Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Reading Meaning, Writing Meaning: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait
Tuesday, Thursday: 8:00-9:30am
The Wikipedia tab of a Google search for the Arnolfini Portrait states that its central subject matter is “marriage,” but anyone who spends time viewing this enigmatic masterpiece–either digitally or surrounded by an excited crowd in London’s National Gallery–will surely be inspired by the possibilities of its magnificent details. Indeed, one might ask, “is the painting’s overall theme really more complex than it seems?” Created by the Burgundian court artist Jan van Eyck in 1434, the Arnolfini Portrait has inspired fierce controversy since the nineteenth century, when prominent art historians Crowe and Cavalcaselle speculated that the figures in the painting “are the portraits of John van Eyck and his wife; and the likeness between the female face and the portrait of the painter’s wife…bears out this supposition.”
From the deep iconographical reading developed in the 1930s to contemporary reductionist approaches that describe the image as a literal one, the Arnolfini Portrait has time and again evaded a complete explanation. In this course, we will look closely at this painting and engage with and critique the lively debate surrounding its meaning. We will use a variety of media to think carefully about which historical and historiographic methodologies have provided the most successful analyses of the artwork, and for what reasons. We will also use the Arnolfini Portrait as a window through which to explore religion, genres of painting, and van Eyck’s artistic influence in Northern Europe in the fifteenth century and beyond. Students will also gain an appreciation of fifteenth-century art and historiography.
Because this is an R1B class, you will be asked to produce writing assignments frequently in order to build the composition and research skills necessary for college-level coursework. Assignments will be scaffolded and will increase in length as the semester progresses. If you follow the pace I recommend, the workload will be manageable, and you will learn a good deal about research in the humanities and this course’s specific topic. My hope is that we will discuss interesting readings AND learn writing and research skills that will be useful in other courses you may take during your undergraduate studies.