Did Jan Van Eyck Have a Perspectival System

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  • On the Arnolfini Portrait and the Lucca Madonna: Did Jan van Eyck Have a PerspectivalSystem?Author(s): James ElkinsSource: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 53-62Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3045778Accessed: 07/10/2008 13:52

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  • On the Arnolfini Portrait and the Lucca Madonna: Did Jan van Eyck Have a Perspectival System?

    James Elkins

    Exchanges on the topic of Jan van Eyck's pictorial constructions have been going on intermittently since the turn of the century. The most recent hypothesis, put forward in 1982-83, has if anything clouded the issue further by proposing an entirely new "elliptical perspective." The ensuing debate, which appeared in The Art Bulletin, raises fruitful questions for further research: the problem of knowing how accurate a reconstruction needs to be, and of how reconstructed lines should be interpreted. The present essay has two purposes. It attempts to settle the question of Jan van Eyck's perspective, at least in the case of the Arnolfini Portrait and the Lucca Madonna, and to introduce a new, higher level of accuracy and reproducibility for perspectival reconstructions in general.'

    It has long been known that the inception of perspective in the Low Countries can be credited to Petrus Christus,2 but the role played by Jan van Eyck continues to be disputed. A central case, the Arnolfini Portrait, has at- tracted no less than six different hypotheses.3 It may be useful to review the literature on the Arnolfini Portrait, and then, after sorting out the various accounts, to turn to the Lucca Madonna to see if those findings apply to other works.

    Karl Doehlemann, in an article published in a mathe-

    This study is dedicated to E. E. Rosenthal, who taught me the value of careful analysis per fas et nefas. I would like to thank him and an anonymous reader for comments on previous versions of this paper. 2 See K. Doehlemann, "Die Perspektive der Briider van Eyck," Zeitschrift fir Mathematik und Physik, LII, 1905, 419-425; "Die Entwicklung der Perspektive in der altniederlandischen Kunst," Repertoriumfiur Kunstwis- senschaft, xxxiv, 1911, 500-535; and his "Nochmals die Perspektive bei den Briidern Van Eyck," Zeitschrift fir Mathematik und Physik, xxxv, 1912, 262-267; J.G. Kern, "Die Kritik der perspektivischen Zeichnung und ihre Bedeutung ftir die Kunstgeschichte," Kunstgeschichtliche Gesell- schaft, Berlin, Sitzungsberichte, vi, 1905,37-46; idem, "Eine perspektivische Kreiskonstruktion bei Sandro Botticelli," Jahrbuch des preussischen Kunst- sammlungen, 1905, 137ff; and J.M. Collier, "Perspective in the Arnolfini Portrait," Art Bulletin, XLV, 1983, 691.

    It might be reiterated in this context that Petrus Christus's "mastery" of perspective extended only to the knowledge that orthogonals should be drawn to a single point and to the guide provided by a diagonal drawn through foreshortened squares. 3 I am not considering informal observations about Jan's perspective, for example, that it is "not mathematically accurate," that it is "influenced by Italian theory," or that it employs a small "vanishing area." It is not that such observations should be excluded a priori in favor of more exact remarks, it is that an attentive observer can discern something more than a single "vanishing area" even without drawing lines on reproduc- tions. That quality of attentive looking, it seems to me, has analytic precedence over more cursory responses.

    matics journal, doubted that the orthogonals in the Arnolfini Portrait converge to vanishing points at all and concluded that Jan understood only vanishing areas. To him, Jan was an experimenter whose "errors" led from medieval parallel perspective to a kind of empirical vanishing-area perspective, which was, nevertheless, decisively different from the mathematically correct solu- tion of Petrus Christus. In Doehlemann's account, Jan looked at surfaces like walls or ceilings and painted "bands" of vanishing points: one for the ceiling, another below it for the floor, and so forth.4

    Doehlemann's analysis was challenged by Joseph Kern, who saw the Arnolfini Portrait differently (Fig. 1). In his opinion, one vanishing point belongs to each sur- face, and Doehlemann's "bands" of vanishing points are really different horizon lines. Kern was a fastidi- ous worker, and noted Jan's omission of a single line

