Jan van Eyck is credited with originating a style of painting characterized by minutely realistic depictions of surface effects and natural light. This was made possible by using an oil medium, which allowed the building up of paint in translucent layers, or glazes.
Little is known of van Eyck’s origins, but he probably came from Maaseik, near Maastricht, and was of the gentry class. He is first heard of in 1422 working in The Hague for John of Bavaria, ruler of Holland. From 1425 he was at Bruges and Lille as painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. In 1428 van Eyck was sent to Portugal to paint Philip the Good’s future wife, Isabella of Portugal.
Van Eyck’s works are of an exceptionally innovative and technical quality, especially in the handling and manipulating of oil paint. He and his brothers developed a stable varnish that would dry at a consistent rate. The breakthrough came when they mixed the oil into the actual paints they were using. The result was brilliance, translucence, and intensity of color as the pigment was suspended in a layer of oil that also trapped light. The flat, dull surface of tempera was transformed into a jewel-like medium that was a vivid and convincing depiction of natural light. The invention of this technique transformed the appearance of painting.
The artist used the oil medium to represent a variety of subjects with striking realism in microscopic detail; for example, he infused painted jewels and precious metals with a glowing inner light by means of subtle glazes over the highlights. This revolutionary master selected and arranged his subject matter so that it would contribute deeper symbolic meaning to his painting.