Man and wife — the greatest marriage portraits in art history

As superb examples of marriage portraits by Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyck are offered in our Old Masters Evening Sale  in London on 6 December, the recently wed Andrew Graham-Dixon gives us his shortlist for an imaginary exhibition

I was lucky enough to get married last summer. It was a quiet ceremony in a tiny neo-Gothic chapel in a remote corner of Scotland. Friends took photographs, in which everyone present looks happy but ruffled, and a little squinty: a strong northwesterly had sprung up just as we were leaving the church, and the sun was shining directly into everybody’s eyes.

Looking at our joyfully imperfect pictures set me thinking about other, much earlier images inspired by love and marriage: more formal images, created in more formal times. Never having previously given it much thought, I realised that some of my favourite paintings fall into the category — one way or another — of marriage pictures. In the spirit of André Malraux’s musée imaginaire, I found myself putting together an imaginary exhibition devoted to the subject. So here is my shortlist of pictures to include.

First, The Arnolfini Marriage, by Jan van Eyck, from the National Gallery in London. Painted in 1434, it is one of the earliest and eeriest Renaissance paintings to depict a married couple. Despite the traditional title, it is not certain that the people in it are actually Mr and Mrs Arnolfini.

Jan van Eyck, The Portrait of Giovanni (?) Arnolfini and His Wife Giovanna Cenami (?) (The Arnolfini Marriage), 1434. National Gallery, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

Leaving aside the enigma of their identity, this pinched and wary man and his porcelain-skinned wife were surely valued by Van Eyck, to judge by the extravagant flourish of the artist’s signature on the wall above the convex mirror behind them. ‘Jan van Eyck was here,’ it declares, suggesting that the picture may have been a gift: a lasting reminder of Van Eyck’s presence at the propitious moment of their union.

It is a secular portrait, in the sense that it shows the couple holding hands at home after their wedding, having kicked off their clogs, rather than in church making their vows. But it is nonetheless as heavily freighted with symbolic detail as any altarpiece.

READ: Frans Hals’ portrait of a prosperous Dutch merchant and his wife, offered on 6 December

A candle has been lit in the brass chandelier above the couple’s heads, despite the milky Flemish daylight bathing the room: the unextinguishable flame of true love. A beady-eyed terrier stands guard at their feet: the dogged embodiment of fidelity. A tall Gothic chair at the back of room, on the bride’s side, is decorated with a carving of St Margaret, whose legends associate her with chastity; and below the carving hangs a broom of twigs, for cleanliness and therefore purity.

One of the most magical aspects of Piero della Francesca’s portraits is their landscape background, which is still recognisable today

There is another, lower chair against the back wall, carved with a gargoyle: similar grotesques can still be seen on churches today and were once believed to ward off demons, but this one hovers just above the intertwined hands of husband and wife, the painter’s way of keeping evil spirits away from his newly married friends. The apples scattered on sideboard and windowsill may amount to another form of well-wishing: a prayer that the union between husband and wife may prove fruitful. The bunched folds of her dress, green as a meadow in spring, are gathered by the bride at her own belly, as if in intimation of future pregnancies.

Secondly, a pair of conjugal portraits painted in Italy some 30 years later: Piero della Francesca’s twinned profile paintings of Battista Sforza and her husband Federigo da Montefeltro, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. They might be Italian, but Piero’s paintings show the strong influence of Northern Renaissance art, both in their fineness of detail and their very format, namely that of the profile portrait, first developed in Van Eyck’s home city, Bruges, by a younger Flemish master, Hans Memling.

Piero della Francesca, Battista Sforza, Wife of Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, circa 1465. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy/Bridgeman Images

Piero della Francesca, Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, circa 1465. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy/Bridgeman Images

For all that, these portraits could only have been painted in the very peculiar world of the Italian city-state in the late 15th century. Federigo, unforgettable in his pillar-box hat and matching red tunic, with his thick curls of black hair, was a successful condottiere : a mercenary general, who made fortunes leading his armies into battle on behalf of the frequently beleaguered rulers of neighbouring Italian states.

A highly effective bully boy, he was also a humanist and scholar, as well as the owner of one of the largest libraries in Italy — into which he would allow only manuscripts, not printed books, which he despised as vulgar. Widely read in the classics, he was a quintessential Renaissance man, in the sense that most of his points of self-comparison were drawn from the ancient world.

READ: Anthony van Dyck’s portrait to celebrate a royal union, offered on 6 December

Marching across Italy at the head of his armies, he saw himself as a latter-day Caesar, and that, I suspect, was a powerful reason for his decision to have himself and his bride painted in profile: that was also how the Caesars of Rome had been depicted, on their coinage. Strengthening this network of associations, each portrait has a painting on its reverse side showing Federigo and Battista, just like an emperor and empress, riding on a chariot in triumph.

