Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait by Carola Hicks – review

Carola Hicks is good on the exotic history of the Arnolfini portrait but never truly demystifies the painting

Some paintings refuse to stay quietly on the wall. The characters in them slip out of the frame, casting off the picture's still, fixed moment and enticing us to imagine the story of their lives.

Iris Murdoch's novel The Sacred and Profane Love Machine follows the competitive careers of two women who allegorically confront each other in a painting by Titian. In Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, one of Vermeer's models escapes from her captivity in the painting and – irresistibly embodied in the film by Scarlett Johansson – begins to tease the timorous painter. After the girl with that pendulous tear of liquid light dangling from her lobe, it's now the turn of a girl in a green gown. The garment – made from such a sumptuary excess of fabric that it collapses on the floor in folds and has to be scooped up by the wearer's hand – belongs to the wife of the Bruges merchant in Jan van Eyck's double portrait of the Arnolfinis, painted in 1434 and on view in the National Gallery.

The Arnolfini couple have had an eventful afterlife in fiction, in the speculations of critics and the satirical whimsies of cartoonists. In 1841 George Darley, mistakenly assuming that the bland-visaged girl was hiding a baby bump behind the folds of her gown, joked about a shotgun marriage: Simon Pure, he said, was leading Sarah Prim to the altar, six embarrassing months after consummation. Van Eyck's painting, laughably obsolete in its view of spousal relations, turns up in the credit titles for Desperate Housewives. With different heads on their shoulders, the Arnolfinis have been used to expose the cynicism of political alliances. In 1996, a drawing by Martin Rowson cast Bill Clinton as the husband and Tony Blair as the simpering wife; Rowson replaced their alert, frisky little dog with a pig bloated by a diet of dollars. A decade later, in a room charred by bomb damage, Dave Brown sketched George W Bush divorcing a wife who was now a skeleton. Blair, demoted, played the role of the obsequious dog, a lickspittle still fawning on its imperial master.

Carola Hicks summarises this slippery iconographic history but does not add to it. Her purpose is to investigate the painting's contents, scrutinising the interior that Van Eyck depicted with such exactitude, and to track its provenance during four centuries in which it was bandied about between European royal houses and carried off as the spoils of war before arriving at its safe haven in Trafalgar Square.

Hicks reveals, a little depressingly, that the Arnolfinis might be honorary residents of Essex, brashly showing off the trophies of mercantile success. Her inventories of their wardrobe and the furnishings of their house are scrupulously price-tagged. The husband's straw hat is a fashionable Italian import, expensively dyed black; his tabard is lined with fur from the pine marten, almost as "prestigious" – Hicks's word – as sable, which only princes could wear. His wife has to make do with squirrel fur: Hicks estimates that 600 rodents were skinned to adorn her. Oddly, considering that it's daylight, a candle on the brass chandelier is burning while another has just been snuffed out, leaving a visible puff of smoke. Again the point seems to be ostentation, since "in the middle ages, lighting was the greatest luxury, originally the preserve of religious buildings". Even the oranges on the window ledge are consumerist trophies, because they too would have been freighted in from Andalucía.

"Art needs money," Hicks wisely says (and the reverse is equally true). Art also follows power, and Van Eyck's painting soon became a royal plaything, unesteemed by its grand owners. As part of the Hapsburg patrimony, it fell into the hands of Philip II of Spain, who preferred Bosch to Van Eyck; his descendant Carlos III housed it in a lavatory. It was salvaged – or, to be precise, looted – by a dragoon in Wellington's army during the peninsular war, which is how it got to London. The prince regent fancied buying it, but negligently stowed it in an attic at Carlton House and then changed his mind about the purchase. At least Hitler coveted it: the Nazis expropriated Germanic art from the countries they invaded, and "anything by Van Eyck became a prime target for the monumental gallery Hitler planned to found" in his home city of Linz. The Arnolfinis therefore sat out the war deep in a slate quarry in Snowdonia. Their return to London in 1945 was a boost to popular morale. The painting's "clean bright colour," as the Observer said, alleviated the city's "dust and rubble and drabness"; art, for once, proved to be literally life-enhancing.

Sadly, Hicks died before completing her manuscript, which, even after being prepared for publication by her husband, seems not quite fully cooked. There's too much about the painting's subsequent history, too little about its internal mysteries. What do the Arnolfinis, whose hands are so perfunctorily clasped, think of each other? Who are their guests, glimpsed in the mirror on the wall behind them, and why is there a bed in the reception room? Although details are expertly deciphered, the murky illustrations don't allow us to confirm Hicks's insights. But the book has sent me back to the painting itself – a national treasure, even if it has come to rest in the wrong nation – with wider and more inquisitive eyes.


Peter Conrad

The GuardianTramp

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