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Louvre: Quentin Matsys – The moneylender and his wife

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Quentin Matsys - The moneylender and his wifeRichelieu wing – 2nd floor – Germanic countries, 15th century – Room 7

The moneylender and his wife are seated in their officine, a modest stall that only shows two wooden shelves where account books are next to fruit. On the other hand, on the table in front of which the two spouses stand, are scattered jewels, pearls and gold coins which the changer weighs on the trebuchet. The man is dressed in a sort of brown mantle trimmed with furs at the collar and wrists; his energetic and attentive head acquires even more relief under the broad, furred toque that frames it. She, very close to him, seems to take a keen interest in her husband’s operations; she leans over to see better and stops to leaf through a beautiful illuminated missal which she keeps the page with the fingertips. She wears a scarlet dress slightly indented at the collar; she is not pretty, or at least does not seem so under the odd scaffolding of the guimpe and the toquet which hides the hair and impresses on the face a certain hardness.

A curious peculiarity shows the accuracy of the Dutch and Flemish painters: on the front of the table a small mirror is placed, which reflects with remarkable precision the window of the pharmacy, and we even see the houses, the street, and to the spire of a distant church.

All Flemish art is in this luxury of detail pushed to the minuteness. This art is not inspirational; no elevated sentiment, no idealism beautifies it; this tenderness, that harmonious gentleness which the Italians knew how to give to their paintings, would be sought in vain. The subjects in which he takes pleasure are often vulgar, often coarse, and when he thinks of approaching the religious scenes, he can not get rid of the coldness, the drought, the realism which seem to be his own characteristic. But as soon as it is a question of painting nature, under its objective and precise side, the Flemish painter displays qualities of the first order. His lack of enthusiasm serves him instead of hindering him; he sees perfectly and clearly, without anything interposing between his model and himself, and as he is generally a very skilful artist, he succeeds in producing such true masterpieces.

These qualities and defects are a matter of race: we can already see them in the Van Eyck family, and, in spite of commendable efforts towards the ideal, their immediate successors, Roger Van der Weyden and Hugo Van der Goes, were revealed in their entirety. The only painter who has truly possessed and translated the sentiments of the soul, the only one whose work radiates a profound emotion, an intimate gentleness, is Hans Memling, the famous author of St. Ursula Shrine. But this one, although having spent all his life in Flanders, was not native to it; he came from Germany and brought to Bruges the traditions of idealism of the Cologne School. All the others were only admirable workers and wonderful interpreters of nature.

These qualities of precision and skill, Quentin Matsys possesses them to the highest point. We owe him, it must be admitted, a Descent from the Cross which is a true masterpiece and from which emanates a real and intense emotion. But this picture, jewel of Our Lady of Antwerp, is only an exception, I would almost say an accident, if it were not for such a great artist. Matsys is usually the painter of money changers, gold weighers, things that shine, objects with well-defined contours. A painter of portraits, he has that implacable sincerity which restores to you the living model, with all its imperfections and all its defects. Such is its rigid precision, sober and vigorous, that many of these portraits could be attributed to Holbein: Matsys bears also this formidable parallel without too much inferiority.

The two artists lived at the same time, and both enjoyed, during their lifetime, a European renown. Matsys spawned with the most famous characters of his time. Thomas Morus, Ægidius, Erasmus were his friends; he even painted, like Holbein, two portraits of the celebrated literary and philosopher from Basel.

Dürer, when he came to Flanders, made the trip from Antwerp on purpose to visit Matsys, whose talent he esteemed.

The name of this painter is sometimes presented in the form Metsis, or Massys, and during his lifetime he was nicknamed the Blacksmith of Antwerp because in his childhood he had worked for some time with his father, who was practicing this profession.

The great merit of Matsys was to enlarge, to reinforce the Flemish technique, and to shake, as it were, the archaic envelope which had hitherto enclosed it. By his own work and by the influence he exerted, he occupies a place of first rank among the painters of the sixteenth century.

The moneylender and his wife had belonged, in the seventeenth century, to a Dutch merchant called Duarte, then to Pierre Stevens, and finally to a Sieur Marivaux who yielded him to the Louvre, in 1806, for the sum of 1,800 francs. Matsys executed several repetitions of this picture: one belongs to the Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the other to M. della Faille in Antwerp. But this is the original that owns the Louvre.

Height: 0.47 – Width: 0.27 – Figures in life-size bust.

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