    4 Doehlemann, "Die Perspektive," 423 and 425: Die Tiefenlinien der Decke [of the Arnolfini Portrait] zeigen nach der Kernschen Tafel keinen gemeinsamen Fluchtpunkt (die Decke ist so dunkel, dap ich auf der Photographie diese Linien nicht mehr sehe).... Dann bleibt mir aber kaum etwas anderes ubrig, als anzunehmen, dap Jan das Gesetz vom Fluchtpunkt der Tiefenlinien einer Ebene, das hei3t dessen mathematisch prazisen Ausdruck, iiberhaupt nicht gekannt hat.... Wenn dann Jan an Stelle eines Augpunktes ein ganzes Gebiet annahm, so trat naturgemai an Stelle eines Horizontes ein ganzer Streifen und so erklare ich die verschiedenen Horizonte, die Kern konstatiert.... [Doehlemann concludes:] Man wird Jan van Eyck in bezug auf die Perspektive als einen Praktiker bezeichnen miissen, der mit ungewohnlich scharfer Beobachtungsgabe ausgestattet, aber doch nur auf empirischer Grundlage, das parallelperspektivische System seiner Vorganger verliep und die perspektivische Zeichnung insofer verbesserte, als er die Bilder paralleler Geraden um einen Fluchtpunktbezirk sich drehen liep.

  • 54 THE ART BULLETIN MARCH 1991 VOLUME LXXIII NUMBER 1

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    1 Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, after the reconstruction by J. Kern

    (an orthogonal from a), but found the concurrence as perfect as possible in a painting.5

    Panofsky, in the course of a more general comparison of Northern and Italian rendering of light, found the Arnolfini Portrait had four "central" vanishing points, and thought of it not simply as a slightly "incorrect" construc- tion, but more profoundly as the result of what, in the

    5J.G. Kern, "Perspektive und Bildarchitektur bei Jan van Eyck," Repertorium fir Kunstwissenschaft, xxxv, 1912, 29:

    In Wirklichkeit ist fur ein Bild die Ubereinstimmung vollkommen. Doehlemann wirde wohl zu demselben Schlusse gelangt sein, wenn er neben meiner Zeichnung das Originalbild statt der Photo- graphie das Bild eine erhebliche Grope aufweist.... Meine Tafel [pl. 1, top left] ergibt in Ubereinstimmung mit dem Original, nach der sie angefertigt ist, das typische Bild einer perspektivischen Konstruk- tion einzelner Ebenen nach gesonderten Fluchtpunkten.... Vermut- lich stiitzt sich Doehlemann bei der Ablehnung meiner Hypothese

    Italian view, would have to be called a wrongheaded approach to perspective in general: that is, it reflected the idea that individual objects and regions need not be subservient to a sense of whole space.6 Panofsky proba-

    auf die Zeichnung des dritten Deckenbalkens von rechts, der sich in der Tat in das System der ubrigen Balken nicht einfugt.

    Kern opens with a five-point conclusion, of which the first item is: "1. Jan van Eyck konstruiert einzelne Begrenzungsebenen des Raumes unter Anwendung des Fluchtpunktes fur diese einzelnen Ebenen" (ibid., 27). G. ten Doesschate, Perspective: Fundamentals, Controversials, History, Nieuwkoop, 1964,140-41, agrees with Kern's reconstruction of three vanishing points, but does not follow Kern's explanation of multiple horizons. 6E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character, Cambridge, 1966, 3 and 7: "It matters little ... that ... the Arnolfini portrait is not fairly ['correctly'] constructed and has four central vanishing points instead of one."

  • DID JAN VAN EYCK HAVE A PERSPECTIVAL SYSTEM? 55

    2 Arnolfini Portrait, after the reconstruction by D. Carleton 3 Arnolfini Portrait, after the reconstruction by J. Collier

    bly got his four vanishing points from Kern's plate by adding lines from the canopy (pl. 1, top left: b, c and d).7 His term

    "vanishing points," given the informal nature of his passage, can be safely read as "vanishing areas." In an earlier article, also influenced by Kern's analysis, Panofsky had filled in the area between his four "points" to make a lozenge-shaped vanishing area, or Fluchtregion, a kind of generalization of the four points.8

    More recently, David Carleton, a mathematician, has proposed that there are two vanishing areas, Kern's F' and F" (Fig. 2), and that they were generated in "ellipti- cal perspective" by the use of a convex mirror.9

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