Friday, 14 February 2014

Girl in a Green Gown - Carola Hicks

The 'girl' is the woman in the National Gallery's most popular painting, The Arnolifini Marriage  by Jan van Eyck.  Here, Hicks intersperses scrutiny of the painting itself with its history.  It is a smart technique which keeps the tone light and allows a rolling narrative to develop.  It's hard to be critical, because Hicks died as the work was being readied for publication.  I like to think that a further revision, pushing deeper into the fundamental mysteries of the work, would have produced a landmark study.

The mysteries in question are: who are the people depicted (Hicks just accepts it is Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife without any real airing of the arguments; and in my view she has plumped for the wrong Giovanni and thus the wrong wife); what made van Eyck, painter of altarpieces and the occasional stand-alone portrait, invent the curious notion of the double portrait (and, indeed, is it actually a portrait as such, or a compilation of elements?); and who are the people seen in the mirror?

The lack of a biographical sketch of van Eyck is a big mistake.  He's not the best documented painter who ever lived but there is more known about him than is included here.  I would also have liked something about his contemporaries, van der Weyden, Campin and Petrus Cristus, all of whom echoed (or were echoed in) The Arnolifini Marriage in their work.

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