Contrasting Berthe Morisot and Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck was an early 15th century Netherlandish painter, considered one of the greatest painters in his time. He is commonly known as the “father of oil painting,” due to his complete mastery of the medium. Berthe Morisot, was born in 1841, and is now held in such high regard as Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and Claude Monet. She is well known form her many portraits portraying women in everyday lives. Man in a Red Turban, Jan van Eyck’s painting was created in 1433, while Morisot’s The Bath was painted in 1885.

Oil painting has been around for centuries. One once popular belief is that the practice itself originated in the early 1400’s by Jan van Eyck himself. He utilized the technique in the painting Man in a Red Turban, which many speculate is actually a self portrait of van Eyck himself. We now know that van Eyck did not invent the medium, however, he was the first prominent artist to make use of and realize its true potential. He painted the supposed self portrait on wood panel, a popular support for many artists in van Eyck’s time. At first glance at the painting one notices immediately the red turban. The turban itself is unremarkable, but in contrast to the black background it seems to be given much more emphasis. Also giving the turban, as well as the man’s head, more focus is the lack of balance in the portrait itself. The bottom half of the portrait is dominated by the body of the man, adorned in black robes. However, this is rather hard to see as the background is black as well. What we get is almost a neglect of space, forcing us to look anywhere but there. One next may notice the face, a youngish face we can tell from the soft blend to create a smooth texture with very little linear break, indicating some measure of youth. The lines of the painting itself are sharp creating great detail. The lines we see on the face in the painting are not intentional, and were caused by the cracking of the paint, most likely caused by age and the wood panel the painting itself is on.

Berthe Morisot’s The Bath is also an oil painting, but was painted more than 400 years later. Morisot was a part of the Impressionist movement, and was not highly regarded until well after her time. Many believe that this was because she was a woman. Today she is viewed as one of the best female artists of the 19th century. This painting was created using a technique called alla prima, which in Italian means “all in one go.” This is a technique in which the artist takes a white ground and paints directly onto the support with opaque color rather than thin glazes, creating a unique look, in which the artists brushstrokes can be seen very clearly. The lines and the short brush strokes give us a sense of stillness, as if this were a moment plucked from time. The main figure in the piece, the girl, sits in the very center of the piece, giving us a sense of vertical balance. The colors are all very light mostly grays, whites and blues, and there is little contrast between theme. This gives one an indication of stability.

Both paintings, while strikingly different, have their own similarities. The most obvious characteristic they have in common is that they are both non abstract portraits, albeit of two very different people. Another similarity is that they both use oil paint as the primary medium, however van Eyck’s work contains tempura as well. It is here that the similarities end almost completely. Morisot’s painting, for example was done alla prima, creating thick brushstrokes, creating an effect called impasto, which is Italian for paste. Jan van Eyck’s work however, was painted by using thin glazes applied over time, in which the end result was little to no visible brushstroke. Another difference was the support used for both works. Man in the Red Turban was painted on wood panel, a popular choice for paintings back in the day of van Eyck. Morisot’s however, used traditional canvas, which disallowed cracking of the same sort that was visible in van Eyck’s work. Contributed by this is another difference, being the size of the works. The bath is a medium sized painting, 35in. by 28 in, a size that fit’s the capabilities of canvas well. Man in a red turban however, is rather small 10in by 7.5 inches. This is due to the fact that wood panel cracks easily with age, this effect can be partially avoided by painting small pieces. Yet another obvious difference is the type of color contrast in both works. Van Eyck uses the contrast to his advantage making the red turban pop out against the background, while The Bath has little contrast and everything kind of melds together. The use of space and the balance of both pieces are very different as well, with the bath being very balanced vertically and horizontally, and van Eyck’s work very off balance, with most of the focus being in the upper part of the piece.

I believe that both artists did an exception work. I am a fan of realist art, and as such I can appreciate van Eyck’s careful attention to detail and realism. The Bath, while not as photorealistic, still is a wonderful portrait, which instills a sense of calmness and tranquility with the colors and the content of the piece. I would definitely say that as an impressionist Morisot is definitely up there with the heavy hitters of the movement, while van Eyck was a master at his art. Both did fantastic works, and are both extremely talented in their own way.