For many, the connection between the Netherlandish Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1434, and the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English artists founded in 1848, will not be an immediate one.
The Arnolfini is an austere oil on panel portrait painting of modest size sitting in the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing amongst medieval and other early Renaissance work, while the opulent, more emotionally heart-on-sleeve, Dickensian-era Pre Raphaelite paintings populate Tate Britain and other national collections around the country.
The National Gallery in its new show Reflections tells how the Arnolfini was the first painting from the Low Countries to enter its collection in 1842, capturing the imaginations of the young Brotherhood who seized on its technical qualities – brilliant colour, a crispness of modelling that’s almost hyper-real in its precision – and mysterious symbolism as a means to explore their intellectual and philosophical interests.
This connection transforms in the imagination from surprising to natural, the exhibition demonstrating how the influence of not just early Netherlandish work (as perhaps suggested by the umbrella term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’), but this painting specifically, can be seen throughout the Brotherhood’s output.
John Everett Millais’s Mariana of 1851, based on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1830 poem of the same name, depicts the Shakespearian character jilted by her fiancé and desiring death. While contemporary painting tended to the impressionistic, here an obsessive level of minute detail is rendered with the precision which characterises the Arnolfini. Similarly, her physiognomy is not idealised but recorded with a shared detached scrutiny visible in the Arnolfini bride, whose elaborate green costume is quoted by the attention Millais gives to Mariana’s brilliant blue dress. Crucially, the mysterious symbolism suffused throughout the material items in the Arnolfini’s domestic setting is repeated in details such as the solitary bed, single candle flame and convex mirror, which for Mariana represent an emotional conflict between a contemplative life and a sensual one.
A show which seeks to demonstrate such specific influence requires this close degree of examination; too often ambitious claims are made by curators without such compelling and consistently presented evidence.
Most curious is the prevalence of the convex mirror. The optical illusions caused by its curved, reflective surface – during Van Eyck’s time the only kind of mirror available – is seized upon by the Pre-Raphaelites both for its technical challenge and more philosophical musings on distortion; Rossetti had 24 mirrors in his house, nine of which were convex. If you enjoy Van Eyck but not the Pre-Raphaelites, or vice versa, or even if you enjoy neither, there is still great value to be found exploring the very believable links between them presented here.