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Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?), 1433

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the National Gallery in London and we're looking at a yawn van Eyck portrait of a man with a red turban and this is thought by many artisans to be a self-portrait of the Great Northern Renaissance artist well he's looking directly at us but I think for me probably the most convincing evidence is not so much in the face but actually in the frame the frame has a very interesting inscription and in fact Van Eyck often put inscriptions in the paintings and in the frames in different ways that art historians are still theorizing about but this painting has an inscription at the top that has van Eyck's personal motto as I can written in Greek letters so it's wildly complicated so as I can is coming from a motto that scribes often put at the end of a manuscript that they had just copied which would have been a little bit longer it would have said as I can not as I would which means this is the best I can do I wish I could do better all right a sort of humble thing to say but Van Dyck hasn't taken the I wish I could do better part he just said as I can which seems anything but humble especially as the I in the middle of the phrase can be a kind of play on Van Dyke's name as I can as I can it does seem as though Van Eyck is showing off here what he can do when art historian has suggested that this was a kind of portfolio piece that this was a showpiece that the artist would actually use this as a way of selling his abilities to potential patrons you can compare this painting to my own face right here I am standing before you here's the painting and this is how real I can paint and we do have this interest in artists making their paintings look so believable in the Northern Renaissance in the 15th century there is a wonderful kind of self-consciousness here not only in the inscription but in the way that the figure looks directly what at us I don't feel him so much looking out at us it does seem like a self-portrait to me I feel him looking at himself in a mirror I can almost feel his right hand lifted as he's painting his panel look at the unsparing way that he's represented himself if you look very closely you can just see his beard that has begun to grow so you see if stubble if you look at his eye the red veins are there perhaps from close looking himself we have to look at his closely and there really is this wonderful intimacy there wrinkles the saggy skin the beginning of the way the cheeks are dropping on either side of his face he's not idealizing himself in any way but there's age of the human body and then there's also a sense of the history he's taken his hat and he's wrapped it up so that it becomes a kind of turban and so this is reference back to the ancient world certainly to the east you have that in the lettering too right where you have Greek letters and you have a mix of Greek and Arabic and they date down below and this was a very unusual thing to do when I signed his name along lobotomy on vinayak me faked it in Latin made me and then it has a very specific theme in 1433 on the 21st of October and this very specific beading is unusual in the 15th century and suggests I think that Van Dyck was aware of time in a particular way and of his place in history in a particular way well one scholar has pointed out that the typeface that he's used not the language but the typeface is actually an archaic typeface that would have been recognized as welds fashioned I think you're right I think there's a real sense that the artist was using history in a very conscious way that prompts the viewer to think historically to think about the passage of time it's amazing to me too that those letters on the frame are not actually inscribed he's painted them illusionistic ly to appear as though they were carved into the frame but that's just paint there's a real showing off of the illusions that the artist could create this is a painting where get the sense that the artist is looking at us through history and he knew he would be doing that when he painted this more than 500 years ago yeah I get the same feeling you