This page contains a Flash digital edition of a book.
More than meets the eye

Girl in a Green Gown: the history

and mystery of The Arnolfini Portrait Carola Hicks

CHATTO & WINDUS, 272PP, £16.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £15.30 Tel 01420 592974


cores of books have examined the “world’s most famous painting”, the enigmatic Mona Lisa with her uncertain identity, her abduction and Hello-ish celebrity; far fewer the work established for over a century among Britain’s favourite paintings. The Arnolfini Portrait is just as baffling, almost as uncertain as to its sitters, and has enjoyed an even more roller coaster career, passing through the royal families of the Burgundian, Holy Roman and Napoleonic Empires before being excitingly “liberated” by a British cavalry officer in the wake of Waterloo. It has generated huge amounts of disagreement and flutterings in art- historical dovecotes, mainly in the form of academic articles or single chapters. Carola Hicks is one of the few authors to devote a whole book to the making, meaning and adventures of this beloved painting – and her work is tragically posthumous, as she died in 2010 while completing it. Her husband, Gary Hicks, and editor, Jenny Uglow, have tied up loose ends and groomed it for publication, producing a brilliantly idiosyncratic investigation which alternates chapters internal to the picture (the fashions, the furniture, the oranges, the mirror) with chapters on its production and historical meanderings. We start with Jan van Eyck’s promotion

in 1425 as official painter to Philip the Good of Burgundy. Philip and his father transformed a small French duchy into a state which engulfed much of the southern Netherlands and northern France, and whose court became the cultural centre of Europe. At times the court settled in Bruges, prosperous with merchants and bankers from every known country, who were beginning to want artistic immortalisation, like the kings and aristocrats they serviced. One of these banking/mercantile families was that of the Arnolfini from Lucca, a name first linked with the painting in a 1516 inventory of the collection of Marguerite of Austria. However, we still aren’t precisely sure which Arnolfini pair was meant; probably not the first candidate, Giovanni, who married six years after Van Eyck’s death; possibly Nicolao, with either his first (dead) wife, or his second … The question of who the sitters were opens multiplying possibilities of the painting’s meaning – if we should be requiring meaning at all: as Hicks points out, “Being aware of the speculations about this couple … adds layers of complexity

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434. National Gallery, London

All this while it was steadily acquiring recognition and praise. Scholars worked on its provenance (and meaning), and the Victorian public took it to their hearts. Baron Rothschild declared it “the one picture in the National Gallery for which I would pay literally any price and commit any folly”. Now it has entered the virtual world, its public is immense and equally devoted; it appears in advertisements, cartoons and novels, and we are even more enchanted by its enigma. Lynn Roberts

which can distract rather than enlighten.” Thus, is this a painting of a pre-nuptial betrothal scene? – a marriage forced by the bride’s “condition”? (Or is this condition one of costume rather than conception?) Does it commemorate a bride dead in childbed, with a guttered candle above her head, a lighted one above his? Is it a power of attorney, passed from travelling husband to powerful wife? Or simply a memorial of a happy marriage, an anniversary photograph? We know much of its later history, from early in the sixteenth century when it had left (putative) Arnolfini possession for the ownership of Diego de Guevara, servant of Archduke Philip the Handsome, who was heir to both Burgundian and Hapsburg empires. At that point it seems still to have had its original frame, with shutters which Diego decorated with his arms and motto. It then passed to Marguerite of Austria, regent of the united empire, and to her niece, Marie of Hungary, who kept it in her fabulous Kubla Khan-like palace of Binche in Hainault. Its first narrow squeak came when the French razed Binche in 1554. By 1558 it was in Spain, inherited by Philip II, husband of Mary Tudor; having a second near miss in the 1734 fire in the Alcazar palace; popping up in inventories; and finally falling to the Bonapartes. Joseph was made the “uninvited king” of Spain by Napoleon in 1808, and (to his credit) managed to stave off his brother’s demands for Spanish art for four years, planning his own national gallery in the Prado. But before the portrait could enter this ambitious pipe dream, the allied armies descended, forcing Joseph to flee. He packed the whole Spanish art collection and set off in a vast convoy of troops and refugees, only to be pounced on at Vitoria, where he abandoned his loot (and silver chamber pot). The portrait “came into the possession of” Colonel James Hay, who in 1842 sold it for 600 guineas to the infant National Gallery in London.

THE TABLET BOOKSHOP £1.5 (4 books or more: add £5)

Postage and Packing for books up to 1kg* UK

EUROPE £2. per book

REST OF THE WORLD £2. per book *P&P for oversized books will be charged at cost

We accept Visa, MasterCard and Switch Cheques payable to Redemptorist Publications


Email: Post:

01420 592 974 Fax: 01420 888 05

The Tablet Bookshop, Alphonsus House Chawton, Hampshire GU34 3HQ

Redemptorist Publications will endeavour to sell you the book at the price advertised. However, occasionally on publication the published price is altered,in which case we will notify you prior to debiting your card.

17 September 2011 | THE TABLET | 23

Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40