Art That Makes You Smarter: The Arnolfini Portrait

Using Art Prints in the Classroom

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portraitc.1434
Medium: oil on panel
Dimensions: 82.2 x 60 cm

There is some mystery around this piece. It is unclear if the painting is of an engagement or marriage. Also, it is unclear if the portrait is of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami OR of Giovanni's brother, Michele, and his wife, Elisabeth. Some even believe it to be a portrait of Jan van Eyck himself, with his wife Margarete.

The mirror in the painting is convex. It shows a larger area than a flat mirror. Flat mirrors had not yet been invented in 1434. It shows that there were other people in the room, yet it is not known who they were. The frame of the mirror shows the Passion of Christ.

The woman in the portrait may or may not have been pregnant. In 1434, women wore dresses that would have concealed that part of their figure.

Questions for Students to Ponder and Explore:
Why are there two pairs of shoes on the floor? Why can't we clearly see the man's feet? What are the cat-like figures on the red seat in the background? Why would a small broom be hanging on the bed? Why would the artist include a small statue of Saint Margaret? How does the (geometric) orthogonal perspective and the reflection in the mirror make this painting innovative for the time period? Why are the colors more vibrant on the right side of the portrait and more muted on the left side?

Arts Integration Ideas (adapt for specific grade levels as needed):
History/Social Studies/Religion- Research the Passion of Christ to determine why this would be included in a painting of this time period. OR research dating and marriage traditions of this time period. Compare and contrast those to the dating and marriage traditions of modern times.
Science- Research common plants of the location and time period of this piece. Make a best guess at what type of plant is outside the window and defend your reasoning. OR compare and contrast convex and concave lenses. Determine the historical implications of each and how they relate to our daily lives.
Writing- Write a love letter from the man in the portrait to the woman in the portrait. Write a love letter from the woman in the portrait to the man in the portrait. Show understanding of the time period through choice of wording.  OR write about the event from the perspective of one of the people in the mirror. This would require making an educated guess about who is shown in the mirror and what role they would have played at this event.
Math- Draw a floor plan for the room. Based on your estimations of the contents (furniture, people, window, etc.), what would be the dimensions of the room? Determine area and perimeter. Determine the size of each wooden floor panel that would be necessary to fill the room. Compare the number of floor panels in the portrait to your judgements about the dimensions of the room. OR measure the contents of the room, including the people, furniture, window, fruit, shoes, and dog. Determine if the proportions are real or if artistic liberty was taken in the painting. For instance, does the size of the fruit make sense proportionally compared to the size of the people based on the placement of each in the portrait? (Discuss foreshortening.)
Language- Use prepositions to tell about the piece. (The oranges are on the table, etc.) OR use adjectives to describe the right side of the painting and the left side.

Helpful Resources:
Jan van Eyck-Wikipedia
The Arnolfini Portrait- Wikipedia
13 Paintings Children Should Know by Angela Wenzel
The Arnolfini Portrait- National Gallery, London
50 Artists You Should Know
Short Lessons in Art History: Artists and Their Work

 Copyright 2012 Amanda Koonlaba-There's a Party in the Art Room