Jan van Eyck, “Portrait of a Man,” 1433, oil on oak panel, 26 x 19 cm, National Gallery, London

In this occasional series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: Jan van Eyck, “Portrait of a Man.”

It’s been called a number of things, including “Man with the Red Turban,” “Portrait of a Man,” and “Self-portrait.” The identity of the man in Jan van Eyck’s (circa 1390-1441) canonical “Portrait of a Man” is unknown, but the mystery surrounding the painting is certain.

Painted in 1433 and housed today within the walls of London’s National Gallery, Van Eyck’s “Portrait of a Man” is a masterful example of the early use of oil. The sitter — with his confrontational gaze — is rendered beautifully in the cutting-edge medium. His chaperon — commonly misidentified as a turban — is a brilliant vermillion red, which threatens the viewer almost as much as the stern expression.

Several elements have suggested to scholars that the visage painted is that of the artist himself. To begin, the sitter’s dress would have been appropriate for a man of Van Eyck’s social status. Further, an inscription on the frame — which is still original — reads “I do as I can” (AIC IXH XAN), which can perhaps be interpreted as a kind of self-promotion. Indeed, many scholars also believe a self-portrait would explain the chaperon. The folds, lines, light, shading, and texture of the headgear would have been a vivid display of the artist’s talents, undoubtedly impressing potential patrons.

The National Gallery writes, “Van Eyck uses light and shade in a subtle and dramatic way: the sitter seems to emerge from darkness, his face and headdress modeled by the light that falls from the left. The viewer is drawn towards the image by the penetrating gaze of the sitter. The painting, so carefully inscribed, was presumably one of particular significance to the painter, suggesting further a possible self-portrait.”

To learn more, visit the National Gallery.

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