Quentin Massys
Biography of Flemish Genre Painter of the Antwerp School.

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The Money-Lender and his Wife (1514)
By Quentin Massys/Metsys.
Louvre, Paris. One of the
greatest genre paintings of the
early Netherlandish Renaissance.

Quentin Massys/Metsys (c.1465-1530)


Early Life
Religious Works
The Money-Lender and His Wife
Paintings By Massys

For details of the pigments
used by Quentin Massys
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For an overview, see:
Fine Art Painting.


Also known as Quinten Metsys or Matsys, Quentin Massys was one of the leading members of the Flemish Painting school in Antwerp during the 16th century. An eclectic, probably self-taught artist, Massys borrowed styles freely from previous Old Masters such as the Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci, and other Flemish painters like the Bruges artist Jan van Eyck (1395-1441) and his gifted follower Petrus Christus (c.1410-75), the Ghent master Hugo van der Goes (c.1440-1483) and the Tournai painter Roger van der Weyden (1399-1464). He assimilated all these influences without every quite finding his own unique style of art. He created several examples of altarpiece painting, but is best known for his portrait art. His most important contribution to Netherlandish Renaissance art, was that he was the first artist to portray humans as freely-acting individuals without reference to Christian iconography. His caricature-style portraits include Portrait of a Man (1513, Jacquemart-Andres, Paris) and A Grotesque Old Woman (1515, National Gallery, London). It is believed that the artist's friend, the famous Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus (1466-1536), may have encouraged him to put his talent for portraiture at the service of religious art of a moralizing nature. In any event, his portraits combine the surrealism of Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516) with the exaggerated features seen in Da Vinci's drawings. Arguably his most famous painting of all is The Money-Lender and His Wife (1514, Louvre, Paris). This complex work can be interpreted as a simple genre painting, a double portrait or a religious allegory.



Early Life and Training

Massys was born in Leuven, Belgium in about 1465. Little is known of his early life or training, indeed there is no evidence that he had any training at all. There are some suggestions that he may have started life as an ironsmith. What we do know is that he left Leuven and from about 1510 onwards was active as a painter in Antwerp, where he built up athriving workshop with a number of apprentices. It is believed that the landscape and history painter Joachim Patenier (1485-1524), may have studied under him and contributed to landscapes in the workshop. Although there is no record of Massys travelling, it is assumed he must have visited Italy at some time to study the masters of the Early Renaissance. This can be inferred from the influence of Leonardo Da Vinci and other Italian styles in his paintings, although he may also have seen their works in prints being distributed in Northern Europe at the time.

Religious Works

Massys early work has been grouped with his earliest dateable painting: the St Anne Altarpiece (1507-9, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels), also called the Altarpiece of the Holy Kindred. This unusual triptych combines many artistic influences. Its composition includes Italianate architecture set against a mountainous landscape with Da Vinci type aerial perspective. It features iconography common to Northern Renaissance art, along with Gothic-style figures, which are softened by Italian-style chiaroscuro and sfumato. It would certainly give strength to the idea that the artist had spent time in Northern Italy. His next large-scale commission, the Deposition Altarpiece (1508-11, originally for Antwerp Cathedral, now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels) demonstrates a typical characteristic of Massys work: the ability to juxtapose the elegant with the grotesque. His St John Altarpiece (1507-8, Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts, Koninklijk) manages to combine a mixture of piety, cruelty and the satirical all in one. In the central panel Jesus has been taken down from the cross and lies tragically, but elegantly across the panel. The right panel shows St John cruelly being plunged into a vat of boiling oil surrounded by exotic figures and grotesque laughing torturers. The left shows Salome offering the head of St John the Baptist to Herod.


Although his portrait paintings are more personal those those of Hans Holbein (1497-1543) or Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), Massys style was influenced by both German Masters (see his Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1517, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome). Da Vinci's influence is also easily detectable in his Virgin and Child (c.1524, National Museum, Poznan, Poland). The composition and figures are clearly copied from the Italian Master's Virgin of the Rocks (c.1483, Louvre, Paris). Yet it is his caricature type paintings which are perhaps the most memorable. His portrait A Grotesque Old Woman, is likely to be a depiction of someone with Paget's disease which can result in large and misshapen bones. One of his better-known satirical portraits is the Ill-Matched Lovers (c.1520, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) in which a lecherous old man is groping a young attractive woman, as she steals his purse. The theme dates back to antiquity when a 3rd century BCE Roman poet cautioned elderly men against courting younger women. The idea is that a young woman can cause an older man to lose his senses while she robs him blind. Massys adapted the face of the old letch from one of Leonardo's drawing of an ill-matched pair (original lost and only known today through a copy).

The Money-Lender and His Wife

Massys Money-Lender and his Wife (1514, Louvre) (also called The Money-Changer and His Wife) appears to be an early example of genre painting which flourished in Flanders during the following 17th century. The husband and wife both wear bored expressions, as the man counts his money and the wife leafs through an ornately illuminated book. On the other hand it might be quite a subtle religious allegory. After all, in the Bible, Proverbs (16:11) talks about the righteous scales and the good weight, while Nicolas of Cusa compares the Creator to a banker whose viceroys (priests) act as moneychangers. In the work, Massys uses Italian Renaissance-style foreshortening techniques, and gives us a master-class in still-life painting. On the table is a reflective convex mirror in which the artist painted his own reflection, recalling a similar technique employed by Jan van Eyck in The Arnolfini Portrait (1434, National Gallery, London).

Massys died in 1530. His grandson Quentin Metsys The Younger was an artist at the Tudor court of Elizabeth I. He was recently revealed as the artist of the famous Sieve Portrait (c.1573, Pinacoteca, Siena) of the Queen.



Paintings By Massys

Works by Quentin Massys can be seen in several of the best art museums throughout the world, notably Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk). They include:

- St John Altarpiece (1507-8) Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk).
- St Anne Altarpiece (1507-9) Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
- Deposition Altarpiece (1508-11) Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
- Salvator Mundi (c.1510) Antwerp Museum of Fine Arts (Koninklijk).
- Portrait of a Canon (c.1510) Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.
- Portrait of a Man (1513) Jacquemart-Andres, Paris.
- The Money-Lender and His Wife (1514) Louvre, Paris.
- Ecce Homo (c.1515) Prado Museum, Madrid.
- A Grotesque Old Woman (1515) National Gallery, London.
- Portrait of Pieter Gillis (1517) Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome.
- Portrait of Erasmus (1517) Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome.
- Ill-Matched Lovers (c.1520) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
- Virgin and Child (c.1524) National Museum, Poznan, Poland.
- The Adoration of the Magi (1526) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
- Ecce Homo (1526) Palazzo Ducale, Venice.

• For more biographical details about Netherlandish painters, see: Homepage.
• For an analysis of important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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