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, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T027196pg1, accessed 28 January 2011.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.
  • Hels says:

    Despite medieval art often being thought too devout and too narrow in its topics, I went on an organised art tour of Ghent. Great town, especially the Saint Bavo Cathedral and especially the altarpiece. It takes a long time to examine because every single panel is to die for.

    Each brother must have had a very steady hand, a great eye and the patience of Job. Do you know how long the entire work took, from start to finish?

  • Annette says:

    I learn so much from your posts, M. Thank you.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Hi M! Super post as always!

    You know I am very fond of the brothers van Eyck, but I am surpised you did not mention the works in Berlin and Rotterdam that are now (tentatively) attribruted to Brother Hubert, a version of the Crucifixion, and 'Three Marys at the Tomb' a work previously attributed to brother Jan.

    Some images are available here Of course, these attributions are tentative, but sufficient for the Museums concerned to list Hubert instead of Jan.

    It would be nice to know what the true standard of evidence for these attributions are.


  • heidenkind says:

    What what what?!? D: OMG. O. M. G.

    I need to think about this.

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    @ H Niyazi

    I’m afraid the „true standards of evidence“ boil down to this:

    There’s a bunch of paintings signed by Jan van Eyck, and they all show a certain consistency of style. Then there’s another group of paintings (e.g. the Three Marys in Rotterdam) that look a lot like Jan’s work, but also slightly different. So a certain school of thought says they must be Hubert’s then. That’s a reasonable guess, of course, but a guess nonetheless…

    Another school of thought, meanwhile, points out that all of Jan’s signed paintings are dated 1432 or later, while Jan is documented as court painter of Duke John of Bavaria in The Hague as early as 1422. So all those paintings attributed to Hubert might just as well be Jan’s early work representing the artist’s more youthful style. Again, a reasonable possibility, but at the end of the day nothing more than a guess…

    So, now there actually is a third school of thought claiming that we’ll never find out, anyway, so why don’t we just resort to simply labelling that whole group of paintings „Eyckian“ and forget about first names?

    @ M

    If I'm not mistaken, Jan’s documented works for Philipp the Good didn’t include any religious paintings, but mostly portraits and all sorts of palace decorations. So the reason they’re lost, I suppose, isn’t 16th century iconoclasm but the fact that Philipp’s residences were either destroyed or substantially altered after the Duchy of Burgundy came to an end in 1477. For instance, the Prinsenhof in Bruges had been turned into a boarding school (administered by English nuns) by the 17th century…

    P.S.: I hope it’s not a breach of netiquette for a first-time poster on this blog to leave such an overlong, smart-assy comment – sorry about that!

  • H Niyazi says:

    @penbrushneedle – cheers for the comment. I didn't feel it was smart-assy at all! Do you have any links to further references on this topic. I'm always interested in reading more about the brothers van Eyck – and what drives these Museums to name Hubert as the author of these works.

    If the Berlin/Rotterdam pieces are attributed to Hubert simply by stylistic analysis alone then that is far from conclusive of course!

    I have not visited these galleries to see exactly how they label the pieces, but hope they can at least be honest enough to state the ambiguity for visitors.

    I'm still trying to find out why the Louvre changed Pastoral concert from Giorgione to Titian after so many centuries… I have a dread feeling it is another of those 'stylistic gut feelings' rather than some cold hard facts!

    @Hels – The Ghent Altarpiece was already underway when Hubert died in 1426, and was not completed by brother Jan until 1432.

    It is not unimaginable that the inscribed 'maior quo nemo repertus' (no other is greater) was put in by Jan as an homage to his departed brother rather than it being rock solid proof of Hubert's superior skill.

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    @Hels: I've been to see the Ghent altarpiece too! It's such a large altarpiece (approx. 11' x 15') that it takes a long time to examine. (H Niyazi, thanks for answering Hel's question regarding the date of the altarpiece and when Hubert began work.)

    @Annette, thanks for your comment and support!

