Was it really Jan van Eyck and not J.C. Maxwell who produced the first color photograph? Van Eyck’s after all is hanging up in Bruges in the Groeninge Museum, and Maxwell’s, well, Maxwell’s dissipated in about half an hour, leaving only an historical trace. The problem of course is that Van Eyck’s oil (Virgin of the Canon van der Paele) was done 403 years before the Daguerre invention (building of course on the work of others, notably Niepce), so it really doesn’t count because it really doesn’t exist. His work though *does* exist, but not as a photo—it was, is, a painting, finished in 1436, and it stands in my mind as looking so much like a perfect capturing of a moment that it seems a (luscious) snapshot.
In her book Color and Meaning, Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting (1992), Marcia Hall makes the point (on page 69) that it is the lighting in this painting that makes it so extraordinary—and differentiates it entirely from the predictable light or “stage illumination of the Italians”. Its an excellent point. The light source in the painting is emanates as though it were a half-hour before sunset in Santa Fe; or here, in Asheville, when there is a very low and nearly complete cloud ceiling and the sun just manages just before sunset to peek through between the mountains and the cloud layers to blaze its extraordinary, horizontal-like brilliance making everything and anything that reflects that light into a work of private art. The figures in this painting by Van Eyck reflect a softer version of that light in such a manner—they are sharply illuminated, luminous, in all of their very human glory and frailty. We have sharp relief, great detail, deep shadow—and much of that is missing in Italy at this time.
The photo parts come in here: the characters are caught in the middle of some very small, obscure action, and the smallness of their movements are captured perfectly
Even though they are emotive of course the faces of the great Masaccio are relatively plain; Gozzoli, Fra Lippi, the magnificent Fra Angelico, Pisanello, Ghirlandaio, della Francesca, Veneziano, di Credi,. Perugino, and even the emotive and colorful Rafael, all working in about the same decades as van Eyck, simply do not give this anatomical expressiveness to the faces of their subjects.
So the extreme light and the detail in the faces gives the van Eyck this fantastical quality—on the other hand the perspective and the proportions of the characters in relation to the objects in the room and the room itself are off, secondary, not important—this too in sharp contrast to the great inventors, re0-discovers, innovators of the scientific perspective. (This homage belongs to a slightly earlier time, to Giotto and Uccello, but their work is just a bit to early for discussion with van Eyck.) Marcia Hall goes on in her appraisal about the way in which van Eyck applied his color (“binding his pigments in a drying oil”) to give his subjects their incredible color depth, and this of course is a major element in understanding the picture (coming as it does from a stone-cold expert).
What I’m thinking now, the aspect that is giving this painting its “photographic” quality, its supra-realistic event, is this new use o flight, new angle, with the immersion of anatomical detail and the “different”, Northern, perspective.
This is a very, overly, simple observation and simplification, but I think in general that it is true.