Arts, History, Homeschool, Teaching

Artist Study and Free Activities: Jan van Eyck

Growing up, I was always frustrated with my art classes…I could never get my pieces to look like my teacher said they “should.” Sometime around junior high, I somehow decided that I’m just not good at art and stopped taking classes.

It wasn’t until I started homeschooling my son that I found out just how much fun art studies can be!

Artist Study and FREE Activities - Jan van Eyck

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It’s true that I can barely draw a stick figure to save my life, but let’s face it. There’s a whole lot more to art than that!

One of the best ways to really get a feel for art and its place in history, in culture, is to study the artist behind the works. By studying the person, their life, their thoughts, the art comes alive. It’s no longer just a random picture in a history book; it’s a person’s thoughts in visual form.

Jan van Eyck

Today’s artist is one of my favorites, Jan van Eyck!

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433.
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433. National Gallery, London

This may not be a name that many of us know, but his works are some of the most famous to come out of the Northern Renaissance. One of them, in fact, is a central piece in the recent movie Monuments Men – the Ghent Altarpiece.

Jan van Eyck (pronounced “Yan van Ike”) was a 15th century painter from the Netherlands, but he was employed by nobility for several years as a court painter. He first served as court painter for John of Bavaria, Count of Hainut-Holland from 1422-1424, and then for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1425-1441.

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Van Eyck was very unique for his time; his standing at court gave him benefits that were not afforded to most painters, and it is likely that he engaged in diplomatic errands for the Duke of Burgundy. He was also highly literate and learned, as is shown by the writing that frequently showed up in his paintings.

He also had quite the sense of humor, which he portrayed in many small ways in his works. In his Arnolfini Portrait, for example, he included a small note on the back wall which was the medieval equivalent of “Jan van Eyck was here” (in Latin, of course!). His common motto was a Greek transliteration of a German phrase meaning, “As well as I can.”

Jan van Eyck - The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434.
The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. National Gallery, London

Van Eyck’s Works of Art

Jan van Eyck was known for much more than his court skills and sense of humor, however. His paintings show a major shift from others of his time. Many artists up to this time used heavy symbolism in their work, even if it did not portray reality; van Eyck showed a mastery of both realism and symbolism to produce incredible work. He was one of the first great masters of oils in northern Europe, and his portrayal of everything from people to landscapes is breathtaking.

(*Note: in many paintings from this era, partial nudity is present, especially in scenes depicting characters like Adam and Eve. At the time they were painted, this was not considered inappropriate. If you do not wish for your children to see sections of these works, carefully placed post-it notes come in handy.)

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One of the pieces van Eyck is best known for is the Ghent Altarpiece, which many of us know from the movie The Monuments Men. This piece, called a “polyptych,” is actually several paintings hinged together. Diptychs (two panels), triptychs (three panels), and polyptychs (anything more than three panels) were common in the Renaissance. They were used to tie two, three, or more scenes together to form a sort of story.

Jan van Eyck - The Ghent Altarpiece, 1432.
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

The Ghent Altarpiece is a collection of paintings portraying different stories from the Bible. At this time, there were still many people who could not read or write, so things like paintings and stained glass windows helped them to better understand different events from the Bible. This was also a way for the artist to show his faith and bring glory to God in ways that would be evident to others.


In your Timeline of the Arts, be sure to record van Eyck! He lived from approximately 1390 to 1441. It also might be fun to record the history of the Ghent Altarpiece – it has a rather exciting story! Its adventures stretch several centuries, from the 1500s through World War II. You can find out more about it here.

Timeline of the Arts

Hands-on Activity: Triptychs!

Even though they’re not as common today, triptychs are really fun to make and allow you to get creative! Fortunately, you don’t need canvases, elaborate frames, and mastery of oils to have fun. All you need is some poster board and your choice of art supplies!

To get started, fold a piece of poster board in three sections, so that the end pieces meet in the middle like “wings.” The three sections will not all be the same size; rather, it will look like a giant lapbook. If a piece of poster board seems too large, you can also use a smaller base, like a file folder or piece of cardstock. Feel free to play!

Jan van Eyck Artist Study - Triptych Activity

This is where the fun part comes in! Jan van Eyck painted with oils, but you can create with whatever you like. This is your project – let it portray what you want to say! You can use markers, paints, colored pencils, crayons…you can even do a collage with fun papers and pictures. Get creative!

The thing to focus on with a triptych is the story. Each panel should tell one part of that story – kind of like a beginning, middle, and end. You can tell whatever story is on your mind right now! Maybe you want to tell a story from the Bible or from what you’ve been reading about in history. Or you might want to show events from your favorite book or movie. Maybe you even want to tell about something your family has done lately – a fun vacation or project! The possibilities are endless.

Once you know what you want to do, think about it for a few minutes. Do you want to make three big pictures? Or maybe something in blocks, like a graphic novel format? Do you want to do something that is bold and colorful, or softer and quiet? What will best portray how you see or feel about your topic?

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Additional Resources

If you would like to extend out your study of Jan van Eyck, here are some resources you might find handy:

Jan van Eyck for Kids – a Youtube video designed to introduce this artist to elementary and middle school kids.

Jan Van Eyck and Naturalism – a Youtube video designed for older students.

Jan van – tons of great information and resources!

What Will You Make?

I would love to see the projects that your family comes up with. Feel free to let me know about them in the comments!

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