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Sans Pitié, by killing, without mercy, men and women, in cold blood, on his entrance into Liège.
For nine years subsequent to this the rule of John of Liège was incontested in the capital. Van Eyck, perhaps, became his painter at this time, and followed him to Luxembourg, where he abdicated in 1417. William, Count of Holland, died that year, and left his large possessions to his daughter Jacqueline. John, determined to deprive his niece of her dominions, made war upon her, and might have been successful, but that she espoused a prince of Burgundy. The war raged a year at least, and John Sans Peur despatched the Count of Charolois to mediate between the parties. The Count, however, failed in his attempts at peace; but he, perhaps, became acquainted there with John Van Eyck. The ex-bishop of Liège, frustrated in his wish to wrest his niece's rights from her, married the dowager Duchess of Brabant, whilst Jacqueline espoused the reigning Duke of the same country, and peace was thus forced on all parties. It is not too great a stretch of imagination to attribute to this period the portraits painted by Van Eyck, of Jacqueline and Jean Sans Peur. The ex-bishop of Liège did not long enjoy the Duchy of Luxembourg, which he had gained by marriage. He died in 1419.
The portrait of Jacqueline is now at Copenhagen. That of Jean Sans Peur is lost. We have seen neither of them, and are unable to say in what manner they were painted ; but the question of the discovery and improvements of oil medium had already been in part decided, and doubtless had been for many previous years discussed and experimented on within the walls of the school of the Van Eycks. This question of discovery and improvement is one on which much has been written, and great clearness thrown of late by the studies of our eminent art-historian, Sir Charles Eastlake. It is not necessary for us to enter into any discussion of the properties of matters added to oil-colours for the purposes of painting, or of the means in practice for purifying oils and glutinous substances. These questions have been sufficiently discussed elsewhere. It suffices that it has been shown already within these pages how the oldest schools of art used oil in the colouring of portions of tempera pictures, and coloured oleo resinous varnishes, in the final glazing and preservation of the tempera. It will suffice to notice, in a few words, the statement of Vasari, on which Van Mander founds his story as to how the invention of oil-painting was first made by John Van Eyck.
That painter, says Vasari :'
“ Having once, among others, expended great pains in painting a panel, after he had brought it to a conclusion with much diligence, gave it the varnish, and placed it to dry in the sun, as is the custom. But either because the heat was violent and the wood ill-joined or ill-seasoned, the panel opened at the joints in a very bad manner. Whereupon Giovanni, having seen the damage which the heat of the sun had done to him, considered how to act so that the sun should never again do so much damage to his works.”
We pause merely to notice that Vasari here gives us
1 Materials for a History of Oil Painting. London, 1847.
2 Vasari, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, &c. 8vo. Firenze, 1845. Vita d'Antonello da Messina, vol. iv. p. 74. V. Mander, p. 200,
the proof of a varnish, probably the old coloured oleo resinous one, being used by John Van Eyck over the tempera of his picture. As regards the accident, he gives no certain cause of the damage, which he attributes either to the badness of the wood, or the badness of the joint, or its ill-seasoning. We know that the practice of exposing panels to the sun was followed by all the old painters, even previous to the closing of the tempera by the passage of varnish, and that this practice is even now followed as of old by painters in Italy, where the sun is so much more powerful than in Flanders.
Vasari continues : .." And being displeased no less with the varnish than with the painting in tempera, he (Van Eyck) began to think of finding means to make a sort of varnish which should dry in the shade, without putting his pictures in the sun.”
It would appear from this passage that the painter, according to Vasari, considered not only his varnish but the method of tempera as defective; and the accident alluded to may have been owing as much to the badness of the tempera method as to the use of the varnish.
Vasari proceeds :
“ Then after having made experiments of many things, both single and mixed together, at last he found that linseed and nut oils, amongst all that he had tested, were more drying than all the others. These, therefore, boiled with other mixtures of his, made him the varnish which he and all the painters of the world had for a long time desired.”
It would be wrong to infer from this passage that the drying qualities of linseed and nut oils were unknown to Van Eyck and the world previous to the experiments here referred to; and it is almost impossible that Vasari should have intended to convey such a meaning, when we know that he was perfectly acquainted with the treatise of Ghiberti, in which it is affirmed that “ Giotto painted on the wall, painted in oils, and painted on panel.” i Nor can we consider him to have been ignorant of the labours of Cennino Cennini, the pupil of Gaddi, who wrote in 1437 his treatise on painting, in which so many chapters are exclusively devoted to the subject of oils used in colours. He must have intended to express, not that Van Eyck discovered the qualities of linseed and nut oils, but, after repeated experiments, found that none were more drying than those, a fact of which he was not previously certain. His efforts would, therefore, be at first in one particular direction ; namely, to make linseed and nut oils as siccative as possible. When he had obtained this, he mingled these oils with certain mixtures, and he obtained a more drying varnish. Thus the first grand step was gained.
The next, according to Vasari, was this :
“ After having made experiments of many other things, he saw that the mixing of the colour with these sorts of oils gave it a much stronger tempera, and that it dried, and not only did it not dread water, but it increased the vigour of the colour so much, that it gave it lustre of its own without varnish, and, what seemed most marvellous, it mingled infinitely better than tempera.” In these latter sentences are evidently condensed the
Vide Ghiberti in Vasari, ut sup., vol. i. p. xviii.
experiments and discoveries of years. The really great thing which was done was the mingling of the new medium with colours. But the result of doing so is curious, and has not, perhaps, been dwelt on sufficiently. The mixture of the new medium with colours rendered their tones more vigorous, so that the necessity of the coloured varnish must have been superseded. The object of Van Eyck, which was first to obtain a more drying coloured varnish, was at last to obtain a colourless medium ; for the vigour which was given to tempera by the last coat of preservative oleo resinous varnish was obtained without that means. From the very time, therefore, when the medium was employed mixed with colours, the old coloured varnish was superseded, and it became necessary to obtain, as a preservative, a pure and colourless medium. The final studies of John Van Eyck must then of necessity have been to liquefy, as well as to purify his medium. It was evident that the old varnish, which was laid on tempera with a sponge, or with the hand, was far too viscous to be useful in mixing colours, and must, therefore, be liquefied. By means of its use the proceedings of the old painters were changed ; and from tempera pictures partially painted in oil, no doubt there was a change to oil pictures partially painted in tempera.
It is needless to say a word as to the mixtures which Vasari says were used by Van Eyck. They were, doubtless, resinous substances, of which it is impossible to state the species or the combination.
We come now to the contested point,-how far was John Van Eyck the discoverer of these improvements, and what was the share which Hubert Van Eyck had in them?