HISTORY checks the flow of events and bestows a false importance on certain personalities by calling them founders and inaugurators. We do not do otherwise--even though our conscience may be more troubled--than did Carel van Mander, a Netherlandish painter who around 1600 zealously collected information from traditional sources on the painters of his country. This chronicler begins the history of Netherlandish painting, or at least his series of vitae, with the van Eycks, just as we begin the history of the printed book with Gutenberg.
Naturally there were painters in the Netherlands before the van Eycks. Naturally the van Eycks were sons as well as fathers. Van Mander's idea was mistaken but it was a mistake in which was expressed a tradition that was widespread around 1600. The painters of the sixteenth century venerated the van Eycks as ancestors and founders of their craft. In the North they were the first to emerge with a personal achievement from the 'dark' Middle Ages with their anonymous craftsmanship. Only the creative power of genius could bequeath a memory that was woven into the Eyck legend, the Eyck cult.
We should argue along these lines even if nothing had survived of the brothers' work. But the vivid impression of the existing monuments blends with the venerable tradition. With the van Eycks a source of power seems to erupt from the ground. Nothing comes out of nothing. But what goes on underground is hidden from our eyes. Here if anywhere the mistaken idea of a beginning is excusable and is indispensable for the historian.
Jan van Eyck, the younger brother, is supposed to have invented something, namely oil painting--for the Netherlanders of the sixteenth century this meant quite simply painting. It was thought that quotations of old painter recipes, long before the van Eycks, in which oil is mentioned, could do away with this tradition. Jan van Eyck's painting technique differed from that of his predecessors. But the chronicler naively confuses cause and effect. The invention did not come first. Jan van Eyck--or Hubert van Eyck--was not able to paint as he painted after and because he had invented the technique of oil, rather is it true that he found new