Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban by Jan van Eyck
Analysis, Interpretation of Flemish Renaissance Oil Painting

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Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban By Jan Van Eyck
Man in a Red Turban.
By Jan van Eyck.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (1433)


Analysis and Interpretation
Further Resources


Painting: Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban
Date: 1433
Artist: Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)
Medium: Oil on wood panel
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Flemish Renaissance
Museum: National Gallery, London.

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Analysis of Portrait of a Man by Jan van Eyck

This famous Flemish painting, known officially as Portrait of a Man, but commonly referred to as Man in a Red Turban, or Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, is one of several famous panel paintings by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441), one of the foremost pioneers of the early Netherlandish Renaissance. Supposedly a self-portrait, it is believed to have been purchased by Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, during his period of exile in Antwerp around 1644, before being acquired by the National Gallery in London, in 1851. Along with Van Eyck's other masterpieces - such as The Ghent Altarpiece (1432, Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent), The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery, London), and The Madonna/Virgin of Chancellor Rolin (1435, Louvre, Paris) - Portrait of a Man in Red Turban is one of the most famous examples of Northern Renaissance art of the 15th century.



Jan Van Eyck's Man in Red Turban was first described as a self-portrait in 1655, although this view was not unanimous and the identification remains tentative. The inscription at the top of the frame has been cited as strong evidence in favour. It reads "Als Ich Can" (as I/Eyck can) - which is a pun on the painter's name. Van Eyck apparently depicted himself in two other works; he seems to be reflected in the mirror in the Arnolfini Marriage (1434, National Gallery, London) and in the shield of St George in The Madonna Of Cannon Van Der Paele (1436, Musee Communal Des Beaux-Arts, Bruges).

Whether it is a self-portrait or not, the man - whoever he is - is not actually wearing a turban, but a chaperon - with its ends tied across the top. Similar headgear can be seen in the background of Van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin - another alleged self-portrait.

Oil Painting Technique

Van Eyck's technical contribution to the art of oil painting - notably his meticulous use of thin layers of transparent colour pigments for maximum luminosity - made possible the precise optical effects and mirror-like polish that make this portrait so lifelike. Note, for example, the effects of the two-toned stubble or the capillaries on the white surface of the left eye. His use and application of colour has been commented on by numerous artists and critics: here, for instance, the white colour of the eye is mixed with tiny amounts of red and blue. A very thin layer of red is dragged over this underlayer, but in such a way as to leave the underlayer exposed in several places. The iris of the eye is painted ultramarine - with additions of white and black towards the pupil, which is painted in black over the blue of the iris. The main highlights are four touches of lead white - one on the iris and three on the white.

The variation of focus between the two eyes suggests that Van Eyck, may have used a mirror to create this image: his right eye is slightly blurred around the edges, appearing to be only passivly engaged in sight, while the outline of the left eye is clearly delineated and focused on a specific object. This effect probably resulted from the artist observing himself in the mirror; when viewing oneself from an angle both eyes cannot be seen simultaneously.

Through his control of the medium, Van Eyck becomes ineffably present in the image, if not through his physical likeness, then through the way in which he alone has the skill to render invisible the mark of each brushstroke.

As in all his paintings, Van Eyck designs his composition with great care. Here, for instance, he relies heavily on colour and shade for effect. The rich red folds of the turban or chaperon frame and contrast with the lighted face which emerges from the darkness. And the viewer is irresistibly drawn into the image by the firm gaze of the sitter, from which nothing else is allowed to detract. His use of chiaroscuro is masterly, as is his dramatic tenebrism. Van Eyck's combination of tonal control and use of shading, anticipates the High Renaissance technique of sfumato, exemplified in the portraiture of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

The inscription "Jan Van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433" along the lower edge of the frame in abbreviated Latin emphasises the creation of the work and points to the pictorial field as not just a portrait of a man, but also a man-made painting. Furthermore, the inscription is not actually carved on the frame, but painted in trompe l'oeil, so that the words look as though they have been carved.

Jan Van Eyck

The realism of Van Eyck's portrait art gives the artist a distinctly modern look, when compared with other Renaissance paintings. His selective naturalism superceded the stylized forms of Gothic art - including the latest International Gothic style - and compared most favourably with the new Renaissance art appearing in Italy. In fact, in the use of oil paint, he - along with his contemporary Roger van der Weyden (1399-1464) - was clearly ahead of anyone in Italy, and his colours seemed to shine like no one else's.



Further Resources

For more information on Renaissance portraiture, try these resources:

Renaissance Portraits (1400-1600)
Northern Renaissance Artists (Flanders, Holland, Germany)

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