EYCK, Jan van
(b. before 1395, Maaseik, d. before 1441, Bruges)
Man in a Turban1433
Oil on wood, 25,5 x 19 cm
National Gallery, London
Remarkable though it is, the description of the sitter - with the stubble on his chin prickly against the soft fur collar, and his bloodshot left eye - is less arresting than the depiction of his head-dress. Van Eyck is noted for the impassivity of his figures, and it is instructive to compare this portrait with that by the Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin) of a man wearing a similar red hat. There, the scarf ends hang down, serving to frame a face in which we read force of character and upon which we can project an inner emotional life. Van Eyck's personage gives much less away. A greater area of the picture is taken up by his red hat than by his face, its three-dimensional bulk is more assertive, it folds and tucks more dramatic. Perhaps the hat was studied at greater length, perhaps on a stand, independently of the sitter and, like a studio still-life, arranged by the painter, knotted and tweaked to present its most picturesque aspect.
Van Eyck's ability to depict it in such a realistic manner relies greatly on his control of the oil medium, which unlike tempera enables him to represent dark shadows and paler highlights without losing the glowing overall red hue.