Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution Exhibition

An exceptional loan from the National Gallery in London is being restored for next year’s ‘Van Eyck’ exhibition in Ghent (Belgium)

Jan van Eyck (Maaseik?, ca. 1390 – Brugge, 1441) Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir or Tymotheos), 1432 Oil on panel 33.3 x 18.9 cm The National Gallery, London © The National Gallery, London

On 1 February 2020, the exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution’ is opening at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK). The exhibition will bring visitors closer to the genius of this Flemish Master than ever before, as it presents at least half of the existing works by Jan van Eyck – more than ever shown together in a single exhibition – alongside over 100 other medieval masterpieces.

Two months prior to the opening, the museum is announcing the final list of works by Van Eyck and his workshop that will travel to Ghent next year. Amongst them is an exceptional loan from the National Gallery in London. It is with great pride that the MSK can confirm the exhibition will include Jan van Eyck’s ‘Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir)’, one of the three Van Eycks in the National Gallery’s collection. Paintings by the Master are rarely allowed to leave the museums where they are held, and that certainly holds true for ‘Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir)’. Moreover, the masterpiece is currently undergoing restoration especially for the occasion, so its appearance in Belgium will constitute an absolute world premiere.

The portrait from the National Gallery will play a key function in the Ghent exhibition. It was dated by Van Eyck himself on 10 October 1432, making it the earliest dated painting in the entire oeuvre of the Master along with the Ghent Altarpiece. The ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ – more commonly referred to as the Ghent Altarpiece and Van Eyck’s world renowned masterpiece – was also unveiled in 1432. The exterior panels of the Altarpiece will feature in the exhibition and will be presented alongside the ‘Portrait of a man’. Together they reveal how the year 1432 was a turning point in Western painting.

Mysterious portrait

The figure in ‘Portrait of a Man’ stares out before him with clear, blue eyes, holding a folded document with illegible text in one of his hands. The portrait is shrouded in mystery because of both the puzzling inscription it contains and the fact that we still don’t know who the sitter was. Over the years, various figures have been connected to the man portrayed. The exhibition harks back to an old hypothesis that connects the figure to antiquity. The Greek inscription TYM.ΩθΕΟΣ (Tymotheos), which features on the portrait as if carved in a stone parapet, could refer to Tymotheos of Miletes, the court musician of Alexander the Great. We know that Van Eyck’s employer, Duke Philip the Good, mirrored himself upon this famed conqueror. Thus, the hypothesis is that the man in the portrait is none other than Gilles Binchois, the well-known court singer of the Duke and a respected colleague of Van Eyck. In turn, Jan van Eyck himself may in this same vein have been denoted as Apelles, the court painter of Alexander the Great.

Exceptional restoration

Following its decision to loan the ‘Portrait of a Man (Léal souvenir)’ to the Ghent museum, The National Gallery exceptionally also chose to have the work undergo restoration. By removing the yellowed varnish the painting dazzles once more as it did in Jan van Eyck’s time. It will be presented to the public in its refreshed form next year. The visitors to the exhibition ‘Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution’ will in this way be presented with a truly exceptional portrait gallery. The restored donors’ portraits of the patrons of the ‘Ghent Altarpiece’, the restored ‘Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy’ (Berlin), itself also a world premiere, and the National Gallery painting will be on show, all as only Van Eycks contemporaries had the privilege of seeing them almost six centuries ago. This further increases the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the exhibition.

Miniature art

In addition, the exhibition also focuses on the relationship between Jan van Eyck and fifteenth-century miniatures. In the medieval illuminated manuscripts included in the show we can recognise the same eye for the smallest of details and the same fine style of painting as can be seen in Van Eyck’s own work. The possible connection between Van Eyck and the art of miniature painting has already extensively been dealt with in art-historical literature. However, never before was the theme illustrated on this scale within an exhibition. The British Library is lending two exceptional 15th-century illuminated manuscripts to the exhibition, amongst which the ‘Egerton Book of Hours’. They will be joining a number of other manuscripts, including ‘Turin-Milan Book of Hours’ in which a handful of miniatures are attributed to Van Eyck himself.

The masterpieces by Jan van Eyck

With this press release, the MSK is announcing the final list of works by Van Eyck and workshop that will be exhibited. With at least half of the remaining panel paintings and an illustrated ‘book of hours’ by the hand of the Flemish Master, one has never seen more Van Eycks in one place. The works belong to collections in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Romania, Austria and the United States of America.

At the heart of the exhibition are the eight restored outer panels of the closed Ghent Altarpiece – and in the MSK’s list these only count as one painting! – an extremely exceptional loan from St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Never before were these panels assembled together outside of the cathedral alongside other works by Van Eyck and his contemporaries. Moreover, after 2020, they shall never leave the cathedral again, making ‘Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution’ the one and only chance to admire them in a broader context.

For information and tickets go to