January 2011

Jan and Hubert van Eyck: What I Wish We Knew

I introduced Jan van Eyck to my students about a week ago, but I haven’t stopped thinking about him since. It’s known that van Eyck (depicted in a supposed self-portrait, The Man with the Red Turban, 1433, on right) worked as court painter for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgandy. This position was extremely advantageous for van Eyck, and essentially helped the artist to develop an individual reputation (as opposed to many unknown artists, who were involved in collaborative artistic workshops which were regulated by the local guilds).

We know a little about van Eyck’s duties at Philip’s court. For example, the artist was sent in an embassy which was charged with the duty of requesting Isabella of Portugal’s hand in marriage to Philip. But I wish I knew more about the paintings that van Eyck produced for Philip the Good. Unfortunately, none of the paintings survive; the only extant works by van Eyck were produced for other, private patrons.1 (I assume that all of these Philip-the-Good-paintings were destroyed in the iconoclastic riots of the 16th century, but I have not come across a comprehensive discussion of how/why these works no longer exist. That being said – if anyone could point me to specific information on this topic, I’d be most grateful!).

I also wish that we knew more information about Jan van Eyck’s brother, the painter Hubert van Eyck. I think the paucity of information is rather surprising, given how much information is available about Jan. What do know, however, is that a “Master Hubert” was paid to paint panels in churches in both 1409 and 1413, and it seems likely that this painter is referring to Jan’s brother (believe it or not, Hubert wasn’t a terribly common name back then!).

There is only one definitive work by Hubert which survives: the Ghent altarpiece (1432, on left, see version of the altarpiece with closed wings here). Yep – the work which is touted as a masterpiece by Jan van Eyck (and for good reason, nonetheless), was actually begun by Hubert, as noted by a contemporary inscription (dated 6 May 1432, the date of the altarpiece’s dedication).2 According to the inscription, the altarpiece was finished by Jan, “‘[Hubert’s] brother, second in art'” at the request of patron Jodocus Vijd.2 It appears that Hubert’s death left the work unfinished: the inscription suggests that large areas of at least the lower layers of paint could be seen at the time of Hubert’s passing.3

Wait – you’re saying that you haven’t ever heard of Hubert and his role in the Ghent altarpiece? I’m not surprised. With the “cult of the artist-genius” so prominent in art (and art history textbooks), it makes sense that people would shy away from (or ignore?) a discussion of Hubert. Mentioning any artistic collaboration would diminish the idea that Jan was a solitary master, a genius beyond equal. This idea ties in with my earlier discussion of Jef Vanderveken, the 20th century copyist who painted a new panel on the Ghent altarpiece (after “The Just Judges” panel was stolen in 1934). Poor Jef and Hubert. They both are relatively forgotten, having been lost in the mystic shadow which art history has cast for Jan van Eyck.

1 Kim Woods, “The Status of the Artist in Northern Europe in the Sixteenth Century” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods, eds. (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 123.

2 Although some historians question the authenticity of the inscription (finding it to be a contemporary forgery), others assert that it is a “doubtless reliable inscription.” See Anne Hagopian van Buren, “Eyck, van.” in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online,, accessed 28 January 2011.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

Cherub = The Blissful Graduate Student

Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514
I’m getting ready for an activity in tomorrow’s class: we’re going to explore the historiography of arguments surrounding Durer’s enigmatic Melencolia I engraving (shown above). Perhaps one day I’ll outline some of the arguments on Alberti’s Window. For now, though, I wanted to post a very amusing, tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the winged child (in the center of the composition) and the large seated figure:
“The staring winged figure, compass listlessly in hand, has come upon a problem that exceeds her angelic strength, perhaps in string theory, and she is peevish; behind her a small graduate student, unaware of the deep difficulties that has stumped his Doktormutter, scribbles away blissfully at his dissertation.”1
Ha ha!

1 John L. Heilbron, “A Short History of Light in the Western World,” from Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology and Consciousness, edited by Raymond Y. Chiao et al., (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 8-9. Citation available online here.

