The stupendous restoration of the altarpiece, and the magnificent exhibition nearby, confirm Van Eyck as a painting colossus. Get yourself to Ghent!
According to the Italian art critic Giorgio Vasari, writing hundreds of miles away and more than a century later, the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck “delighted in alchemy”. As he mixed up compounds by candlelight in a workshop by a canal in Bruges, he hit on the secret of oil painting. There’s no proof of any of this – but as you look at his uncannily perfect paintings in the epochal new survey of his genius at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts, it’s easy to believe he dabbled in magic.
The proof twinkles between the thumb and index finger of Jan de Leeuw, in Van Eyck’s 1436 portrait of this fellow craftsman. De Leeuw was a leading Bruges goldsmith and, as he fixes a sharp, clear gaze straight at you, he holds a ring he has made. It’s as much rivalry as homage. The jeweller’s art is intricate, but painting is something else. The ring glints in dazzles of yellow, catching a beam of light. The goldsmith made a reflective object, but Van Eyck has made the light itself.
Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, from 1 February until 30 April.