Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434, oil on panel, 32.4” x 23.6”, National Gallery, London, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Jan van Eyck’s Enigmatic Double Portrait

This is one of those works of art that represents an era, yet it is totally unique.

Double portraits were quite rare in the fifteenth century, and so art historians have had a difficult time interpreting this one by Jan van Eyck.

The man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin is possibly Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian cloth merchant from Lucca who was living in Bruges, Belgium, where he commissioned this painting.  The lady, who is not pregnant (she has an ideal body type), may be his wife, Giovanna Cenami.  At least, that’s what many art historians believe.  Some others say that the man is a different member of the Arnolfini family.

We can’t know for sure who these people are, so it makes the job of figuring out what on earth they are doing that much more difficult.

For years, because of a seemingly iron-clad argument written by Erwin Panofsky, people believed that this painting shows the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami, and that the painting itself, with the two requisite witnesses reflected in the mirror on the wall, functioned as a wedding contract.  This actually is kind of a crazy idea and it’s hard to believe that it survived as long as it did.

Later, another art historian suggested that this painting shows a betrothal ceremony, which is when the groom visits the home of the bride and, after the details of the dowry are hammered out, he pledges to marry the lady.  More recently, another scholar suggested this is a memorial portrait of a man and his late wife because it is similar to portraits of married couples on tombstones, which often have a little dog at the couple’s feet to symbolize fidelity.

It’s not likely that anyone will solve the mystery of this beautiful and fascinating painting, but it’s really fun to try.

Details of the Arnolfini Double Portrait by Jan van Eyck:

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