Not the actual couple, just their double portrait. Though at the time, of course, no one knew the name of the couple in this painting. Even so, it was certainly recognized as one of the finest paintings of the northern Renaissance, rare, sumptuous, extraordinary. Small as it is, this double portrait is now considered a major monument of world art and is today a true gem of the painting collection of the National Gallery in London. But its passage through nearly six centuries has been remarkable. In point of fact, it is nearly a miracle that this important and valuable painting managed to survive the decade of the Regency.
How the Arnolfinis made it to Carlton House . . .
Two hundred years ago this coming Monday, Benjamin Jutsham, the Inspector of Household Deliveries at Carlton House, took delivery of a small full-length double portrait of a couple in medieval clothing. In his Ledger of Receipts he wrote: "from Sir Thomas Lawrence, A Painting in a gilt frame — subject Two Portraits, a male and female joining hands — the Female dressed in green — the Male in black with a large Round Hat on & 33 1/2 x 23 3/4. By John van Heyk — the person who first discovered the art of Painting in oil colours."
This double portrait was, in fact, the iconic work painted by the famed Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck, in January of 1434, which is known today as The Arnolfini Portrait or The Arnolfini Wedding. It was executed in oil, on panel, and it is believed to be the oldest known extant oil painting. Whether or not Jan van Eyck was the first artist to discover painting with oil-based colors, he was certainly an early master of the technique. He may have been very proud of this painting, for many art historians believe that van Eyck included his own portrait, in miniature, in the round mirror which hangs on the back wall of the room in which the couple are standing.
Once the portrait passed out of the hands of the couple for whom it was painted, it became the property of Don Diego de Guevara, a Spaniard who entered the service of the Hapsburg descendants of the Duke of Burgundy. Sometime before he retired, in 1519, Don Diego gave this double portrait to Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Upon Margaret’s death, the painting went to her niece, Mary of Hungary, who had succeeded to the post of Regent of the Netherlands. Upon her resignation of the post, Mary retired to Spain, and her painting by van Eyck was included in the possessions she took with her. Upon her death, the painting then passed to her nephew, King Philip II of Spain. By 1599, records show that the painting was in Philip’s palace, the Alcazar, where it remained for over a century, in the collections of the royal family of Spain. The Alcazar was destroyed by fire in 1734, yet, somehow, the van Eyck portrait survived. It was eventually hung in the Palacio Real, which was built on the site of the Alcazar in the 1750s. It was certainly in the Palacio Real when the contents were inventoried in 1794, though it was listed as being hung in the lavatory of the royal apartments there.
The van Eyck double portrait was still in the collection of the Spanish royal family, and was still hanging in the royal lavatory at the Palacio Real, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain in 1808. Napoleon made his brother, Joseph, king of his new conquest. Joseph Bonaparte was a cultured man who had a great interest in fine art. He was ordered by Napoleon to send the finest works in the Spanish collections to Paris for display in the Musée Napoléon, located in the former palace of the Louvre. However, he delayed and repeatedly requested clarifications of his orders so that the bulk of the best art in Spain remained in Spain. Until Wellington and his army began their push to force the French out of Spain in 1813. Once he was alerted that the British army was moving on Madrid, Joseph Bonaparte commandeered nearly every wheeled vehicle in the city and loaded them with as much Spanish art and other treasures as they could carry. Joseph then headed north with his enormous baggage train, intending to carry his plunder back to France.
However, Joseph and his baggage train got only as far as Vitoria. In the aftermath of the battle there, many of the defeated French soldiers took the horses which had drawn Joseph’s many baggage wagons in order to flee the pursuing British army. The British pursuit was derailed when the soldiers came upon all those wagons full of treasure. The looting went on for hours. That night, as the British soldiers wined and dined themselves on Joseph’s abandoned food and drink, they staged an auction of many of the objects they had plundered. It is very likely that it was during the wild auctions held the night after the Battle of Vitoria by the British soldiers that the van Eyck double portrait came into the possession of Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay, of the 16th Light Dragoons. Hay was from Braco, Banffshire, in Scotland. He was a career soldier, like his father, who had been an officer in the Cameron Highlanders
During the Peninsular campaign, officers had fairly generous baggage allotments when they traveled with their regiments. The small painting probably remained in Hay’s baggage as the army fought their way north, pushing the French out of Spain and back into France. Therefore, the painting would probably not have made it to England until the 16th Light Dragoons returned home in July of 1814, after the defeat of Napoleon. Upon their return, the 16th was stationed in Hounslow and Hampton Court and took up their regular peacetime duties. Then came the news that Napoleon had escaped Elba and was marching on Paris. Within a very short time, the 16th Light Dragoons embarked for Belgium, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hay. At Waterloo, while Colonel Hay and his cavalry unit were engaged in repulsing the French Lancers who were in pursuit of the fleeing Scots Greys, he took a bullet in the back which passed right through his body. (Hay was probably the victim of friendly fire.) He was believed to be mortally wounded and was carried off the field of battle to a nearby farmhouse.
Colonel Hay’s doctor did not believe anything could be done for his patient. Therefore, Hay was made as comfortable as possible while awaiting the end. One of his Scottish cousins, Captain William Hay, of the 12th Light Dragoons, came to visit the Colonel while checking on some of his own men. William found James sitting up in bed, content to accept his fate, knowing the battle had been won. James asked after friends and family and asked William to convey his regards to them, before the pair parted, for what they believed would be the last time. But fate intervened and James Hay did not die. Within a week, he was strong enough to be transported to Brussels, where he was billeted in a private home. The citizens of Brussels not only offered their homes to wounded Allied soldiers, in many cases, the women of these houses tended the soldiers personally. With good care, Lieutenant-Colonel Hay eventually recovered well enough that he could travel back to England.
