Even Paintings Travel

Yes, even paintings travel and the path of their journey is interesting, especially if they arrive where they are now without any damage. Some have survived wars, disasters, lootings, jealousies and the indifference of the people that have inherited them, not having understood their value.

One rainy morning I was at the National Gallery in London, admiring the Arnolfini Portrait which had been included in the Guardian among “Twenty Works of Art to See before You Die”!  It had been painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434 in Bruges, Belgium, when he was the official painter at the Court of Philip the Good, Grand Duke of Burgundy. What had impressed me was that, despite its small size (81.8 x 59.4), both the room and the Arnolfini couple were represented with such precision, as if they had been photographed, and with details so perfectly painted as to leave the gaze literally in awe. Is this what the Guardian had meant? Not just. What really piqued my curiosity were the adventures that this famous painting had undergone.

Ah, if a painting could talk…In the beginning it was admired in private by the guests of the house of the Arnolfinis in Bruges but, because the couple had no children to inherit, it was later purchased by the ambassador at the Court of Burgundy, the Spaniard don Diego de Guevara, a cultured, refined and cosmopolitan gentleman of his time. Shortly before his death, don Diego gave it to the Archduchess Marguerite as a present, and she hung it in her private apartments, where she could admire it in peace, as the Arnolfinis reminded her of happy days with her own husband, now deceased.

Afterwards, her collection of Flemish paintings passed down to her niece, Mary of Hungary, also made Regent of the Netherlands, a woman who loved both riding and art. When Maria’s brother, Charles V, decided to leave the empire to his son, Philip II, he forced his sister to accompany him to Spain, where he retired. Having to travel light, Mary was undecided as to which paintings to take with her.  The Arnolfini was one of the chosen and left with her. It arrived in Spain intact, having survived the atmospheric changes and the moisture inside the galleon that transported it.

It is true that a painting obeys without having the power to protest, having to follow the will of its owners, but on the other hand it is resilient. It lasts through time while we, human beings, are fragile and temporary. 

In Spain it remained in the royal collections. From Mary of Hungary it passed down to Philip II and, subsequently, to his descendants, and then to the Bourbons, always in competition with paintings by Titian and Rubens, of enormous size and in more fashionable styles, but fortunately always catalogued in inventories (so it was not lost) and always admired by visitors who looked at it, not in the official salons of the royal palaces, but in the corridors of less public view because of its intimate theme. 

And we get to Napoleon and his Iberian conquest! In those turbulent times, and with the imperial order to transfer the most important works of art to Paris, no one had touched the Arnolfini Portrait. It remained quietly hanging on the walls of the Royal Palace of Madrid throughout the Napoleonic period until Wellington arrived in Spain to liberate it from the French. Joseph, Napoleon’s brother and King of Spain, had to leave the capital and move with the royal works of art (the smallest that he could carry) to Paris.

But near the Spanish-French borders, Wellington’s troops surrounded him, and the battle of Vittoria remained in history as the most frustrating of Napoleon’s defeats, following that of Russia. Joseph escaped on a random horse and, in a dense cloud of dust, he left behind all his personal belongings, including the works of art. These were plundered by Wellington’s soldiers, who divided the spoils amongst themselves. The Arnolfini Portrait, thankfully intact, ended up in the hands of Colonel James Hay.

It finally arrived in London, always silent…

James Hay didn’t know what to do with it. Through his acquaintances, he sent the painting to the Regent, George IV, a lover of Art, with the standing arrangement to leave it at the royal residence until he decided to buy it or not. But Flemish primitive art was not popular yet, and the Regent failed to admire the Arnolfini spouses, hanging next to his bedroom, in Carlton House in Pall Mall. So it was returned to Colonel Hay, no connoisseur, but who had a feeling he possessed something that could be very valuable.

And finally the time of the recognition of that value had arrived. Two more steps…The Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, were the first to appreciate Flemish primitive art. Some scholars were intrigued by the Arnolfini spouses and went to Bruges to find out more about who they were and to do some research about Jan van Eyck. So they began to write articles and it was then that the painting began to arouse the interest of connoisseurs.

And as we say… timing is everything … the National Gallery in London, which had been founded only a few years earlier and needed to complete its Flemish session with Flemish primitives, decided to buy the painting in February 1843. The price offered was 600 guineas, the same that was offered for the Portrait of the Doge Loredan by Bellini. From that time, the portrait has remained calm, protected and always silent in its home, and is considered the “star” of the collections of the National Gallery.

I was able to read its story, still intrigued by the words of the Guardian, in a book written by Carola Hicks that I was fortunate to find in the Gallery Bookshop, entitled Girl in a Green Gown, with the subtitle: the History and the Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait.

The Arnolfini Portrait, National Gallery, London, England

The Arnolfini Portrait, National Gallery, London, England

Barbara Athanassiadis