Under van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait | National Gallery

Under van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait | National Gallery


In the 20th century it was discovered that if you use infrared technology, wavelengths of light slightly longer than normal light, you can see through the paint and magically reveal the drawings that are underneath. This kind of drawing we refer to as underdrawing. It’s never supposed to be seen in the final version of the painting; it will always be covered by paint. But with this technology we can see through the paint and see whether there’s an underdrawing there and if there is, what it can tell us about how the artist was working. Infrared reflectography is particularly good at revealing things that are painted in black. This gives quite a complicated image to study, which shows you a mixture of anywhere that black is in the whole painting, from things like Arnolfini’s black hat which is painted with carbon black, so that shows in the infrared. But in places like his purple robe and almost the whole of the rest of the picture, the light has been able to go through the paint, and has revealed to us underneath the first marks that van Eyck put down in a liquid material with a brush, but a linear drawing of what he was going to paint. Jan van Eyck always does some kind of an underdrawing under his paintings. But the level of detail in the underdrawing for the Arnolfini is extraordinary. To have done this exquisite amount of final precision with the drawing, only to cover it all up with paint, is extremely unusual. Unexpectedly, in a picture that looks as though as it’s so completely finished, we found some very significant changes where what he has drawn is completely different to what he ended up painting. Probably the most important one is the right hand of Arnolfini, which in the painting is sideways on to the viewer. But if we look here in the infrared you can see a hand drawn with its palm out, facing us. Then there are some parts of the painting which were never underdrawn at all. The most fun one of those is if we look at the little dog; the little dog has no underdrawing at all. The only reason that we can see in the infrared that he’s there is that black paint was used for his eyes and his nose. They show in the infrared. But that’s not underneath the paint, that’s the surface paint showing. When you are looking at infrareds of paintings, it can be a huge thrill that you’re the first person to see something that was last seen by Jan van Eyck. And sometimes it really does make you feel as though you’re getting much closer. You can understand how the artist was thinking, but know this painting is always going to remain an enigma.

11 thoughts on “Under van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait | National Gallery

  1. Damn; I hoped we were going to see whether she had a baby in her tummy in the underpainting. I guess that infra-red isn't quite the same an ultra-sound.lol

  2. It looks like the only parts that were reworked were the two human figures.  Does this  bolster the argument of those claiming that Van Eyck used optical devices to render all the other stuff in the painting?  The chandelier, the drapery, the room itself and all its details seem to have been put in place correctly on the first go.  Considering the relative lack of realism in the face and hands of the two figures (and the stylized treatment of the dog) I think I'm beginning to believe these old masters did use optical devices.

  3. It is my understanding that in the mirror is a witness to a marriage between this couple, I believe that during this time marriage could be performed by someone to witness it. Your not mentioning this could mean I'm misinformed. Could you comment on this? Thanks very much. Tom Bolger.

  4. The sight or look of the wife was reworked… Experts say the way she looked up in this portrait make us conclude they were from the same economic possition. However, if we see trough the infra -red the sight was initially different !
    I wonder why Van eyck decided to change it .. Due to her death …?

  5. Le ha faltado decir que fue robado del palacio real de Madrid, de las colecciones reales de España. Cuando devolváis Gibraltar, de paso devolver tb esta obra. Saludos

  6. That dog did always look kinda weird perspective-wise, like van Eyck just realized at the last second “oh shit I forgot the dog” and just painted it onto the finished portrait.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *