Scientists Try To Decipher What Kind Optical Device Was Used By The 14th Century Flemish Painter van Eyck

Jan van Eyck is known for ‘The Amolfini Portrait’

Gilles Simon, a professor at the University of Lorraine in France has described in ‘The Conversation’, recent research scientists have undertaken to decipher what kind of a ‘mysterious optical device’ was used by Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) who is “famed for his empirical use of perspective.” To this day, as Simon notes, many have struggled to find geometrical coherence in his representation of space.

“In one of his most celebrated works, The Arnolfini Portrait, which depicts a wealthy, Italian married couple, it is seemingly impossible to find a single vanishing point – the spot furthest from the viewer, at which all of the parallel lines in a painting meet.”

Even though since the early 1990s, researchers have used computer analysis to try to understand the use of perspective in the painting, The Arnolfini Portrait continues to present difficulties to those who try to analyze it with algorithms.

Based on the most recent research in which Simon was involved, scientists came to the conclusion that van Eyck used an optical device to produce his works.

Van Eyck’s device would have been more elaborate than Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘perspective machine,’ which Da Vinci developed half a century after van Eyck’s death.

 The assumption is it had several eyepieces equally spaced out along an inclined axis, just like the vanishing points in The Arnolfini Portrait. Using it, he could have outlined parts of reality strip by strip (eyepiece by eyepiece) with a carbon ink that he then transferred to a primed wood panel before painting it.

“Given that the painting was divided into strips of varying thickness, one might suggest that van Eyck focused his attention on four zones of interest: the ceiling, the male figure’s head and hat, his raised hand, and his lower body. It would seem that he placed particular care on producing the patron’s portrait, perhaps even more so than the surrounding architecture.”

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