Today, artists begin what printers will finish. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Tradition has it that
van Eyck invented oil painting. He didn't
really. Van Eyck was to oil painting what Watt was
to the steam engine. Oils came into use a little
before van Eyck. But by 1434 he'd used oil to
change painting into a whole new art.
Jan van Eyck was born sometime before 1390 -- one
of three brothers and a sister, all painters. That
was soon after the worst of the Plague. It was just
before Gutenberg. It was a world in ferment. We're
so aware of the Italian Renaissance, just ahead,
that we overlook what was going on in the
Netherlands in 1434.
Dufay, Ockeghem, and finally Josquin made music
into a rich descriptive and subjective medium of
communication. One 15th-century writer claimed that
nothing older was worth listening to.
Now Jan van Eyck: He made oil leap off painted
boards and snatch you into his world. He invented
glazes that gave oil a wondrous luminosity. His
pictures had new depth and 3-dimensionality. He
gave us the photo-realism of the Dutch masters, 200
years too soon. That's even stranger when you
realize that the rules of perspective were just
being written in Italy -- in 1434.
That year, Van Eyck painted The Arnolfini
Couple. A wealthy Italian merchant stands on
the left in his fur-trimmed coat and large hat. On
the right his bride, who may be pregnant, stands in
green and white. They hold hands. A small dog
The most remarkable of many details is a convex mirror in the distance. It
reflects the couple's backs and a small group in
the door where you, the viewer, are entering. Only
one thing reminds you this isn't yet Rembrandt or
Vermeer. It's the perspective -- slightly out of
Now I sit in the University cafeteria thinking
about that picture. The perspective of this room
tapers off to a reflecting door in the distance.
Sunlight flows through windows. Students talk
quietly. It's a visual feast of faces and tables,
trees through the window, light and reflection
everywhere. And I realize that the Arnolfini couple
is no Medieval icon -- no Gothic metaphor. They are
my kin -- people I might've talked to and liked.
Van Eyck's rich detail takes us into their lives.
This lunchroom, rich in human undercurrent, is a
defining context for my life. So van Eyck's web of
detail makes the Arnolfinis human for me.
It's often said that the Renaissance could begin
only after the printing press gave us new means for
sharing human experience. But Gutenberg really
finished what Flemish musicians, and painters like
van Eyck, had already begun. Van Eyck led us back
into our own interior space. He gave us a new way
to understand what it is that you and I -- and the
Arnolfinis -- hold in common.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dhanens, E., Hubert and Jan van Eyck New
York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection LTD., undated.
Janson, H.W., History of Art. 3rd ed.,
New York: H.N. Abrams, 1986, pp. 371-378.
Panofsky, E., Early Netherlandish Painting,
Its Origin and Character. Vol. 1, Cambridge,
Mass., Harvard University Press, 1964, pp. 149-152,
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic
and for providing both resource materials and
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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