Jan van Eyck: Tymotheos (Leal Souvenir). 1432. National Gallery, London
It is perhaps no accident that Jan van Eyck’s earliest surviving portrait carries a date (10th October 1432), for temporality constitutes an important aspect of this work in other ways too. Traces of the passage of time — in the form of cracks, chipped-off or broken pieces of stone and «sgraffito»-like scratchmarks — are visible on a relatively broad, trompe-l’oeil parapet which serves as a repoussoir and suggests a frame, pushing the sitter back — though not very far — from the picture-plane. Even hard, apparently permanent materials do not last — what hope then for the human counterfeited here! An inscription, not unlike an epitaph, and yet evidently referring to a living person, is chiselled on the parapet: LEAL SOUVENIR, «loyal remembrance». The words anticipate that rapid process of change which the sitter, portrayed here on a certain day, will soon experience in his own life. The portrait resembles a record of something which is subject to continual change, and which the painter, or sitter, wishes to commit to memory, or preserve. It is as though images had magical powers, as if appearances could replace reality, or, indeed, be a substitute for life altogether. Yet all that remains is the apparently authentic reproduction of a physical sensation on the retina, in other words, the transmission of optical signs, of perceptions of light, via colour and paint.
It is not clear what kind of document the man is holding in his hand. If the sitter was a musician, the scroll may be a piece of music. One theory suggests the paper is the plan for a sculpture.
The portrait is a three-quarters view of a man of about — according to Erwin Panof sky — thirty years, turned slightly to the left before an homogenously dark background. He sports a fashionable green head-dress from which a scarf hangs down onto his right shoulder. He is also wearing a red coat with a thin fur collar. His left arm is folded behind the parapet, his left hand obscured by his right, which is holding a scroll of paper.
The identity of the sitter has been the subject of considerable speculation. It would seem logical to expect the strange name which someone appears to have lettered onto the stone in Greek — TYMПOEOC (Tymotheos) — to provide a clue. In fact, the name did not occur in the Netherlands before the Reformation, a discovery which led Panofsky to see it as a scholarly humanist metonym whose purpose was to link the sitter with an eminent figure in Classical antiquity. As far as Panofsky was concerned, there was only one outstanding person of that name it could have been: Tymotheos of Milet, who revolutionized Greek music during the age of Euripides and Plato. It followed that van Eyck’s sitter could only have been a musician, one equally renowned for his innovative contribution to the art. What was more, there had indeed been a radical upheaval in early fifteenth-century music, centred in Burgundy and known as «ars nova». Its leading exponents were the courtly composers Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois. Since Dufay was known to have been abroad when the portrait was painted, the sitter — according to Panofsky — can only have been Binchois.
Wendy Wood’s more recent, alternative explanation is based on a similar argument. Rather than the musician mentioned above, Wood traces the antique Tymotheos to a sculptor celebrated for his bas-reliefs. Seeking an analogous sculptor at the Burgundian court, she identifies «Tvmotheos» as Gilles de Blachere.