Jan van Eyck (before 1390 – 9 July 1441) was a painter from the County of Loon (present day Belgium) active in Bruges. He is one of the early innovators of what became known as Early Netherlandish painting, and one of the most significant representatives of Early Northern Renaissance art. The surviving records of his early life indicate that he was born around 1380–1390, most likely in Maaseik (then Maaseyck, hence his name), in present-day Belgium. He took employment in the Hague around 1422, when he was already a master painter with workshop assistants, and employed as painter and valet de chambre with John III the Pitiless, ruler of Holland and Hainaut. He was then employed in Lille as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy after John’s death in 1425, until he moved to Bruges in 1429 where he lived until his death. He was highly regarded by Philip and undertook a number of diplomatic visits abroad, including to Lisbon in 1428 to explore the possibility of a marriage contract between the duke and Isabella of Portugal.
About 20 surviving paintings are confidently attributed to him, as well as the Ghent Altarpiece and the illuminated miniatures of the Turin-Milan Hours, all dated between 1432 and 1439. Ten are dated and signed with a variation of his motto ALS ICH KAN (As I (Eyck) can), a pun on his name, which he typically painted in Greek characters.
Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including altarpieces, single-panel religious figures and commissioned portraits. His work includes single panels, diptychs, triptychs, and polyptych panels. He was well paid by Philip, who sought that the painter was secure financially and had artistic freedom so that he could paint “whenever he pleased”. Van Eyck’s work comes from the International Gothic style, but he soon eclipsed it, in part through a greater emphasis on naturalism and realism. He achieved a new level of virtuosity through his developments in the use of oil paint. He was highly influential, and his techniques and style were adopted and refined by the Early Netherlandish painters.
Little is known of Jan van Eyck’s early life and neither the date nor place of his birth is documented. The first extant record of his life comes from the court of John of Bavaria at The Hague where, between 1422 and 1424, payments were made to Meyster Jan den malre (Master Jan the painter) who was then a court painter with the rank of valet de chambre, with at first one and then two assistants. This suggests a date of birth of 1395 at the latest. However, his apparent age in the London probable self-portrait of 1433 suggests to most scholars a date closer to 1380. He was identified in the late 16th century as having been born in Maaseik, a borough of the prince-bishopric of Liège. His last name however is related to the place Bergeijk, due to genealogical information related to the coat-of-arms with three millrinds; that information also implies that he stems from the Lords of Rode (Sint-Oedenrode). Elisabeth Dhanens rediscovered in the quarterly state “the fatherly blazon, in gold, three millrinds of lauric acid”, similar to other families that descend from the Lords of Rode in the quarter of Peelland in the ‘meierij van ‘s-Hertogenbosch’. His daughter Lievine was in a nunnery in Maaseik after her father’s death.The notes on his preparatory drawing for Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati are written in the Maasland dialect.
He had a sister Margareta, and at least two brothers, Hubert (died 1426), with whom he probably served his apprenticeship and Lambert (active between 1431 and 1442), both also painters, but the order of their births has not been established. Another significant, and rather younger, painter who worked in Southern France, Barthélemy van Eyck, is presumed to be a relation. It is not known where Jan was educated, but he had knowledge of Latin and used the Greek and Hebrew alphabets in his inscriptions, indicating that he was schooled in the classics. This level of education was rare among painters, and would have made him more attractive to the cultivated Philip.
DEATH & LEGACY
Jan van Eyck died on 9 July 1441, in Bruges. He was buried in the graveyard of the Church of St Donatian. As a mark of respect, Philip made a one-off payment to Jan’s widow Margaret, to a value equal to the artist’s annual salary. He left behind many unfinished works to be completed by his workshop journeymen. After his death, Lambert van Eyck ran the workshop, as Jan’s reputation and stature steadily grew. Early in 1442 Lambert had the body exhumed and placed inside St. Donatian’s Cathedral.
In 1449 he was mentioned by the Italian humanist and antiquarian Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli as a painter of note and ability, and was recorded by Bartolomeo Facio in 1456.