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Jan Van Eyck: an artistic break in Bruges

Tourists come to unwind in Bruges, seeking its rich cultural, artistic and architectural heritage. And talking of culture and history in Bruges, it is essential to spend some time with the person and work of Jan van Eyck.

One afternoon, hungry for art, I decided to visit the Groeninge museum, which was where I discovered this painter, who really caught my eye. I hope to convince you to make a detour to this museum, despite the wealth of other wonderful things to tempt you in Bruges.

The origins of this painter are mysterious, but he is one of the greatest of the Flemish primitives (realist painters who made a name for oil painting).

The story goes that Jan van Eyck was born in the region of Liège around 1390. He built a reputation in The Hague before coming to Bruges after the death of his patron the prince-Bishop John III of Bavaria. In Bruges he found his inspiration and peace, and would stay here until he died.

Are you wondering why he is one of the historical figures in the history of Bruges?

He only actually lived in Bruges towards the end of his life (between 9 and 10 years), but he contributed to the artistic flourishing of the city with the masterpieces he painted for the Duke of Burgundy (Philip the Good).

Alongside his work at Court, he also produced his main masterworks, in a private capacity, such as 'The Man in the Red Turban' in 1433, 'The Arnolfini Wedding' in 1434 and 'The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele' in 1436.

The last-mentioned can be seen in room 2 of the museum, and is striking in its delicacy of composition, the warm colours and realism of the expressions. Today it is one of the museum’s prize works. This painting became an epitaph for his burial in the Cathedral of Saint Donatian in Bruges, which was destroyed when the city was under French rule.

Despite the relative lack of knowledge about Van Eyck’s personal life, he is known to have married ‘damoiselle Marguerite’, who is depicted in her portrait (photo below) which you can see in the same room in the museum.

Aside from these works, there are few vestiges remaining of the artist. The building where he lived and worked was destroyed in a fire at the beginning of the 20th century. But on Burg Square you can see statues of counts and countesses of Flanders on the frontage of the Town Hall, which are certainly copies today, but the originals were coloured by the hand of the master himself.