My Daily Art Display yesterday featured the painting A Man with a Quilted Sleeve by Titian in which we saw a portrait of a man with a brightly-coloured blue tunic and I discussed what was one’s initial focus of attention, the face of the subject or the blue sleeve of the tunic. Today’s painting, Portrait of a Man (Self portrait?), poses a similar question, what do we focus on when we first look at the painting, the bright red head gear of the man or the man himself?
Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) is a painting by Jan van Eyck which he completed in 1433 and is housed in London’s National Gallery. The painting is still in its original wooden frame on which are inscriptions that have been painted in such a way that they look like they have been carved into the wood. Along the bottom the inscription reads:
JOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT ANO MCCCC.33. 21. OCTOBRIS
Which when translated reads “Jan Van Eyck Made me on October 21st 1433”
Across the top of the wooden frame is the motto:
AlC IXH XAN
This is considered to be a punning allusion to the painter’s name “Als Ich Can (as I/Eyck can) which loosely translated reads “I Do as I Can” – a motto which appeared on a number of other paintings by Jan Van Eyck.
And so to the picture itself. At first glance it is just a simple portrait. The man stares out at us. On his head is a red chaperon which was a form of hat that was worn throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Van Eyck’s painting of the headgear is wonderful. The hat actually occupies more space in the painting than the face of the sitter. Look at the multitude of folds and tucks in the chaperon. One wonders how long it took the artist to master this part of the painting and how many preliminary drawings were made before he was happy. As was the case of Titian’s A Man with a Quilted Sleeve, Jan Eyck’s man is seen against a plain dark background, which makes the figure stand out. At first our eyes just register a red headpiece on the head of a pale white-faced man and do not take in the detail. However careful examination of the face and the chaperon reveals a multitude of subtle shades and it is actually the painting is awash with detail.
His eyes have a slight bloodshot appearance. In the book by Lorne Campbell, research curator at the National Gallery, London, entitled The Fifteenth-Century Netherlandish Paintings, he wrote of Jan Van Eyck’s depiction of the left eye thus:
“…The white of the eye is laid in white mixed with minute quantities of red and blue. A very thin scumble of red is brought over the underlayer, which is, however, left exposed in four places to create the secondary highlights. The veins are painted in vermilion into the wet scumble. The iris is ultra-marine, fairly pure at its circumference but mixed with white and black towards the pupil. There are black flecks near the circumference and the pupil is painted in black over the blue of the iris. The principal catchlights are four spots of lead white applied as final touches, one on the iris and three on the white, where they register with the four secondary lights to create the glistening effect…”
The man’s skin is weather-beaten and wrinkled. There are signs of stubble on the chin, the texture of which is in contrast with the smoothness of the soft fur collar. It is hardly a flattering portrait and has a “warts and all” reality to it, which makes one think that it may be a self-portrait of the then thirty-eight year old artist, as if it had been a portrait of a dignitary they may wanted it to be more pictorially agreeable.
There is a distinct realism to this painting and Jan Van Eyck’s clever use of shadows is a characteristic of Italian Renaissance paintings.
So there you have it – today and yesterday I have given you two portraits with some similar characteristics, which do you like the most and why?