National Gallery lends Van Eyck portrait for 'once-in-a-lifetime' show

Exclusive: Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir) will be among star items in Ghent exhibition

The National Gallery in London is to make an exceptional loan of a painting by Jan van Eyck to a one-off exhibition celebrating the 15th-century Flemish master.

Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir), one of the earliest dated works by the painter, will be among the star exhibits in Van Eyck – an Optical Revolution, which will open at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK) in Ghent, Belgium, in February. It will be the largest ever showing of Van Eyck’s works and probably the last major exhibition of its kind, curators said.

The show’s curator, Johan De Smet, said international collaboration involving 60 lending institutions had made it possible.

“Never before in history have this many works by Jan van Eyck and his workshop been brought together in one place. They make the genius of the painter and his revolutionary impact on western art almost tangible for the viewer,” he said.

Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir) by Jean Van Eyck.
Portrait of a Man (Léal Souvenir) by Jean Van Eyck. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

Several of the works, including Portrait of a Man, are undergoing restoration for the occasion, and De Smet said the show would be “the first time in centuries that they can be experienced in their authentic splendour”.

Two other Van Eycks held by the National Gallery – the Arnolfini portrait and another portrait of a man, which is possibly a self-portrait – are considered too fragile to travel. The unusual decision to release Portrait of a Man reflects the prominence of the MSK show.

Susan Foister, the deputy director of the National Gallery, said many art lovers travelled to London especially to see the three Van Eycks, “so to lend one is exceptional. But exhibitions can present an opportunity to advance knowledge, and we will undoubtedly learn a great deal about Van Eyck as a painter by being able to see together for the first time works of exactly the same period but on entirely different scales.”

Portrait of a Man was completed in October 1432 and shows a blue-eyed male staring ahead holding a folded document with illegible text. Theories abound as to who the sitter was.

The process of restoring the work has involved stripping it of its yellow surface varnish, which over time had increasingly clouded the picture. Foister said it now dazzled with colour as it would have done when the artist finished painting it in 1432.

“Before considering the conservation of any Early Netherlandish painting in our collection, we always take immense pains, using the latest scientific techniques, to understand its condition, as well as the techniques used to create it,” Foister said. “In the case of Léal Souvenir, the painting is in remarkably good condition, needing relatively little restoration, but the brilliance of Van Eyck’s technique was obscured by an old, yellowed varnish.”

The MSK curators say their exhibition will be the largest ever showing of Van Eyck’s works. Central to the show will be eight restored exterior panels from the closed Ghent Altarpiece, on loan from St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Described by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones as “a masterpiece that starts by involving you in humble depictions of the real then transports you to mysterious realms of revelation … a passport to paradise,” the panels will leave the church for the first time since the work was completed, also in 1432. After the exhibition they will never leave the cathedral again, the church has said.

The 18 Van Eyck works to appear in the show, plus a further eight produced by his workshop, amount to around half of the known pieces by the artist in existence. All of them are growing in fragility and so they are unlikely to be loaned out in such large numbers again, hence the claim by the curators that the exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Photograph: Foto: Dominique Provost/© - Art in Flanders vzw

Works are being lent from the US, Romania, Germany and Italy. A selection of 15th- and 16th-century copies of paintings by Van Eyck, the originals of which have been lost, as well as more than 100 masterpieces by his contemporaries or those subsequently inspired by him, will go on display in 13 galleries across the museum. A wide-ranging programme of lectures, guided tours and concerts is also planned.

Ghent’s mayor, Mathias De Clercq, said the city was looking forward to hosting the predicted 250,000 visitors to the show.

“Van Eyck’s legacy still courses through the arteries of the city and its residents, continuing to inspire new masters generation after generation, centuries on. It’s a bond that cannot be broken,” he said. “Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is to our city what the Mona Lisa is to Paris.”


Kate Connolly

The GuardianTramp

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