These two paintings are separated by over a century in years but also by the fact one is a by a Venetian artist of the High Renaissance and the other by a Flemish artist of the earlier century.
The two styles differ wildly – Flemish painters portrayed a realistically detailed world around them in what has been described as a robust style. For me this description aptly sums up The Arnolfini portrait – it is simple but detailed and the figures are what could be described as ‘handsome’ in the Victorian terminology as neither are beautiful in the traditional sense but they have a beauty of their own. The Flemish were skilled oil painters and practically invented the technique of using pigments in oils and developed it to a supremely high level.
The poses of the figures are stood facing the viewer or in the case of the wife slightly offset – the expressions are benign but one of noble authority as fitted their status as they started to move towards higher social circles and also of their present status of wealthy merchants. The husband is holding his wife’s hand with his left hand in an apparent reference to a marriage of un-equals despite the fact that if this is his second wife then she was of equal social status. The wife is holding her dress up in the style of the fashion at the time but when going out she would have had a maid to do this for her. The room also has many religious symbols – the single lit candle representing God, the small pictorial medallions around the mirror, the statue of Margaret on the finial of the bed and even the small dog is a symbol of fertility.
What is most striking though is one my fiance saw – the painting seems to be lit from behind the couple as well as in front and he found his eye was drawn to the back of the portrait first rather than the couple although my own eye was drawn to the faces of the figures which are lit from a light source to the front left. The use of light in this manner indicates to me now that there may have been two windows in the room and the couple are standing between them.
My fiance as I type this has mentioned the background is dramatic but not distracting from the figures which he personally found is the case in The Arnolfini portrait.
The light source is very different too as it is clearly from the front and is much softer as if coming through the glade with the opening of the curtain.
The figures in the painting are also very much more animated in contrapposto poses which create movement and harmony too – the nymphs and the goddess Diana are clearly shocked and alarmed at the appearance of Actaeon and this is expressed clearly by Titian in the gestures he gives them.
Titian was also known for his use of colour to create form and he does so to great effect in this series of works – the figures have a delicacy of touch and sensitivity which contrasts with The Arnolfini portrait which for me is much more based on the qualities of line first. Both the works have jewel like colours and The Arnolfini portrait is without doubt brighter in terms of colours. However Titian’s skill with colour and typical of the High Renaissance brings energy to the poesie piece that for me is missing in The Arnolfini portrait. Notably Jan van Eyck used to great effect the transparency of the oil pigments which enabled the likes of Titian to develop further in the subsequent years – I argue that without the Flemish effectively discovering and developing oil painting and indeed mixing media (including using oil colours over tempera) Titian could not have gone on to create some of his great works. The oil paints with the layering of transparent layers over an opaque background created great depth which had otherwise not been possible.
Further note is made of the development of aerial and linear perspective which again developed in the intervening century – discovered in the 15th and advanced to the level seen in Titian’s works.
Although Jan van Eyck’s period of painting was very much about realism and detail it is a very different era and the detail portrayed is more static and also symbolic but it is also a portrait of an actual couple whereas Titian’s scene is one that is purely mythological. Jan van Eyck was very much a descriptive portrait painter but Titian, in this work, was very much reliant on his own interpretation
The similarities in status of the artists cannot be left out of this post – Jan van Eyck was an internationally renowned painter of his time courted by nobility and even the court of Phillip the Good. Titian too is known as the greatest Venetian artist of the High Renaissance but like his contemporaries he relied on the public commission for fame and fortune but he too was courted by the great of the time and the series of poesie, of which this is one, was commissioned by Phillip II of Spain.
In some ways the differences between the two works are not as great as they seem – both are done in oil paints although The Arnolfini Portrait is done on wood which may account for even a small difference in colour and Diana and Actaeon is on canvas – Giorgione had been the first to use oil on canvas and this became widespread practice. The skilled use of the transparency of the oil paints is apparent in both images although just rendered in the different styles of the time and for the very differing patrons – bearing in mind the Arnolfini couple were wealthy and on the edges of nobility but Titian’s work was done as a direct commission of the court. The differing styles is also due to the fact that one is northern European Flemish art and the other from the High Renaissance – both periods of great artistic skill.
I personally cannot finish this blog without saying which one I favour and it is now more difficult than I thought – I am not a fan of Flemish work of this period but have a great appreciation of the colours, the skill and the style than I ever thought but at the same time although my immediate thought was to favour Titian’s work there is something about Jan van Eyck that I cannot help liking more. I think what it comes down to is the realistic simplicity with the attention to detail and the delicate features of the contours of the figures which give the air of nobility to his work – I am a lover of fine detail and delicacy in all forms of art and textiles. I freely admit to loving Titian’s use of colour but am surprising myself favouring the work of Jan van Eyck and his use of colour but maybe that is because when he painted The Arnolfini portrait it was in the early years of oil painting and the skills and new laws of perspective were being developed in ways that transformed the art of the time.
My appreciation and favoured works of art are now the earlier ones and if I could time travel back to the 15th or 16th Century much to my surprise it would be to the Flemish painters of the 15th.