The Ecstasy of St. Robert Plant

While commuting to work this morning, I listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Mothership” album in anticipation for my lecture on Baroque art. But there’s no similarity between those two things, you say? I beg to differ:

Bernini, detail of The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1647-52)
Of course, the “ecstasy” that may have influenced Robert Plant would have been much different from the ecstasy of St. Theresa…

Lorenzo Ghiberti and Vittorio Ghiberti

Art historians have previously discussed how Ghiberti’s self-portrait on the “Gates of Paradise” doors (shown on the far left of the image, 1424-52, see detail image here) can be interpreted not only as a signature portrait, but also as a promotional image.1 By placing his portrait in such a prominent public location, there is little doubt that Ghiberti was interested in promoting himself as an artist. Catherine King also records that “the Latin inscription alongside [the doors] reads in translation: ‘Made with wonderful skill by Lorenzo Ghiberti.'”2

This past week, when looking at dates and details regarding the “Gates of Paradise,” I was struck with an additional idea. The “Gates of Paradise” were completed in 1452, when Ghiberti would have been about 74 or 75 years old. Therefore, at such a late point in the artist’s life, it is not surprising that Ghiberti decided to include his son Vittorio’s portrait on the door as well (see portrait on right side of the image). Vittorio inherited the family workshop after his father’s death (which was in 1455, only three short years after the “Gates of Paradise” were finished). I think that Lorenzo has anticipated his death (at least to some degree) by including his heir’s portrait. That way, even after Lorenzo died, the Ghiberti family business would still be promoted on the baptistery doors.

Smart thinking, Lorenzo.

As other historians have noted, Lorenzo was quite a “shrewd” and “keen” businessman.3 The inclusion of Vittorio’s portrait seems to be further evidence for this fact.

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods, eds. (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 60-63.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 59. See also Gary M. Radke, ed., The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 67. Citation available online here.


Strange and Unusual Portrait by Fontana

Yesterday I came across the strangest portrait I have ever seen. Take a look at Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (also written as “Gonzales,” c. 1595, on left). At first, I didn’t know what to make of this painting. Was it a joke? Why would young girl be depicted with a hairy face?

This is no joke, my friends. In fact, it’s a rather unusual story. Antonietta Gonzalez (as well as her father, two sisters and other family members) had hypertrichosis (also commonly called “werewolf syndrome”). This is a rare genetic disorder which causes an abnormal amount of hair on the body. (You can read more about the disorder and see some interesting images here.) Antonietta’s father, Pedro (sometimes written as Pedrus) Gonzalez, was the first known person to be affected with this disorder. Given the rarity of the disease, it seems a little surprising that so many people within the Gonzalez family were affected by hypertrichosis. One writer noted that in terms of pathology, “the Gonzales sisters were one in a billion – all three of them.”1

Luckily, though, Antonietta and her sisters were not shunned by society, but welcomed into the courts of Europe. Although I’m sure that these girls served as objects of curiosity to some degree, they also were subject to medical investigations and, obviously, portrait sittings. Antonietta explains a little of her personal history in the handwritten note which she holds in the portrait: “Don Pietro, a wild man discovered in the Canary Islands, was conveyed to his most serene highness Henry the king of France, and from there came to his Excellency the Duke of Parma. From whom [came] I, Antonietta, and now I can be found nearby at the court of the Lady Isabella Pallavicina, the honorable Marchesa of Soragna.”2

Historian Merry Weisner-Hanks has speculated that Lavinia Fontana met Antonietta in Parma. I hope to find more information about the portrait in The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their World a relatively new book by Weisner-Hanks. It looks really interesting.

Okay, so here’s my question: do you know of a portrait more unusual or strange than this one? Let’s make it a little game; I’m curious to see what people might submit. And I’ll let you, dear readers, decide what constitutes “unusual” or “strange” (e.g. the sitter, the artistic presentation of the sitter, the medium, etc.).

P.S. As I was finishing up this post, my two-year-old looked at the Fontana portrait and said, “Hey, is that you?” Ha ha! I didn’t realize that I was having such a bad hair day!

1 Jason Zasky, “Hair Apparent,” in Failure Magazine (n.d.), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).

2 Merry Weisner-Hanks, “Hairy Marvels and Beastly Sex,” in National Sexuality Resource Center (1 October 2009), located here (accessed 12 January 2011).


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.