What is a spy? A person who manages secret of confidential information about foreign countries to benefit its own nation. Currently, every state has a governmental organization for spying (CIA, MI6, Mossad…) but what happened before WWII? Times ago, spying was necessary too, and old kings and dukes had spies, but with a more individual action. Then, some occupations were especially interesting to obtain information from abroad: artists, for instance.
The painter Jan van Eyck was born in Maaseyck, in 1390, and died in Bruges, in 1441. People attributed him the invention of oil painting. This new technique and his fine different pictures (Arnolfini Wedding, Ghent Altarpiece…) have placed him in an important position in the Art History.
In 1422, he started to work for the Duke John of Bavaria in the Hague and in 1425, he moved to Lille under the protection of the Duke of Burgundy, a Valois (always in fight with other powerful families from Europe). Jan van Eyck was sent on several missions on behalf of the Duke, and worked on several projects which entailed more than painting, and which were unusually well-paid. His salary doubled twice in the first years of service without painting nearly anything (two disappeared portraits of the Duke’s wife). Why? He was John of Burgundy’s Chamber Valet and the duke ‘only trusted on his science.’ Definitely, he was a parallel ambassador who spoke in the name of the Duke and guarded his secrets.
Here, my question: why have so many artists been working for kings in diplomatic missions? Tiziano, Rubens or Velazquez did. And in the 20th century, we also know some authors who were spies: Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway.
Furthermore, we can suppose other artists or authors who died violently (Caravaggio) or disappeared in strange circumstances (Shakespeare) or subsisted without earning money (list would be enormous) and who tried with powerful people travelling constantly, they could have had a parallel profession (unknown, of course).
An artist or an author are good jobs to go and come inadvertently, to cross borders, to mingle with important people, to speak freely and to obtain information.
An artist or an author are also enough prepared to understand political machinations, to hide and pass possible conspiracies in a discreet way, and (very important) they can improvise because they are clever.
Who could have thought art & espionage were connected? We are accustomed to 007 style movies, and Jan van Eyck was not a karate man. However, he was one of the richest person of the Flemish countries during the Renaissance.
In 1430, he settled in Bruges and lived safely. The Duke of Burgundy was the godfather of his son’s wedding and, after Jan’s death, he protected his widow and paid the dowry of his daughter when she entered a convent.
Real life is less spectacular than cinema… or maybe not?
**Is this portrait of a man with red turban his self-portrait? The enigmatic gaze, strict nose and malignant mouth could suit with a smart spy, with an eternal spy, with Jan van Eyck.