Friday, 25 May 2012

Girl In a Green Gown

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434
I was sitting in an aeroplane recently, minding my own business, when the lady across the aisle from me took a book out of her handbag and settled down to read. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of the front cover: a lovely reproduction of the Arnolfini Portrait. I kept trying to see the title: a project that kept me occupied until Captain Sally Anderson announced that we will be landing at Tullamarine in five minutes and it is raining.

Stephen Fry and his cohorts on QI tell me that passengers feel more confident at 35,000 feet when the captain's voice is a male one, preferably with a Scottish accent. However, they are a bunch of wimpy Poms - I felt quite safe in what I imagined to be the beringed and scarlet-taloned hands of Captain Sally, who has an accent like Julia Gillard rather than Sean Connery. At least I know she won't be tempted to show off. (Plutonium is not the most dangerous substance in the world - testosterone is!)

No sooner had Sally pulled on the handbrake, or my literary fellow-passenger put the book down on her seat while she reached for her bag overhead, and I was able to see that it is called Girl In A Green Gown, by Carola Hicks. I had no idea whether it was romantic fiction or a scholarly thesis, but I got it from the library the very next day on the strength of the front cover. I love that picture.

It turns out to be a very fascinating and easily readable account of the "history and mystery" of the Arnolfini Portrait. Jan van Eyck painted it in 1434 and it has an impeccable provenance from that day to this: most unusually for a medieval painting, we know exactly who owned it throughout the five centuries of its existence.

Ms Hicks tells its story in alternating chapters: the story of each owner alternates with chapters analysing every detail of the painting. Ironically, it is the first owner about whom the least is known. It is assumed that the figures in this double portrait are those of the wealthy Bruges merchant Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, for it is he who commissioned it.

Subsequently it was owned by Marguerite of Austria, who, as Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, held sway over Bruges. Marguerite bequeathed it together with the rest of her extensive collection to her kinswoman Marie of Hungary, who succeeded her in the Netherlands governorship. (I like the names of Marie's parents: Philip the Handsome and Juana the Mad.) According to surviving inventories, the picture was encased in a recessed frame with wooden doors, which is one reason why it has survived so well.

Spain had a good grip on the Netherlands all this while, and the painting was next owned by Philip II: the one who married Mary Tudor, was one of Queen Elizabeth's disappointed suitors, and had the stuffing kicked out of his Armada by Francis Drake, John Hawkins and the lads. Philip was of a sour disposition, and who's to blame him? He had a lot to put up with.

The picture remained part of the Spanish royal collection until Napoleon put his oar in and conquered Spain, installing his brother Joseph as King. Joe was a bit of an art collector (funny how conquerors suddenly become art collectors: look at Hermann Goering!) and he "collected" the Arnolfini Portrait along with many more masterpieces from the Habsburg palaces.

However, the Bonapartes didn’t reckon with the Duke of Wellington. He took Spain right back from them, and overnight Joe found himself a fugitive. No travelling light for him: he took a fleet of carriages laden with "his" works of art and valuable museum items, hardly able to move on the inadequate Spanish roads already  clogged with refugees.

Wellington's army was not above a bit of light looting, and The Arnolfini Portrait somehow found itself among the effects that Lt Col James Hay sent back to England in 1812. It remained in the hands of the Hay family until it was bought by the National Gallery in 1842, where you can go and look at it free of charge any time you are in London.

Interspersed with details of the fascinating history which I have only lightly outlined here, Ms Hicks tells us about the meaning and symbolism of all the objects in the painting, many of which I didn't even notice until she pointed them out. The most important aspect of this picture is its emphasis on wealth and status. The author explains how everything, from the fabrics to the oranges in the bowl, are status symbols and items only the very wealthy could enjoy. I was interested to learn that the couple is not standing in a bedroom, but that a bed in the reception room was an important status symbol, showing off as it does the rich colour and fabric of the hangings. The red hangings are significant because red was the most difficult and expensive dye.

The couple's outfits are lined with fur, oranges were only for a privileged few, the glass in the window was a luxury only the rich could afford. The rug, the mirror, the chandelier, the clothes they are wearing - everything is put into historical and cultural context and Ms Hicks explains in fascinating detail about the social and commercial aspects of life at the time.

We don't know why the man is holding his hand up vertically like Glenn McGrath about to bowl a fast ball, and we are not sure whether the lady is pregnant or if it is just the swathes of fabric in her dress that makes it look that way. See how the dress is pooling on the floor: it positively shrieks: "Look at me!  I can afford yards and yards of very expensive material!"

The author deals with the material objects in the painting in a way which brings the society of the time to life, just as she gives us an engaging description of life at the various royal courts whose rulers owned the painting. She has the knack of describing the past in a way that gives it great immediacy and makes it as accessible to the reader as a novel.

I can highly recommend this book to all our members who like a bit of history and a bit of scandal mixed in with their art appreciation!

This winter the NGV will be exhibiting works in all media from the Napoleonic era: from David's masterpieces to the Empress Josephine's jewels.

I am very interested to learn that the exhibition will emphasise the French/Australian connection and tell the story of both Napoleon and Josephine's fascination with our continent.

At Maimaison, Josephine successfully bred black swans, emus and sulphur-crested cockatoos. She had over 200 living Australian plants brought for her personal collection by Nicholas Boudin, who was sent in 1800 to chart the coastline of Victoria, which he named Terre Napoleon after his patron.

Josephine introduced both the wattle and eucalyptus to France, where they still flourish, and she worked closely with the renowned flower painter Pierre-Joseph Redouté to publish pictures of Australian plants and flowers for the first time.

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