Panofksy cited art historian Max J. Friedländer on the composition of the Arnolfini Portrait: “In [the portrait], a problem has been solved which no fifteenth-century painter was destined to take up again: two persons standing side by side, and portrayed full length within a richly furnished room,” wrote Friedländer. For many art historians, the Arnolfini Portrait appeared to be an achievement not just in its incredible detail, but also in its accurate depiction of a space.
, English painter
proposed a theory
about some of art history’s most impressive draftsmen—that artists have been using devices such as concave mirrors, the camera obscura, and various other types of lenses to create realistic paintings since around 1430, far before they were thought to be used as drawing aids. Among the list of artists Hockney called out as potential subjects were
, and Van Eyck. Van Eyck, Hockney argued, especially would have been aware of how to project images using a concave mirror. The Arnolfini Portrait
famously includes a convex mirror in the background—if the convex side was silvered and employed as a mirror, it is likely that the concave side could as well have been used to project the image.
Hockney’s theory and the corresponding symposium he held at New York University were not unanimously accepted, and art historian Linda Nochlin and writer Susan Sontag were among those who challenged his ideas. “To say that there were no great painters before optical devices, [Sontag] said, is like saying there were no great lovers before Viagra,” the New York Times reported. Hockney’s need to rationalize the remarkable skill of Van Eyck confirms how seemingly out of this world the detail in the work is.
Despite the photorealistic detail, however, Van Eyck’s inaccurate approach to perspective is revealed through slight inconsistencies. The National Gallery has pointed out
that, while it appears as if the fourth wall has been lifted from the room and the viewer is stepping into a totally plausible room, the chandelier would not actually fit in the depicted space. James Elkins, author of “On the Arnolfini Portrait
and the Lucca Madonna
: Did Jan van Eyck Have a Perspectival System?” (1991), pointed out that the lines of the floorboards lead to separate vanishing points. While the detail-obsessed artists of the
created paintings where the verisimilitude rivaled that of a photograph, Van Eyck’s understanding of perspective isn’t accurate. James M. Collier summed it up
in a sentence: “Jan van Eyck shows no more than an intuitive feeling for perspective space.…His space is essentially chaotic.”