Sometimes dubbed “The Shotgun Wedding” (for the bride’s seemingly pregnant state), this painting depicts a well-heeled Italian businessman and his wife in their upscale apartment in the cosmopolitan city of Bruges, Belgium.
As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.
The painting is likely a wedding portrait. Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390–1441) meticulously paints the couple’s rich trappings: their brass chandelier, Oriental carpet, canopied bed, and imported oranges on the windowsill. He highlights their incredibly expensive clothes — made of luxurious fabrics, with rich colors, and trimmed with rare fur. No wonder. Giovanni Arnolfini was a cloth merchant, living in the city that was Europe’s main producer and exporter of high-fashion couture.
The realism is astonishing. It’s a masterpiece of down-to-earth details. Van Eyck has built a virtual dollhouse, inviting us to linger over the furnishings. Feel the texture of the fabrics, count the hairs of the couple’s terrier, trace the shadows generated by the window. Each object is painted at an ideal angle, with the details you’d see if you were standing right next to it. The string of beads hanging on the back wall are as crystal clear as Mrs. Arnolfini’s bracelets.
To top it off, look into the round mirror on the far wall — the whole scene is reflected backward in miniature, showing the loving couple and a pair of mysterious visitors. Is one of them Van Eyck himself at his easel? Has the artist painted you, the home viewer, into the scene?
This seemingly simple picture was groundbreaking in the world of art. It’s (arguably) the first modern oil painting, made by dissolving pigments in vegetable oil, rather than tempera (which uses egg yolk). Van Eyck could lay down, say, a patch of brown, then apply a second layer of translucent orange, then another. The colors bleed through to create the figure — like the Arnolfinis’ meticulously detailed terrier.
This portrait of a Bruges power couple is one of history’s first paintings that wasn’t of a saint, king, pope, or miraculous event. Van Eyck was glorifying ordinary people, signaling the advent of humanism. He created the first slice of everyday life.
The exact meaning of the portrait isn’t clear. Van Eyck left clues that lead people to conclude this represents a marriage vow of some sort. The chandelier with its one lit candle likely symbolized love — how it keeps shining even in daylight. The fruit on the windowsill was fertility, and the dangling whisk broom was the new wife’s domestic responsibilities. And the terrier? He’d be Fido — fidelity.
Van Eyck proudly signed the work (above the mirror) “Jan van Eyck was here, 1434.” It’s as if he was asserting to be an eyewitness to the event, and he captured that exact moment, just as it was, for posterity.
By the way, the woman likely was not pregnant. The fashion of the day was to gather up the folds of one’s full-skirted dress. At least, that’s what they told her parents.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find video clips at Rick Steves Classroom Europe.