(Art) The Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait

Contemporary artist Theo Vandor has painstakingly removed the figures from Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 masterpiece, commonly known as “The Arnolfini Portrait,” which depicts a wealthy Italian merchant and his (eventual) wife in their home. Painted on an oak panel, it is widely considered one of the most mysterious works in the Western canon.

Contrary to common perception, the woman in the original, reproduced below, is not pregnant. At the time, it was common (if not fashionable) for women to lift their bulky dresses that way.

Jan Van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

The couple is reflected in the curved mirror on the back wall, above which are the words “Jan Van Eyck was here,” the painter’s highly unusual signature. If one looks closely, you can see the artist himself reflected as well, in a move similar to what Velázquez would later do in his 1656 masterpiece, “Las Meninas.”

Scholars and art historians have long speculated as to the point of the reflection, or the unusual note on the wall, or indeed the entire painting. Once thought to be commissioned as a kind of marriage certificate, it was later discovered that Giovanni Arnolfini didn’t marry until 13 years after the painting was made, six years after Van Eyck died. Since then, no one is quite sure what to make of it.

Why the mirror? What is the purpose of the discarded shoes? Why is the gentleman holding his lady’s hand that way? Why commission a painting if they are not married?

Hannah Gadsby, Australian comedienne of recent Netflix fame, apparently studied art history and wrote about the painting for The Guardian a couple years ago. Spoiler: she’s just as perplexed as the rest of us.

In the contemporary remake, the artist has removed the figures not only from the foreground but the mirror as well, and perfectly filled the interior in an exact replica of Van Eyck’s style. What remains is an utter hollow, an absence that is haunting, even if one has never seen the original, deepening the mystery.

In the mirror, which should contain our reflection, now there is nothing.

What exactly is this painting about?