    @H Niyazi: My reasoning for not discussing the "Three Marys" piece ties in with what "c @ penbrushneedle" said. Since we don't know much about Hubert's personal artistic style (we can't even identify his specific contributions to the Ghent altarpiece apart from Jan's work), any attribution to him seems a little bit shaky to me. Still, I'm glad that you mentioned the Berlin and Rotterdam works. It's good to mention that those tentative attributions to Hubert exist!

    Also, I'm glad that you mentioned how the Jan's inscription seems to be an homage and memorial to Hubert. In truth, Hubert might not have been the superior painter (we just don't know!), and given the context with Hubert's recent death, it seems like Jan was simply paying respect to his brother.

    @heidenkind It's surprising to think about, huh? I wish more art historians discussed Hubert.

    c@penbrushneedle: Thanks so much for your comment (and welcome to my blog). Feel free to comment anytime. I was really, really hoping that someone would give more information about the lost works for Philip the Good. (In true nerd fashion, I have been kept awake at night over the past week, trying to think of possible explanations for why the paintings are lost!) Your suggestion about the destruction/altering of Philip's residences makes a lot of sense (particularly the bit about the boarding house). My theory about iconoclasm was just a guess, even though I knew that it wasn't perfect (since I knew that Jan created secular works for Philip).

  • Zillah says:

    the exact nature of van eyck's career at the burgundian court is fascinating in its ambiguity. i spent some time in lille transcribing/photographing the burgundian counts' financial records, and van eyck is often mentioned as going on various mysterious missions to other countries. in my admittedly small sample size, his name popped up more times in reference to duties as an envoy or ambassador of some sort than a painter.

    marina belozerskaya, in her excellent (to my mind, at least) rethinking the renaissance argues that for the burgundians, painting was pretty low on the hierarchy of artistic artifacts. that may be part of the reason why not a lot of van eyck's paintings for philip survive. it's been a long time since i've read it, so i can't remember if she discusses van eyck at length, but once i get home from the library i'll check, being too lazy to leave my carrel.

  • e says:

    Yikes. The caliber of comments on this post is … intimidating (but fascinating to read).

    M: As I was reading the post, I was going to specifically ask you why much of van Eyck's work didn't survive and then I saw you cover that. The whole topic of art that doesn't survive or is lost is really fascinating to me. I wonder where so many pieces of art are at this very moment. Is it really true that there are pieces sitting in basements? It seems like more people would realize they have amazing pieces in their collection, but who knows?

  • Douglas says:

    Zillah-That reminds me a bit of Rubens, who apparently had quite the diplomatic career. Someone needs to do more research on artist-diplomats; there's probably quite a bit of material out there.

  • M says:

    Zillah: Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll have to check it out. I like revisionist books that have the word "rethinking" as part of its title! 🙂

    Your argument regarding the low status of painting is a good argument to explain why van Eyck's works for Philip no longer exist. Thanks for bringing that up.

    Oh and most of the information I've come across regarding van Eyck's position at court deals with envoy/ambassador responsibilities. (Though I didn't get to read the actual primary sources – lucky!) It's interesting that his art is not discussed very much, but I guess that suggests that painting was secondary to Jan's role as an envoy/ambassador.

    e: I'm sure that there are a lot of paintings which have yet to be discovered, but there are many, many paintings which have been destroyed (as opposed to, say, just sitting in a basement/attic/antique shop). The works have either been destroyed because of a misfortune (like a fire), to make an intentional statement (like when iconoclasts burned or destroyed religious images), or simply because the work and its artistic style was no longer valued or needed. It's sad to think, but I guess it's no different than what we do today: we also throw things away when they become unfashionable or somehow fail to meet our needs.

    Douglas: I didn't realize that Rubens had a diplomatic career! That's really interesting. You're right: someone needs to do more research on that topic!

