In this beautifully illustrated volume, Châtelet surveys the work of Jan van Eyck, while distinguishing it from his less known brother Hubert. Although there is not enough evidence to indicate who taught the brothers their craft, Châtelet looks at potential pictorial sources that the young Van Eycks may have studied. He argues that, originating from Maaseik, the brothers would likely have been familiar with liturgical art in nearby Liège and Maastricht. In addition, they may have traveled to Cologne or Dijon. Furthermore, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the brothers may have received some training in one of these cities. Châtelet acknowledges the existence of a realist tradition in Bruges prior to Jan’s arrival, but it is not strong enough to credit as the basis for the Eyckian style.
According to Châtelet, Paris would have provided a more likely source of inspiration where the Van Eycks may have lived and worked in the 1410s, having been introduced by the Limbourg brothers to Parisian miniaturists working for the Valois court. Châtelet goes so far as to credit Hubert with the production of the Breviary of John the Fearless. Furthermore, he believes the brothers may have completed the Metropolitan Museum diptych during this period, attributing the Last Judgement panel to Hubert and linking the Crucifixion panel to Jan. Châtelet also suggests that the brothers worked together on the Rouen Breviary, today in the Walters Art Museum. He claims that Jan may have left Paris after the death of Charles VI to work for John of Bavaria, Count of Holland, at The Hague, recognizing that it is more difficult to explain Hubert’s move to Ghent. Oddly, Châtelet suggests that the brothers may have encountered one another in Italy during a diplomatic mission. In his view, Jan may have traveled there with John of Bavaria, as Hubert journeyed with the Burgundian duke, John the Fearless, and his wife Margaret, the count’s sister.
Many of Châtelet’s attributions regarding the young Van Eycks are highly suspect and rely on dating materials much earlier than conventional wisdom. [What do you mean with “dating materials” and “conventional wisdom?”] For instance, he believes that the Turin-Milan Hours were produced by Jan at The Hague, whereas the vast majority of scholars believe the book was completed approximately two decades later. In addition, he revises Hulin de Loo’s interpretations of Hand G (Jan) and Hand H (Hubert), by crediting Hand H illuminations to Lambert van Alpas, who he believes is none other than the Haarlem painter, Albert van Ouwater. Meanwhile, Hubert, according to the author, completed the Friedsam Annunciation (New York) and the Three Marys at the Tomb (Rotterdam, newly restored and one of the central pieces in the recent exhibition in Rotterdam “De weg naar Van Eyck”).
In the middle of the book, Châtelet tackles the Ghent Altarpiece, aptly described by Pächt as the hydra of art history. Based on the famous quatrain and stylistic differences, he believes Hubert started the polyptych but left it unfinished at his death in 1426. A year earlier Jan, presumably prompted by the demise of his patron, left The Hague, returning to Flanders where he began his service at the ducal court of Philip the Good. The author suggests that the Virgin in the Church(Berlin) may have been produced soon after the change in residence. Nonetheless, diplomatic missions to Iberia and a two-year stay in Lille (ca. 1426-28), at the house of Miquiel Ravary, may have kept Jan from working on the monumental altarpiece.
Châtelet calls attention to stylistic differences between panels and within some of the panels to suggest the presence of two distinct hands. He credits Hubert with much of the altarpiece’s central panels, including the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, Christ Enthroned, and the donor portrait of Joos Vijd. The rest of the polyptych’s panels are attributed to Jan. The author believes Jan may have reworked some of Hubert’s imagery as he organized the altarpiece into a new ensemble. Recent restoration of the painting will likely cast Châtelet’s interpretation of hands into doubt (see http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be).
The following chapters address Jan van Eyck’s production of devotional paintings. Curiously, Châtelet suggests that the Rolin Madonna, completed around 1435, may have been commissioned in part to commemorate a gift, a beautiful black belt, the chancellor received from Philip the Good approximately a decade earlier, at Rolin’s entry into the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1424. The author also sees great visual similarities between the Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele and the Frick Madonna with the Carthusian Monk Jan Vos. Nonetheless, few specialists would accept that both panels are by the same hand. The latter is often attributed to a talented imitator.
Occasionally, Châtelet seems to underplay the religious significance of these images. For instance, he asks whether the drawing of St. Barbara (Antwerp) was a devotional object or a pictorial exercise. In his interpretation of the Thyssen-Bornemisza diptych, Châtelet seems to believe that the artist was more preoccupied with highlighting the range of artistic possibilities in his work than in promoting religious devotion. There is no need to play art and piety against one another in this context.
The next section of the book addresses portraiture. Most of Châtelet’s interpretations are consistent with traditional views. However, he offers an alternative identification for the sitter in Jan van Eyck’s Timotheos (London). Rather than seeing the image as a possible allegorical portrait of a court musician (Gilles Binchois?), Châtelet believes it represents André de Toulongeon, a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece who traveled with the artist on a diplomatic journey to Iberia. To support his argument, Châtelet notes that André was baptized Timothy, a similarly sounding name to Timotheos.
The penultimate chapter focuses on the work of two artists Châtelet links to Van Eyck’s studio. He suggests that Ouwater, whose imagery is often considered Bouts-like, may have trained under Jan van Eyck, crediting him with the Philadelphia and Turin paintings of St. Jerome. In addition, he claims that another employee of the studio, the manuscript painter Jean Pestivien, produced the Prado Fountain of Life. His evidence for these assertions, however, remains unpersuasive.
In the final chapter, Châtelet compares and contrasts Van Eyck’s work with that of contemporary Italian painters, calling attention to the ways in which the qualities of light in Van Eyck’s paintings differ from those by Masaccio, or how the spatial configuration of faces in Van Eyck’s portraits is unlike the flat, medallion-like busts found in Pisanello’s portraits. In closing, he points to the ways in which Italian painters such as Antonello da Messina and Colantonio appropriated Van Eyck’s style and use of oils. The book includes a brief bibliography of secondary sources, a catalogue of archival documents, and a catalogue of images that Châtelet attributes to the Van Eyck brothers and two of their followers.