StoryGraph Saturday: Girl in a Green Gown

StoryGraph Saturday is a weekly thing where I randomly choose a book from my To Read pile on StoryGraph and show it off to both remind myself that it’s there and to show it to you in case you might find it interesting, too.


Girl in a Green Gown: The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait
by Carola Hicks
Nonfiction/History
258 pages
First published in 2011

From The StoryGraph:

The Arnolfini portrait, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1434, is one of the world’s most famous paintings. It intrigues all who see it. Scholars and the public alike have puzzled over the meaning of this haunting gem of medieval art, a subtle and beautiful double portrait of a wealthy Bruges merchant and his wife.

The enigmatic couple seems to be conveying a message to us across the centuries, but what? Is the painting the celebration of marriage or pregnancy, a memorial to a wife who died in childbirth, a fashion statement, or a status symbol? Using her acclaimed forensic skills as an art historian, Carola Hicks set out to decode the mystery, uncovering a few surprises along the way.

She also tells the fascinating story of the painting’s survival through fires, battles, hazardous sea journeys, and its role as a mirror reflecting the culture and history of the time – from jewel of the Hapsburg empire to Napoleonic war trophy. Uniquely, for a masterpiece this old, it can be tracked through every single owner, from the mysterious Mr. Arnolfini via various monarchs to a hard-up Waterloo war hero, until it finally came to rest in 1842 as an early star of the National Gallery. These owners, too, have cameo parts in this enthralling story of how an artwork of genius can speak afresh to each new generation.


I’ve been to the National Gallery in London twice now (a journey of some 4,300 miles for me), and both times I was unable to see the Arnolfini Portrait. The first time was because the gallery’s Renaissance wing was closed for renovations. The second time, it was because the Renaissance wing was closed just because. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back to London, so I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see this fascinating painting in person, but I’ve loved it since I first studied it in my college art history classes, and I want to know more about it. I don’t think my library has a copy of this book, but I’ll likely be able to get a copy via inter-library loan. I might see about getting it to read in January or February.

5 thoughts on “StoryGraph Saturday: Girl in a Green Gown

  1. I think you need to get back to London…I thought of you this week when I saw the Goodreads winners. All I could think was please don’t let publishers think this is what most of us want to read…

  2. I find it fascinating this painting can be traced from owner to owner throughout its history. Perhaps it’s not, but that seems unusual. I borrowed a huge art history book from my brother and I’d like to start going through that. So much to explore.

  3. I think, for the most famous paintings, that you can trace the provenance through the centuries. It’s the smaller works that weren’t made by the uber-famous painters that have unknown stories. I have a couple of medieval art history books I want to get through. You’re right. There’s so much out there to explore.

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