate colour section, which includes contemporary works of art, later ones clearly influenced by the painting. Also shown are a couple of modern parodies, including a 1996 Guardian cartoon by Martin Rowson with Bill Clinton as Giovanni and Tony Blair as the green-gowned bride.

One little myth is cleared up. It had always been assumed that the lady was expecting. In fact, at the time it was fashionable to gather in the folds of a dress under the breasts so they would swell out over the stomach and the fur lining which symbolised the wearer’s wealth.

However, the painting will always be a mystery in some sense. We are never going to know much more about the Arnolfinis themselves than we do now, but in spite of that Hicks has managed to uncover a wealth of extraordinary detail about the painting and its history. I for one will certainly be looking at it in a new, better-informed light on any subsequent visits to that much-frequented darkened corner in the National Gallery.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The War On Heresy: Faith and Power in Medieval Europe by R I Moore

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Buy Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait by Carola Hicks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait by Carola Hicks at Amazon.com.


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