LONDON — The term “Reflections” in the title of this National Gallery show, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites — which explores the influence of Jan van Eyck, and specifically his painting commonly known as the “Arnolfini Portrait” upon the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — emerges as a qualifying clause. For many, the supposed connection between Van Eyck and the Brotherhood will not be immediately apparent, therefore the evidence presented here, pinpointing the specific tangible influence of this singular painting will be a stimulating revelation. From this starting point, to contextualize the Brotherhood, the exhibition fragments into tangents: the predominant one being the theme of the curved mirror famously reflecting unseen guests in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini piece, through dazzling optical trickery (hence “Reflections”). The result is a distinctly lofty intellectual show which at times threatens to deviate from Van Eyck altogether.
The Arnolfini arrived at the National in 1842, when William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais were studying at the Royal Academy Schools which then occupied the east part of the building. (As an aside, the Arnolfini benefits here from its temporary move; the better lighting lends a refreshed vitality.) The Pre-Raphaelites emerged at a time when the National’s collection was largely comprised of traditional academic painting, dominated by either thematically weighty history scenes or frivolous decorative work. This first piece from the Low Countries must have looked thoroughly alien amongst its new wall neighbors, and its impact appears to have been instrumental in the Brotherhood’s total rejection of the academic tradition, with its prescribed themes and dedication to naturalism. In their output we can see immediately an affinity with the attention and importance that Van Eyck attaches to the physical world around us – his domestic marriage scene is full of specifically contemporary details and objects – rather than concern for historic scenes removed from real experience. The picture’s meaning and intent is communicated via complex symbolism as opposed to an explicit narrative. Such symbolism is what arguably lends impenetrability to much Netherlandish religious work, so much so that Erwin Panofsky famously spent a career interpreting it.
These formal qualities are profoundly evident here in the hallucinogenic riotous colors and almost hyperreal detail of Holman Hunt’s “Awakening Conscience” (1853) and “Lady of Shalott” (about 1886–1905). They also adopted the obtuse symbolism contained within the Arnolfini, as well as explicit citations of domestic objects. The Brotherhood chose religious and literary themes, filling humble domestic interiors with objects weighted with significance. Millais’s “Mariana” (1851), based on Tennyson’s poem, through a single burning candle, solitary bed and desk, shows the conflicted mentality of desire and penitence in this jilted bride. And Morris’s “La Belle Iseult” (1858-7), from the Tristram and Iseult legend, clearly borrows the Arnolfini’s bed, carpet, oranges, dog, mirror, and slippers.
Van Eyck’s Arnolfini forms the core of the exhibition. Secondary is the supporting influence of other paintings from the Low Countries which entered the National around the same time. A reduced scale copy of the Ghent altarpiece by Van Eyck and his brother Hubert is included to highlight that the original was on show in London circa 1819, implying its exposure to the Brotherhood. Van Eyck’s self-portrait arrived in 1933. Its caption stating “As I can” is consciously borrowed by Morris for the frame of his “La Belle Iseult”.
From here onwards, the convex mirror dominates. It is easy to see within the designs for the mirror in sketches for Hunt’s Lady of Shalott a direct visual reference to theArnolfini’s mirror, with its tiny painted scenes of the passion in radiating circles forming a halo. Burne Jones, a British artist and designer associated with the Pre-Raphaelites called the Arnolfini the “finest picture in the world“, and uses the convex mirror in a painting departing from narrative invention and literary/legendary basis in a portrait shown here of his daughter Margaret (1885–6).
Taking a more theoretical tack on the analysis of Van Eyck’s influence is Alison Smith’s idea that the mirror signifies Victorian notions of order and sexual morality. She argues in the exhibition catalogue that the presence of the large reflective surface in “The Awakening Conscience” is a direct inversion of the moral rightness embodied within the Arnolfini’s marriage scene. Furthermore, she argues, the mirror, like an eye, mimics the shiny glass of the scrutinizing camera lenses used at the time. This theory works on paper though some may regard it as overly optimistic interpretation of the artist’s intent.
Relevance to Van Eyck becomes less convincing with the inclusion of the actual convex mirrors of William Orpen and Rossetti, the latter of whom owned twenty four mirrors, nine of them convex. A study in the round of “Rossetti’s Bedroom at Cheyne Walk” by Henry Treffry Dunn (1872) depicting the reflected interior of Rossetti’s house indicates a general interest in convex mirrors for their illusionary possibilities by the wider aesthetic movement and not just the Pre-Raphaelites. The lurch away from relevance is not helped by the inclusion of Charles Haslewood Shannon’s “Les Marmitons” (1897), two figures painted in broad impressionistic strokes and brooding somber tones which seemingly qualify for display because of its circular mirror in the background. When the same occurs with Orpen’s “Bloomsbury Family” (1907) and Mark Gertler’s “Still Life with Self Portrait” (1918) the shows focus deviates further from Van Eyck.
For a show so modest in size the themes explored are densely packed, demonstrating Van Eyck’s influence through visual comparisons which satisfyingly reveal a complex relationship between two otherwise disparate movements in art. The theoretical analysis however is of a particularly hardcore academic, art-historical nature and will remain largely baffling to casual viewers who lack the aid of the catalogue or audio guide. A note regarding the history of institutional collecting is also important: We forget that the collections we visit now did not appear fully-formed, and that interrelationships between collections play a vital part in the construction of ambitious shows such as this. Perhaps this is why the Pre-Raphaelite Rossetti’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini!” (1849–50) loaned from the Tate is not presented inside the exhibition space itself, but is displayed in the Sainsbury wing amongst the early medieval panels that it mimics. This placement serves to elicit awareness that our cultural heritage is historically bisected by the separate collections of the Tate and National, and rarely considered together by the casual visitor.