Saturday, August 30, 2014

A thought about quality in painting

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

Detail from the same painting

I found myself in a discussion about art a few days ago. I was facing someone who felt there was no valid standard other than whether one liked a picture. She maintained that the paintings in her house were of equal quality of those in the National Gallery of Art, since she had purchased only those paintings she liked very much.

I buy pictures based on a number of criteria. Of course, I would not buy a picture that I did not find interesting and well done; that would be a combination of the craft of the artist, the colors, the composition, the subject, and the degree that the artist achieved his/her purpose. I also buy pictures by artists whose body of work I admire (at least from that which I have seen). These days; I also tend to buy because I also want to support an artist who seems to merit and need encouragement or a venue (such as a craft fair) that I want to support.

However, I appreciate many pictures that I will not buy, indeed many that are not for sale and that I could never afford to buy even if they were for sale. The painting shown above, by Jan van Eyck in 1434, is one that I like very much. In part, I like it because I know something about it. (Check out the Wikipedia entry on the painting.)

Van Eyck's painting is clearly crafted with great skill and care. However, van Eyck was inventing new techniques when he made the painting. I admire that ability to make inventions (such as oil painting), mastering the technique in the process, and setting a standard for the craft that has influenced painters for six centuries.

The picture tells a story, and tells it well. Since that was clearly an intent of the artist, his success in that effort is worthy of at least respect and I would say admiration. Clearly the picture documents a relationship between husband and wife. The contemporaries of the artist would have understood more from the persons, the pose, the clothing, etc. It also demonstrates the status of a well off merchant couple, based on the quality of the clothing and furnishings. That must have been a purpose of the artist demanded by the patron for the picture. The picture is also clearly located in time and place by the light, the fruit on the tree, the war the room is furnished and the couple is dressed. That took a lot of thought and skill, and was done with mastery.

The artist has included complex symbolism -- the dog, the placement of the hands, the candle lit in the candelabra, the scenes in the mirror frame. Van Eyck has composed the picture both using the symbols to convey information and to decorate the scene.

The mirror is I suppose the thing that brings the picture even higher in my estimation. It appears realistic, but of course it is not. It shows not only the two subjects of the picture in another view, but a third figure -- a witness to the scene. Who he is and what his presence means have interested art historians for generations, and I suppose that is part of van Eyck's intent. The idea of adding the mirror and painting the scene was brilliant. The skill to do it well, breathtaking.

Of course, the picture -- which is in the National Gallery in London -- is pretty to look at. It is historically interesting in that it has interested so many other artists over the centuries and since so many students of art and art history have devoted time and effort to its study. It is also interesting in the innovations created by van Eyck and their impact on the artists who followed. It rewards the viewer for looking at it and trying better to understand what is says and how it makes its statement. These are all aspects of the "quality" of the picture.

1 comment:

Painting said...

Some good points