Girl in a Green Gown

Book Review: Girl in a Green Gown

Carola Hicks, Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. Vintage, London, 2012 (Pbk)

The title of the book, Girl in a Green Gown, refers to the female figure in the famous Arnolfini portrait of a man and a woman. In this book, Carola Hicks investigates a wide variety of aspects relating to the portrait. It was painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434, as this is stated in an inscription on the picture: “Johannes van Eyck fuit hic” and the year. Van Eyck was court painter of Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy. It is remarkable that the history of this painting can be traced through the centuries and its various owners from when it was painted until it ended up in London’s National Gallery in 1842.

Girl in a Green Gown

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait (1434)

In alternating chapters, Carola Hicks describes various aspects of the painting and its owners through time. As she explains, the Arnolfinis “are showing off the signs of success – expensive clothes and other status symbols” [p.3]. These are investigated in detail, there are chapters about the clothes they wear, the bed, other furniture, the fabrics etc, comparing them to what is depicted in other paintings of the period.

In the chapters in between, we learn about its various owners, from medieval Bruges to Habsburg Spain, through the Napoleanic Wars and Victorian London. For someone interested in Richard III and his time, the chapter on Don Diego de Guevara is of special interest. Don Diego was a Spaniard, son of Don Ladron de Guevara, who had been in the employ of Margaret, dowager duchess of Burgundy – she was the widow of Charles ‘the Bold’ – and sister of Edward IV and Richard III. Don Ladron had two sons, Diego and Pedro. Pedro was involved in the Yorkist “Perkin Warbeck” attempt to win back the throne in the 1490s. Diego was a colourful personality, who worked for Philip I of Castile. Philip was the son of Maximilian I and Marie, the daughter of Charles of Burgundy – and Margaret’s step-daughter. Marie and Maximilian also had a daughter, Marguerite, probably named after her step-grandmother.

The painting has fascinated viewers since it was painted and this fascination continues today. Various modern interpretations and transformations are described in the final chapter.

Girl in a Green Gown offers a fascinating insight into the life-style of upper middle-classs people in the first half of the 15th century, while parts of its history read like an adventure story. It is a highly enjoyable read and can be highly recommended to anyone interested in history and art.

After reading and enjoying the book, I was very glad that I recently had a chance to see the Girl in a Green Gown and her husband ‘face to face’ in the National Gallery in London.

Unfortunately, Carola Hicks passed away before finishing Girl in a Green Gown.  You might like to read her obituary in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jul/27/carola-hicks-obituary

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