Book Review: Girl In A Green Gown,

Posted: February 17, 2018 in John Stammers Page

Girl In A Green Gown, The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait.Girl In A Green Gown, The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. By Carola Hicks, Chatto and Windus, 2011.

This is an excellent book by art historian Carola Hicks. It has the added bonus of a Preface by Greyson Perry. It also carries its own  tragedy, though: this is the writer’s last book, she died as she was completing the last stages.

The writer gives a thorough investigation of every aspect of the portrait, from each article of clothing the subjects wear, to background articles, settings, to the portraits’ provenance.

Jan Van Eyck’s painting became a much valued source of trade for royal favours, passing to Marguerite of Austria, where it was catalogued as Harnoul-le-fin. We also see herein the exchange of owners, the changes in the weather of the relationship between the Spanish Netherlands, and Spain proper.

The green gown of the title: it is in the style of a generation previous to the time of the portrait. Coded here are reputation, permissible display, social status. The young woman’s headdress, for example is of a simple material, folded several times for the effect. The painter was at pains to convey, probably through negotiation with the commissioner, the degree of humility of the woman of the family, and hence of the family unit’s claim on level of status. The style at the time, especially among court circles, was for greater display, flamboyance.

Was she carrying a baby? Or was this the convention for conveying fruitfulness, fecundity, and promise, of the young woman. The belt is high, as had been the fashion previously; that was the fashion, and not necessarily a depiction of pregnancy. This is a depiction of a marriage bond based on providing wealth, vigour and unlimited descendents for carrying forward the family name.


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