Monday, March 28, 2011

The Arnolfini Portrait

The idealistic qualities of marriage and relationships I fear elude me and have for some time.  These are things I dare say I've made any attempt to avoid; quite the contrary, these are things I've pursued to understand much more deeply for nearly twenty years.  Of some suspect would be outside influences on my perspectives and understandings and I can assuredly say, these have been commendatory and constructive.  Sadly, I am still bewildered how some couples have come together to begin with and how others have remained steadfastly bonded.

Wrought with symbolism, materialism, synthetic effort, and devious intention, I observe couples on a near-daily basis studying their body language and mannerisms and am very rarely impressed with the genuine qualities of who they are as a pair.  Far be it for me to determine what may appear to be a fabricated relationship is in fact just that, but I am hard pressed by my own ambitions and desires to understand how I've gotten to my age and have yet to find a consummate companion. Remarkably, when I most oft find the sincerest pair, they are elderly and wise in their years.  This, to me, indicates that through time, frivolity and foolish ambition are eventually and inevitably cast aside as the value of such things depreciates yielding to the true value of the span of life left remaining.

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (c.1394-1441) is considered one of the most vivid, realistic, and elaborate paintings ever created and especially for that era.  Painted in 1434 (as indicated and signed by the artist on the wall in the background), the work is believed to be that of an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (or wife-to-be) Giovanna Cenami standing inside their home in an upstairs "Flemish bedchamber."  It is quite clear the couple are wealthy but more importantly, they were created not just to preserve their existence but to express the traditional roles of a husband and wife in the 15th Century.

He stands upright facing somewhat forward, back to the open window implying his dominance over the outdoors, and wears what appears to be extremely expensive fabrics and attire.  Meanwhile, his bride is also draped in affluent garb, facing the man, seemingly with child (though some scholars say she was not pregnant and this was the style of dress for that age), and with her back to the bed implying she is the caretaker of the home.  There is a richness in detail for a painting this old and which is quite uncommon for that period.  Gazing around the room, one will find all sorts of possessions that are unique and qualify these two as part of the upper echelon of society.  From the rare breed of dog to the custom made shoes; from the detailed stained glass window to the intricately carved bed's and matching seat's frameworks; from the elaborate brass chandelier to the rarely-owned and incredibly beautiful mirror, there is much to take in about this piece and rightfully so.  However, what I find most intriguing is the two persons being depicted.

Clicking on the picture above will open up an extremely large version it and when I look at their faces, I see two people living properly but do not appear to be living fully.  He seems apathetic to his interaction with the woman almost as if he has better things to do with this time.  His hand is held upright implying he is in control while his gaze seems to be wandering off as though he wishes to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room (see the reflection in the mirror).  Looking at him, I have no sympathy nor do I feel he's a very happy individual.  He appears to have stumbled into his fortune based upon his frail figure and pale skin implying he did not earn his wealth.  And his life appears to be surrounded by the finest of materials and possessions yet he's not found the happiness he seems to be pursuing.

Standing idly by is a delicate woman with a sincere face and in what seems to be meek obedience.  She holds her right hand out and upward implying her intent to give all of herself to him while holding the excess of her dress as if she's ready to move on his whim.  Yet in subtle detail is a squint in her eyes.  Yes, I do feel sympathy for her but I can't help feeling like there is a part of her that is beginning to see the superficiality of her relationship.  She is faced towards him with her lips gently pulled in at the corners but her eyes are slightly downward and riddled with thought.

Ironically enough, some studies of this painting over the years compared actual historical events of this man and woman and argue she may actually be a undocumented first wife who died and not the woman named for whom he married 13 years later.  In fact, there have been many studies of this piece and no way for me to go into them all; I strongly suggest checking Wikipedia for much more detailed analysis.

No matter, for me the eyes are the windows to the soul and thus I find more going on between these two that would not immediately be seen upon first inspection.  And no matter the circumstances, I'm reminded of how a union between a man and a woman are just as complicated now as they once were.  Perhaps things today are bit more complicated with 600 years of development behind us but the principle still remains:  Marriages and relationships are often times mired in complexity and oh so foolishly!

Therein lies some of the reasoning I have come to accept for my own perpetual bachelorhood.  Simplicity to me is most important and I struggle to accept that for many others--though they may speak to the contrary--complexity is what is most desirable and a deep seeded devious nature may be the motive.

Am I being far too analytical?  Perhaps.

Am I being far too idealistic?  I hope not.

Is there any harm in truly hoping to find a love that is deeply mutual and simple to its core?


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