Rembrandt had loved and lost, while Vermeer went from health and good fortune to madness and death in a few short days

Federigo liked to be seen as a no-nonsense military man, without preciousness or vanity: hence his instruction, to Piero, to paint him warts and all (four warts, to be precise). But these portraits speak inevitably of a certain kind of vanity.

It is clear enough that Federigo was immensely proud of having captured a bride from the powerful Sforza family, rulers of Milan. The most unusual aspect of these portraits is the fact that she has been placed to the left, he to the right, in reverse of the prevailing convention: usually the husband precedes the wife in such paired portraits.

Whether the arrangement reflects deference on Federigo’s part is, however, open to question. The truth is that he had lost his right eye in a jousting accident when young, so he always insisted that he be painted in left profile. The order of the pictures was thus determined from the outset, not by any chivalry on Federigo’s part, but by an accident of chivalry in his past.

One of the most magical aspects of these portraits is their landscape background, which is still recognisable today, with some stretch of imagination, from the vantage point of the palace Federigo built in the hilltop town that was his fief, namely Urbino: the scorched hills and plains dotted with trees, the river with sailboats afloat on its placid expanse, the mountains blued by distance. It strikes me that the ideal ruler and his wife are mirrors of one another, just as the boats’ sails are mirrored in the surface of the water far beneath them. Perfectly impassive, they occupy a world so imperturbable that it has the quality of a dream.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Jewish Bride, circa 1667. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / Bridgeman Images

What other marriage pictures would I choose? Surely Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, that mysterious and wonderfully tender depiction of a man and woman embracing, in darkness, and perhaps under threat of some hidden danger. ‘What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic picture it is,’ Vincent van Gogh once wrote about it. ‘Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.’ And Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, also from the Rijksmuseum.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, circa 1662-63. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / Bridgeman Images

Vermeer’s meanings are often elusive, but I suspect that we are meant to understand that the woman in question is reading a letter from her betrothed, who is away somewhere — hence the map on the wall of her sunlit room — and that she is hoping all will turn out for the best. Or perhaps she is already married (the contours of her body suggest she may be pregnant), in which case her position is yet more poignant.

Rembrandt had loved and lost, while Vermeer went from health and good fortune to madness and death in a few short days. So perhaps it is no wonder that the great Dutch painters, living in their topsy-turvy world, revolving forever on fortune’s wheel, understood so well the vulnerability that accompanies love.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624. Wallace Collection, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

While in Holland, metaphorically at least, I will have to choose at least one courtship painting — not a painting of or about marriage as such, but rather a painted invitation to marriage. I am thinking of the most elaborate Valentine’s card in history, namely Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, painted for an unknown sitter but almost certainly intended as a gift to the woman he wanted to make his own.

The man with the come-hither eyes, the cocked hat and the nonchalantly out-thrust elbow is literally wearing his heart on his sleeve, which has the emblems of passion stitched into it: Cupid’s arrows, flames of love, lovers’ knots. What did the recipient make of it, I wonder. It could go either way. But as marriage proposals go, Hals’ masterpiece takes some beating.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, circa 1485. Photo: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy / Bridgeman Images

The longer I think about it, the more possible exhibits spring to mind. Renaissance paintings on marriage chests, for example (there is a wonderful pair in the Courtauld collection), from which developed the later custom of presenting brides with mythological paintings to welcome them into the family — Botticelli’s Birth of Venus  being the most celebrated of such nuptial gifts.

And what about the extraordinary portrait of a man and wife, painted circa 60AD and recovered from the ruins of ancient Pompeii, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples? The man and woman in question were bakers, and were proud of their ability to read and write, to judge by the tablet and stylus each holds up so prominently. They look so earnest, so hopeful, that I like to think they escaped Pompeii before the volcano blew and set up shop in some other, safer town.

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Finally, I could not possibly omit the most memorable English painting of marriage that I know: Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews. The painting hangs in the National Gallery, not so far away from Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, and although they are very different from one another, they do share some common ground. From an airless room in Bruges, Gainsborough takes us to the open fields of a Suffolk estate, to the age of the seed drill and of crop rotation. 

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, circa 1748-9. National Gallery, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

The languorous Mr Andrews, so elegantly dishevelled that his clothes might almost be falling off him, stands beside his young wife, who is seated on a rococo parkland bench and radiant in a dress as blue as the heavens. The clouds churn above them. Mrs Andrews’ expression seems to mingle sangfroid and suppressed excitement. Mr Andrews has his gun tucked under his arm, while his dog sniffs the air in anticipation. The field in which they sit, at harvest time, is demonstrably fertile.

Whenever I look at the picture I am reminded of a line from Shakespeare: ‘He ploughed her, and she cropped.’ Times may change but people’s hopes for marriage — love, a long life together and a little one or two to bring up along the way — do not change so very much, after all.