Portrait of Margaret van Eyck (1439)

Van Eyck, Jan (c.1390-1441)

Portrait of Margaret van Eyck (Portret van Margareta van Eyck)
Oil on panel, 32.6 x 25.8 cm

inscription and dating (top): .CO[N]IV[N]X M[EV]S IOH[ANN]ES ME C[OM]PLEVIT AN[N]O . 1439°.17°IVNIJ
age ported (bottom): ETAS MEA TRIGINTA TRIV[M] AN[N]ORV[M]
motto (bottom): A?C. IXH. XAN

Little is known about Jan Van Eyck’s wife Margareta. He painted her in 1439, the earliest portrait of a bourgeois woman. It is believed that she continued to run her husband’s studio for several years after his death.

Van Eyck’s workplace captures our imagination. How did he work there? With whom? Recently, the base of a wine jug with remnants of paint was excavated from the site where his studio once stood. This perhaps reveals something about his actual working methods. Artists used shards such as this to hold the paint after mixing, in order to subsequently apply it to the panel.

The inscription on the original marbled frame makes it possible to identify the woman in this portrait as Margareta van Eyck, the painter’s wife. In translation, the inscription in trompe l’oeil reads: ‘my husband John completed me in the year 1439 on June 17 / my age was thirty-three years’. It is followed by Jan Van Eyck‘s motto ‘als ich can’. The portrait stands out because of the difference in scale between torso and head. Margaret is turned towards the light source, a window that is reflected in her eyes, and is looking at the viewer. The hair is fashionably done up in two cones that are held together with hairnets in a checkerboard pattern. There is a linen veil over it. She wears a red squirrel fur-lined robe that is tied high by a wide girdle. The person portrayed holds his hands one above the other. She wears a ring on her right hand.

‘my husband John completed me in the year 1439 on the 17th of June / my age was thirty-three years’. Jan (Johannes) van Eyck painted this information in Latin on the top and bottom of the frame. The inscription is notable because it is worded as a sentence spoken by the person depicted, Jan‘s wife Margareta van Eyck. As she informs us, Margareta looks at us. Van Eyck painted a similar inscription on the frame of the portrait he made in 1436 of an acquaintance of his, the Bruges goldsmith Jan de Leeuw. In this way, Van Eyck gave people close to him a voice of their own, as it were. Van Eyck painted the entire frame and the back of the panel as if it were made of precious marble, instead of wood. That is why the painting does not hang on the wall in the Groeninge Museum, but is shown from both sides. (Groeningemuseum)

See also:

Van Eyck, Margaret

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