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    @ H Niyazi

    I’m afraid I was only repeating knowledge that I sort of absorbed over the years – now that you ask, I find it actually difficult to point out any precise references. What I remember reading is mostly the “classics”, beginning with Max Dvorak’s “Das Rätsel der Kunst der Brüder van Eyck” (first published in 1901), Ludwig Baldass’ 1952 monograph on Jan van Eyck, also Elisabeth Dhanens' "Hubert and Jan van Eyck", New York 1980. I think the best starting point for any discussion of the subject is still the chapter on “Hubert and/or Jan van Eyck” in Erwin Panofsky’s “Early Netherlandish Painting” (first published in 1953). I’m not really up-to-date, though, with the most recent literature on the subject, but I’m under the impression that most scholars nowadays focus on a different set of questions and try to avoid the Jan vs. Hubert controversy as best as they can 😉

    Also, I forget to mention that there’s yet another school of thought (most prominently E. Dhanens) which dismisses the paintings in Rotterdam and Berlin, but also the Ascent to Calvary in Budapest and some other “Eyckian” paintings as being done by followers of Jan who tried to imitate his style but weren’t quite up to it. And that, I’m afraid, is where museums come in: No curator is going to label a painting “Anonymous, second-class follower of…” when there’s an option of putting “Hubert, the cool and mysterious older brother of…” instead.

    @ M

    There’s a painting showing A Feast at the Court of Philippe the Good which survives in a couple of 16th century copies but is believed to be a faithful rendition of an original from one of Philippe’s palaces. So there’s a good chance it actually reflects a composition by his court painter, Jan van Eyck.

    The same has been said about the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries (ca. 1430-1440), now in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. It’s probably exaggerated to assume that they’re copies of lost works by Jan, but there certainly are similarities to the Ghent Altarpiece (especially the Adoration of the Lamb and the Judges panel). So, one way or another, the tapestries, too, provide an impression of what Jan’s secular decorations might have looked like.

    Both works are, if I remember correctly, discussed in Dhanens’ book. For the tapestries see also Linda Woolley, Medieval Life and Leisure in the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, London 2002 (esp. p. 100). The most recent discussion of the Feast at the Court of Philipp the Good that I’m aware of is in: Sur la terre comme au ciel. Jardins d’Occident à la fin du Moyen Âge, exhibition catalogue Paris 2002, pp. 213-215.

    Then, there’s also the liturgical vestments of the Order of the Golden Fleece, richly embroidered with scenes from the Bible and figures of saints (now in the Treasury of the Hofburg in Vienna). Some of them were commissioned by Philippe the Good and bear striking resemblances to “Eyckian” works like the Ghent Altarpiece. It has therefore been suggested that the embroidered figures may be based on designs by Jan van Eyck. This may or may not hold true, but doing that kind of preliminary designs was certainly the kind of job that would have been expected from a 15th century court artist. And, to take up Zillah’s point, it’s very likely that the Burgundians valued these embroideries higher than Jan’s actual paintings.


  • M says:

    c, Thanks so much for this information (and the sources that you mentioned!). This gives me a great starting point for discovering more information (both about Jan's career and Hubert). I especially liked looking at the images and embroideries you that were linked to your comment. "A Feast at the Court of Philippe the Good" does look quite Eyckian, and helps me to better envision what van Eyck might have painted for Philip.

    Dhanen's book sounds especially interesting! I'm going to have to put that on my reading list right away.

  • kelsey cook says:

    For Halloween two years ago I was Man in Red Turban and my best friend was Queen Nefertiti.

  • M says:

    Hi Kelsey! Thanks for your comment. I bet your costumes were fantastic! I've always wanted to be Giovanni Arnolfini's wife for Halloween (with a green dress, headdress, and mock-pregnant belly similar to van Eyck's portrait). Queen Nefertiti is a great idea, too.

  • Erin says:

    The topic of untouchable genius among artists is a favorite of mine. It's so unrealistic and personally I think it's the little anecdotes like your info on Hubert that make art history interesting. The assumption of greatness creates a huge blind spot. I too wish we knew more about Hubert!

    Really enjoying reading your blog!
    E @Art Without Pretense

  • M says:

    Hi Erin! Thanks for your comment!

    I agree – the little anecdotes in art history are especially interesting. That's one reason why I started this blog: I like to discuss anecdotes and often bring them into my lectures, but I think there is never enough time to discuss all of the anecdotes that I find interesting. Hence, the reason why I had to discuss Hubert in a post: I didn't have time to tell my students about him in a previous lecture.

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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.