Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?)

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?), 1433, oil on oak panel, 26 x 19 cm (The National Gallery, London)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the National Gallery in London, and we’re looking at a Jan van Eyck: “Portrait of a Man with [sic] a Red Turban.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] This is thought by many art historians to be a self-portrait of the great Northern Renaissance artist.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] Well, he’s looking directly at us, but I think for me, probably the most convincing evidence is not so much in the face, but actually in the frame.

Dr. Harris: [0:26] The frame has a very interesting inscription, and in fact, van Eyck often put inscriptions in the paintings and in the frames in different ways that art historians are still theorizing about. This painting has an inscription at the top that has van Eyck’s personal motto, “As I can,” written in Greek letters.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] It’s wildly complicated. “As I can” is coming from a motto that scribes often put at the end of a manuscript that they had just copied, which would have been a little bit longer. It would have said, “As I can, not as I would,” which means this is the best I can do, I wish I could do better.

Dr. Harris: [1:06] Right, a humble thing to say, but van Eyck hasn’t taken the “I wish I could do better” part. He just said, “As I can.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] Which seems anything but humble, especially as the I in the middle of the phrase can be a play on van Eyck’s name.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] As Eyck can, “As I can.” It does seem as though van Eyck is showing off here what he can do.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] One art historian has suggested that this was a portfolio piece, that this was a show piece. That the artist would actually use this as a way of selling his abilities to potential patrons. “You can compare this painting to my own face.”

Dr. Harris: [1:43] Right, “Here I am standing before you, here’s the painting, and this is how real I can paint.” We do have this interest in artists making their paintings look so believable in the Northern Renaissance in the 15th century.

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] There is a wonderful self-consciousness here, not only in the inscription, but in a way that the figure looks directly out at us.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] I don’t feel him so much looking out at us; it does seem like a self-portrait to me. I feel him look at himself in a mirror. I can almost feel his right hand lifted as he’s painting this panel.

Dr. Zucker: [2:17] Look at the unsparing way that he’s represented himself. If you look very closely, you can just see his beard that has begun to grow, so you see a stubble. If you look at his eye, the red veins are there, perhaps from close looking, himself. We have to look as closely and there really is this wonderful intimacy.

Dr. Harris: [2:34] The wrinkles, the saggy skin, the beginning of the way the cheeks are dropping on either side of his face.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] He’s not idealizing himself in any way, but there’s age of the human body, and then there’s also a sense of the history. He’s taken his hat, and he’s wrapped it up so that it becomes a kind of a turban. This is referenced back to the ancient world, certainly to the East.

Dr. Harris: [2:56] You have that in the lettering, too.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] Right, where you have Greek letters, and you have a mix of Greek and Arabic in the date down below.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] This was a very unusual thing to do: van Eyck signed his name along the bottom, “Jan van Eyck me fecit,” in Latin, “made me.” Then it has a very specific date, in 1433 on the 21st of October. This very specific dating is unusual in the 15th century, and it suggests, I think, that van Eyck was aware of time in a particular way and of his place in history in a particular way.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] One scholar has pointed out that the typeface that he’s used, not the language, but the typeface is actually an archaic typeface that would have been recognized as old fashioned. I think you’re right. I think there’s a real sense that the artist was using history in a very conscious way that prompts the viewer to think historically.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] To think about the passage of time. It’s amazing to me, too, that those letters on the frame are not actually inscribed. He’s painted them illusionistically to appear as though they were carved into the frame, but that’s just paint. There’s a real showing off of the illusions that the artist could create.

Dr. Zucker: [4:08] This is a painting where I get the sense that the artist is looking at us through history, and he knew he would be doing that when he painted this more than 500 years ago.

Dr. Harris: [4:18] Yeah, I get the same feeling.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?)," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed April 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/jan-van-eyck-portrait-of-a-man-in-a-red-turban/.