Jan van Eyck

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Jan van Eyck

From Bruce Attah

Published before 2005


Jan van Eyck's understanding of perspective is not at all perfect. But his artistry is great, so the fact is not obvious. If you trace the receding lines in the Marriage of Arnolfini, you'll discover that the horizontals on the window recede to one vanishing point, those on the floor recede to another, and those on the ceiling recede to a third. Eyck knows that sets of parallel lines on a plane recede to a point, but he doesn't know that all parallel lines recede to the same point, even if they are on different planes. Instinctively, he puts the vanishing point for the floor lower down, that for the ceiling higher up, and that for the window in between the two. The illusion still works, because the "error" is subtle, and there's a lot else going on in the picture helping the illusion along. The same misunderstanding is pervasive in pictures from that era, even though artists are paying the utmost attention to correctness of perspective, it being admired as proof of virtuosity. The pervasiveness of this misunderstanding even among masters like Eyck, Bouts and Memlinc illustrates an interesting fact, namely, that although modernists love to pooh-pooh perspective as a simple trick that any school kid can learn, and as a merely arbitrary way of presenting a picture, it took hundreds of years (from the beginning of the 14th century to the beginning of the 17th) for Europe's artists and mathematicians to develop a complete understanding of how perspective works. Like atoms and gravity and the roundness of the Earth, perspective is only obvious when you know it.