Hicks, Carola. Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. London: Chatto, 2011.
“A civil icon. . . .To my modern eyes this painting is an early altar to human love. It is an archetype echoed through art history, by Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews and Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, and by those aspirational spreads in Hello! Magazine where we see the accoutrements of social climbing laid out as plainly as in that coolly lit room in Bruges in1434” (xiii). So writes Grayson Perry in his introduction to Carola Hicks’ Girl in a Green Gown, a book devoted, as its title declares, to “the History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait.” Hicks declares at the end of her Preface that the “work epitomizes the whole history of art, and helps relate the past to the present” (4).
Rather strong words and a rather grave responsibility perhaps for one relatively small painting. I had forgotten just how small it was. Given that I had just finished reading this book before I left for Britain in September, I did take a few moments while in the National Gallery to go and face the portrait. And, as you can see, I bought post cards. I found the fact that the work is so small to be in some way consoling. Its size domesticates the work, demythologizes it. On one level, it is just a picture of a couple in a room with their dog.
So much has been asserted about this painting. When I was first introduced to it in my teens, I was required to refer to it as The Marriage of Arnolfini, and much discussion was given to the young woman’s apparent pregnancy. I distinctly remember my then teacher emphasizing the “fact” that the picture was painted to commemorate a wedding and would have taken many months to paint; it wasn’t to be seen as a wedding picture where the bride was pregnant. I also remember thinking then that whether the woman were pregnant or not was actually somewhat irrelevant. There was much more to the painting than the fifteenth century equivalent of a family photo. There is that mirror, for example, and all the symbolism of the various objects.
Hicks’ book traces the history of the painting from its completion by van Eyck in 1434 to its significance today. Her last chapter is titled “Interpretations and Transformations” and deals with how the portrait has been documented, satirized, and parodied as well as having provided the inspiration for at least three novels. The earlier chapters tend to alternate between outlining who owned the painting and when and addressing various aspects of the work such as its craftsmanship and the significance of such elements as the furniture, the mirror, the oranges, or the dog.
I enjoyed this book. It is informative both in terms of political and geographic history and in terms of art and cultural history. It includes several pages of colour illustrations as well as some in-text black and white pictures. While the end notes and bibliography are testament to the depth of Hicks’ research, Girl in a Green Gown is neither overly “academic” nor stodgy. If you are interested in this picture that is, apparently, one of the most popular works in the National Gallery’s collection, then you will appreciate this book.
Carola Hicks’ husband Gary had to see the book through the final stages of publication after his wife’s death. In his postscript, he outlines his wife’s “stance on interpretation” (223); she tended to see it as “a profitless diversion that detracts from enjoyment of the painting as a work of art” (224). Gary Hicks believes that Carola’s view of the picture was that it was “an image primarily designed to show off social status, wealth and importance, whatever else it may contain in the way of hidden symbolism.” He goes on to describe the painting as “alien yet somehow very modern” (225).
Earlier in this post, I mentioned how the size of the picture domesticated it. It is, after all, a domestic interior no matter how significantly arranged. Perhaps one of the reasons that we respond so strongly to it is because we recognize it as a family picture, a domestic interior. Even though we are almost five hundred years removed from the painting of the work, we recognize the desire to record our presence and our surroundings. More than ever, we send out pictures showing ourselves in our surroundings with our families and friends because we want those pictures to say: “ Look at us: here we are.” In the Portrait, the painter also records his presence: Johannes van Eyck fuit hic.