Jan van Eyck deserves to be counted among the greatest painters of any era. His reputation, established during his lifetime, has continued undiminished to the present day. His close observation and meticulous technique captured the physical world with a degree of realism that has never been surpassed. But this naturalism was not an end in itself: instead, it mirrors and explicates, through layers of complex symbolism, the mysteries of divine creation.
It is believed that Van Eyck was born in Maaseik (now in Belgium), probably no later than about 1390 as he is named in a document of 1422 as the varlet de chambre et peintre (chamberlain and painter) of John of Bavaria, count of Holland. After the count’s death in 1425, he took up the same position in the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, the most powerful ruler and greatest patron of the arts in the Low Countries. Van Eyck worked for the duke for the rest of his life, not only serving as court artist but also in diplomatic roles.
Van Eyck’s precise style was made possible by his mastery of oil painting techniques, but his training as an artist remains obscure. It has been suggested that he was influenced by, or perhaps even produced, manuscript illuminations. He must have seen paintings by Robert Campain, whose bold realism and use of symbolism he adopted. But Van Eyck’s paintings are more elegant than Campain’s homey scenes, his figures more graceful, and his symbolic programs more complex. The sophistication of Van Eyck’s iconography, which demonstrates understanding of complicated theological arguments, suggests that he had received a high level of education. This and his status at the court are reflected also in the fact that Van Eyck signed his paintings—the first Netherlandish artist to do so—and adopted a personal motto, Als ich chan (as best I can), in the manner of the nobility.