Surprising news from London’s National Gallery. Of the 20-art works in the collection most viewed online, Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting The Arnolfini Portrait – a double depiction of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife - came in first. Notably missing from the list was anything by Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens, and Titian. And it’s not for lack of interest in looking at art online.

Virtual viewing

Art History News quotes the National Gallery head of digital services, Lawrence Chiles saying that visitor stats for its virtual galleries have shot up 473 percent.

Van Eyck’s first place showing is not the only surprise.

Also unexpected is his painting triumphing over the usual crowd-pleasers like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, and Da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks. Why? Why is The Arnolfini Portrait the first choice of the National Gallery audience over so many Old and Modern Masters? It’s anyone’s guess. So, this is me guessing.

Art assumptions

I think it’s the public’s fascination with couples-news that gives Van Eyck’s painting its edge. How else to explain Yahoo News’ near-constant reports on Meghan Markle and Prince Harry - down to their holiday thank you cards, or Kate Middleton sharing “rare insight into her relationship with Prince William.” Even ex-couples make the headlines.

Most recently Angelina Jolie revealed via Yahoo New that Brad Pitt lived only five minutes away from her place.

The Arnolfini Portrait makes the case that you don’t have to be a celebrity couple to attract attention, as long as you’re a couple.

Differing opinion

National Gallery director Dr. Gabriele Finaldi offers her guess about the popularity of the Van Eyck work on the museum website.

She thinks the painting is favored because it's set indoors and the couple is “very dressed up…I am wondering whether they reflect our own experience of being enclosed in our homes during lockdown but yearning to go out and celebrate!”

I agree, though not entirely. Consider William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode, also known as The Marriage Settlement.

The setting is indoors and everyone in the picture - the couple and the lawyers making the legal arrangements - are all “very dressed up.” And it ranked only 15th on the list.

Wardrobe winners

But Dr. Finaldi may have a point when she cites a public interest in dressed up people because the work that placed second on the list of the top 20 choices was The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. What you see are two diplomats, and to impart their lofty position, Holbein dressed them up in extravagant fur coats.

Reality bites

Also speaking to the appeal of the Arnolfini Portrait, Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian, thinks it’s because the couple is real-looking, not idealized. He notes Giovanni’s “watery, ill-looking face,” his cleft chin, and half-asleep eyes.

Jones says that such detail suggests that Giovani probably looked like that in real life.

Then there’s Giovanni’s wife. Jones sees her as hoping for a child in the way she bunches up her dress on her stomach; although he concedes that Van Eyck does the same bunching in his other works. And that perhaps “Van Eyck liked to paint women with big stomachs.” No matter, he added. The portrait looks to be of real people. And to my point, they’re a couple.