When Colonel Hay arrived back in Britain, he was not yet strong enough to rejoin his regiment and he had no idea how long it would be before he would once again be considered fit for service. Until then, he had to manage on half-pay. Like many other soldiers at the time, even senior officers, he found it difficult to make ends meet on half-pay. He came to the conclusion that he should look into selling his van Eyck double portrait. However, Hay was well aware that he could not let it be known how he had actually come by the painting, since Louis XVIII had pledged that France would return all artwork which had been plundered from other countries during Napoleon’s reign. The Duke of Wellington and the British government had affirmed that pledge. Thus, if it were known that Lieutenant-Colonel Hay had acquired his painting from the baggage train of Joseph Bonaparte, he would almost certainly be required to return it to Spain.
Colonel Hay had another problem in the effort to sell his painting, he knew nothing about the English art market. However, he had become acquainted with the prominent portrait artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, who had recently painted a portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Because Wellington was so pleased with his portrait, and he found he also got on very well with the artist, he commissioned Lawrence to paint the portraits of several of his top commanders. Lawrence was also painting a number of the senior military men who had fought at Waterloo, on the orders of the Prince Regent. Through his work for the Regent, Sir Thomas had become familiar with the Prince’s taste and knew he was developing an interest of the work of the painters of the Dutch and Flemish schools. Lieutenant-Colonel Hay contacted Sir Thomas Lawrence and asked him to bring his painting to the attention of the Prince Regent.
Lawrence was a discriminating collector himself, so he was well aware of the value of Hay’s van Eyck portrait. Though at the time, he could not afford to buy it himself, he was easily able to convince the Prince Regent to take the painting on a trial-or-return basis. Under those terms, no money would have to change hands unless the Prince wished to purchase the painting. Based on the entry that Jutsham made in his Ledger of Receipts on Thursday, 10 October 1816, it would seem that no provenance was provided for the painting, beyond the fact that it had come from Sir Thomas Lawrence. Therefore, it seems no one was aware it had once been the property of the Spanish royal family.
There was some unrest in London in the autumn of 1816, since the end of the war had led to growing inflation and unemployment. Soon after the van Eyck painting arrived at Carlton House, the Prince Regent, afraid there might be some attack by "the Mob," ordered an inventory be made of the contents of his London home, for insurance purposes. From that inventory, we know that the Prince hung the van Eyck portrait in the passageway just outside the door to his bedchamber. Though Lawrence did not consider that location appropriate for a painting which he considered very important, it did mean that the Prince Regent would see it nearly every day. Even so, it turned out that the Regent was primarily interested in the works of the Dutch and Flemish painters of the seventeenth century and he did not have the taste, vision or foresight to appreciate this early oil painting. Therefore, in April of 1818, the Prince decided to pass on the purchase and the painting was returned to Lieutenant-Colonel Hay.
When the painting was returned to Colonel Hay, he was still on half-pay. But in 1821, he joined a new regiment, the 4th Light Dragoons. A few years later, he transferred to the 17th Light Dragoons, then to the "Queen’s Bays," where he rose to be their commanding officer. Soon thereafter, his regiment went to Ireland as a peace-keeping force. Colonel Hay left the painting with a Scottish friend, Doctor James Wardrop, who was also an art collector. Hay may have hoped the doctor would purchase the painting for his own collection, but that did not happen. However, Dr. Wardrop did see the painting was properly and safely stored for the next thirteen years, while Colonel Hay served in Ireland. When Hay returned to London in 1840, he once again considered what to do with his double portrait. Fortunately for him, fifteenth-century Flemish painting, and the work of Jan van Eyck, in particular, was becoming increasingly popular. Hay was able to arrange to loan his painting for an exhibition of ancient masters at the British Institution, held in the summer of 1841. The painting was one of the major hits of the exhibition and a number of potential buyers expressed interest.
It seems that the art dealer who was charged with handling the sale of the painting had some concern over the legitimacy of its provenance, even after almost thirty years. Therefore, he came up with the story that Colonel Hay had first seen the painting in the house in Brussels where he was taken to recover after his injuries at Waterloo. According to this version of events, having spent so much time looking at the painting, Hay had become very fond of it and he purchased it from the owner before he returned to England. Even after nearly three decades, no one would question the story of a legitimate hero of Waterloo. In the end, the painting was not sold to a private collector. Instead, in the summer of 1842, the National Gallery offered Colonel Hay £600 for the van Eyck and he accepted their offer.
The van Eyck double portrait immediately became one of the stars of the National Gallery’s collection, when it went on display in 1843. But it was not until 1857 that two researchers, Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle, discovered that the subject of van Eyck’s double portrait was the Italian merchant, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, and his wife, Giovanna Cenami. The couple were living in Bruges at the time the portrait was painted, the Flemish city where van Eyck was most active. It was only after that information was discovered that the painting came to be known as The Arnolfini Portrait.
Van Eyck’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Arnolfini is a true masterpiece and a major monument of world art. It has had many adventures and a few near misses over the course of its 550+ years. Perhaps it was never more in danger than it was that night, after the Battle of Vitoria, when it was auctioned off by the British soldiers as part of the plunder they had taken from Joseph Bonaparte. By a stroke of good luck, it was purchased by Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay, who liked it, cared for it and brought it safely back to England. Two hundred years ago, it spent more than a year in the passageway just outside the Prince Regent’s bedchamber at Carlton House. If the Prince Regent had had the taste and appreciation to realize the importance of this magnificent painting, it would now be in the collections of the British royal family. However, he did not, and it remained the property of Colonel Hay for nearly three more decades. It was finally sold to the British National Gallery, where it remains one of the outstanding gems of their collections.