There is much to be said about the Arnolfini Portrait by Dutch painter Jan van Eyck, which depicts the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife in their house in Bruges. The painting is rich with symbolism, with the dog representing fidelity, the oranges symbolising wealth, and the candle representing the presence of God. There has been extensive scholarship on almost every aspect of this painting except for the hat upon Giovanni’s head, which is the keystone for truly understanding the purpose of this revered portrait.
Giovanni’s hat is rather tall and wide. Like a chef’s hat, its height gives him status while its wide brim functions as sun protection to preserve his delicate skin, keeping him pasty pale during those notorious Dutch summers.
As indicated by the portrait, Giovanni is a very fashionable man. He is wearing a fur-trimmed robe on top of a collared shirt with blouson sleeves. The shirt keeps the outfit clerical chic while the robe rejuvenates it to give it an early modern vibe – perfect for church or the tavern! The hat is also representative of his trendsetting ways, as it is one of his iconic looks that have been copied again and again by historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. The little black dress may have been Gabrielle Chanel’s contribution to the world of haute couture, but Giovanni’s medium-sized hat was the true forerunner of universally flattering, mass-marketed wardrobe staples. One could say that Giovanni is not just a fashion icon, but an advertising genius as well.
The hat also covers the entirety of his forehead, hiding what lies underneath. It could be a stylistic choice on his part, but also could be strategically placed by van Eyck to hide premature balding. Hair has been a desired attribute throughout history, as evidenced by the detailed attention paid to it by the Greeks and Romans in sculpture and the foot-long powdered wigs of Versailles. One could say that having hair is timeless.
Although van Eyck is very much a realist, the depiction of Giovanni and his wife would have been idealised. She is dressed in multiple layers, which suggests her practicality and thrift in wearing warm clothing instead of adding more wood to the fire. This further indicates that she is environmentally conscious; ideal traits for any ‘woke’ person. Van Eyck furthers this notion of being ‘awake’ through the addition of the bed in the background, on which none of them are sleeping.
Van Eyck has purposefully depicted the couple in the best possible light, metaphorically and literally. The lighting in the painting gives them each a soft glow, similar to the effect of a good highlighter, making their cheekbones pop and their jawlines sharper. Van Eyck has worked hard to present the couple in the most ideal way possible, therefore, if Giovanni was experiencing any sort of unideal hair loss, it could have been hidden by the hat.
Accurately painting hair is a true test of an artist’s ability, and van Eyck makes up for a lack of follicles to paint by adding a dog to the painting. The dog appears to be a terrier, maybe some kind of bichon mix. It is the perfect size to serve as a substitute for the hair on top of Giovanni’s head – not so big that it would draw attention away from the early ancestor to the “space bun” that Giovanni’s wife sports, but not too small for van Eyck to not be able to effectively show off.
In conclusion, the hat unlocks the true interpretation of the Arnolfini portrait. The hat itself could serve as a symbol of Giovanni’s power or hide his balding head for cosmetic purposes. Evidence for the latter is indicated by the way it keeps to the theme of portraying Giovanni and his wife as the ideal beauty standard of the period. Jan van Eyck has taken the secrets of the painting’s symbolic meaning to his grave, and with it, the truth of the forehead of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini.