"Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait": Business as Usual?

Critical Inquiry 16 (1):55-86 (1989)

This essay had its beginnings in my desire to reexamine the Arnolfini portrait from the perspective of Giovanna Cenami, the demure young woman who stands beside the cloaked and hated man on the fifteenth-century panel in London. Even though she shares the formal prominence with the man in Jan van Eyck’s unprecedented composition, she has been paid scant attention in the literature on the painting. I anticipated, as I began my work that inspection of the female subject of the panel would, of necessity, amend the authoritative count of the Arnolfini portrait that Panofsky first published in 1934. That narrative, which focused on the event portrayed, had been recited to me by my teachers as an example of interpretive truth; I had committed it to memory as a model of our discipline’s search for meaning. I never dreamed back then that it might be “wrong.” Yet, the material I encountered as I pursued my inquiry into Giovanna’s life contradicted Panofsky’s assumptions on several key points; amendment alone would not do. It seemed necessary for me to challenge the venerable interpretation others were starting to question,4 even though two generations of students, including my own, had learned from it all they thought there was to know about “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.” 4. See, for example, Peter H. Schabacker, “De Matrimonio ad Morganaticam Conracto: Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini’ Portrait Reconsidered,” Art Quarterly 35 : 375-98, hereafter abbreviated “DM”; Lucy Freeman Sandler, “The Handclasp in the Arnolfini Wedding: A Manuscript Precedent,” Art Bulletin 66 : 488-91, hereafter abbreviated “H”; and Jan Baptist Bedaux, “The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” Simiolus 16 : 5-28, hereafter abbreviated “RS.” Linda Seidel, associate professor in the department of art at the University of Chicago, is the author of Songs of Glory , a study of twelfth-century French architectural sculpture. She is currently completing a work on medieval doorway design as an art of entry and pursuing a collaborative project with Michael Camille and Robert Nelson, Medieval Art and Its Audiences
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DOI 10.1086/448526
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