This week’s Modern Art Notes Podcast is devoted to Jan van Eyck, the greatest painter of the northern Renaissance. While van Eyck was the painter that Italians wanted to be — Giorgio Vasari famously and incorrectly wrote that van Eyck invented oil painting and Italian artists flocked north to see his work — he’s somewhat under-appreciated in the United States. (Perhaps that’s because the only major van Eyck in an American museum is this Annunciation at the National Gallery of Art. Click here to see it a larger version in NGA Images.)
This weeks’s program features two significant van Eyck-related events: A new revision of the most important English-language book on van Eyck, and the new “Closer to van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece” website, which makes one of the landmarks of Western art available to us in new ways.
Considering that van Eyck may be the greatest painter of the 15th-century, you might be surprised to learn that there’s only one English-language monograph on van Eyck’s career in print. Titled “Jan Van Eyck: The Play of Realism,” it was written by my first guest, Craig Harbison. The book, which was first published in 1991 and has now been revised and expanded to reflect new research on van Eyck’s work, is a wonderful read. It’s smart and detailed, but reads lightly. It’s a too-rare example of a top art historian willing to allow his sense of wonder at his subject’s work to infuse every page. (The book is published by London’s Reaktion Books and is distributed in the United States by the University of Chicago Press.)
This season’s second major van Eyck news is the creation of “Closer to van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece.” The website is remarkable for many reasons. First: It’s difficult to see the Ghent Altarpiece in any detail in person: Many of the panels are 15 feet off the ground, leaving them impossible to examine closely. Now anyone can examine high-resolution, digital versions of them in never-seen-before quality.
But the site is much more than that: Unlike popular macrophotography sites such as the Google Art Project, “Closer to van Eyck” offers four layers of technical documentation of the Ghent Altarpiece: The straightforward macrophotographic image, but also infrared macrophotography, infrared reflectography and x-ray images. All of the images are available without copyright, meaning that this one website will no doubt spawn piles of new research on the altarpiece and on both Hubert and Jan van Eyck. The web project was funded by The Getty Foundation and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The three-part process of documenting the altarpiece and conserving it has been funded by the Getty, the Flemish government and the province of East Flanders.
My second guest, Ron Spronk, coordinated the “Closer to van Eyck” project. He is a an art historian and a specialist in the technical documentation of paintings. He teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and at Radboud University in the Netherlands. His previous projects have included “Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych” at the National Gallery of Art and “Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings,” at the Harvard Art Museums.
Among the elements of the Ghent Altarpiece we discuss are the “boob job” that one of the van Eycks clearly gave to Eve (see below) and how his documentation should help historians solve one of art history’s greatest mysteries: Which parts of the altarpiece were painted by Hubert van Eyck before he died, and which parts were painted by his brother Jan?
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The Modern Art Notes Podcast is an independent production of Modern Art Notes Media. It is released under this Creative Commons license. For images of the works discussed on this week’s show, click through to the jump.
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Collection of the National Gallery, London.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?), 1433. Collection of the National Gallery, London.
Roger van der Weyden, Portrait of Francesco d’Este, ca. 1460. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, 1436. Collection or the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
Detail images of the Ghent Altarpiece. All images via Closer to van Eyck.