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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Quentin Matsys

Madonna and Child, 1513,
Quentin Matsys

Madonna and St. Anne, 1510,
Leonardo da Vinci 
Quentin Matsys engraved by Jan Wierix

It has become quite a sport these days among digital artists to choose an ancient classic painting by a highly regarded master, then satirize it by changing it in some way. That may mean changing the setting, maybe by inserting the face of a familiar pop icon, or by some other means desecrating the original image. In general, I hate such creative endeavors, although I'll have to admit they are sometimes quite clever and amusing. Likewise, I'd be the first to defend their place (however lowly) in the world of art. They meet the definition--they communicate a message, and they do so with at least a modicum of creativity. Most I would definitely not term "good" art, but the quality of a piece art does not (and should not) determine it's status as art. It might startle some today that there is really not much new in this type of work. It's simply easier today, requiring less skill, and thus it had proliferated to a much greater degree than in the past when the Flemish painter Quentin Matsys indulged in such satire.

The Money Lender and his Wife, 1514, Quentin Matsys.
If you've never heard the name, Quentin Matsys, it may be on account of the spelling. Sometimes it's Massys and elsewhere recorded as Metsys. Quite apart from how he (or others) spelled his name, Matsys is a strange man. Born in 1466, probably in Antwerp, Quentin was the son of a blacksmith at a time when (unless there was good reason not to) a son usually followed in his father's trade, trained by his father. Thus young Quentin became a blacksmith. Then, sometime, probably around 1510, Quentin fell in love with the daughter of a painter. Tradition says she didn't care much for the loud hammering and banging around that went with iron working so her young suitor took up painting to calm her nerves and persuade her to marry him. Other accounts claim Matsys got sick and turned to painting when he became too weak to swing the iron mallet. I like the former, more romantic, version best myself.
The Grotesque Old Woman 15
Except perhaps for some rudiments from his new father-in-lay, Matsys seems to have had little or no other training in art. Some scholars find this hard to believe. However, if so he must have been something of a quick study, judging from the highly professional quality of his output. He seems also to have had a wicked sense of humor as well. His most famous work, A Grotesque Old Woman (like it's creator, it has several other names) dates from early in Matsys' career, around 1513. At first glance one might deem it to be a man with breasts; then a closer look confirms the painful truth, that it is, in fact, the ugliest woman to ever find herself on canvas. In all fairness, Matsys painted some pretty ugly men too. Painting tradition had long held that women were to be made beautiful while men, at any point between adolescence and old age, should look dignified, yet human, while not giving young children nightmares. Matsys disputed that, and as a result, his paintings stood apart from the others, for their truthfulness, naturalness, and humor.

Rest on the Flight to Egypt, 1513, Quentin Matsys
There is also a more subtle humor in Matsys' work as seen in his Madonna and Child (top, left) from 1513. The date here is critical. One glance at Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna and St. Anne (top, right) reveals the source of Matsys' inspiration. And inasmuch as Leonardo's work is dated 1510, it would appear that prints of the painting traveled north to Antwerp at an amazing speed, given the transportation difficulties of the Renaissance era. Be that as it may, Matsys' work is far from a copy of Leonardo's. The figure of Mary has supplanted that of St. Anne and appears younger and prettier than Leonardo's while overall, the Matsys work is brighter, livelier, and more lighthearted than that of Leonardo. The Christ-child seems slightly older while the look on His face tells it all--playing with lambs is fun! We see somewhat the same element in Matsys' Flight into Egypt (above). Though the mood here is more somber than Matsys' Madonna and Child, there is lacking any deeply religious significance to what is, after all, simply a snack break on a long journey.

Christ on the Cross with Donors, 1560, Quentin Matsys,
(apparently completed after the artist's death).
Ecce Homo, 1515, Quentin Matsys
Following the completion of Matsys' raucous Ecce Homo (behold, the man, left) in 1515, the artist received the largest and most impressive commission of his career in the form of a triptych altarpiece begun around 1520 for the Church of Saint Peter in Leuven (above). Titled Christ on the Cross with Donors, the work is in the Flemish style yet bearing many influences from Matsys' contacts with the ongoing Renaissance in Italy. Some scholars suggest Matsys may have spent a brief amount of time in Italy soaking up the painting style. Also interesting is the fact that most sources cite 1560 as the date of completion for the work, which was some thirty years after the artist's death. Quentin Matsys' son, Jan, trained by his father, may have been tasked with completing the altarpiece. It now hangs in St. Paul's School in Antwerp.

Saint Jerome, Quentin Matsys. Note the pointing index finger, an item he may
have picked up from Leonardo. It can also be found in the painting below.
Once Matsys moves away from biblical subjects, he seems not to have felt any restrictions in gently imbuing his figures with the element of humor. His Saint Jerome, (above) has a comic expression of perplexity as he seems to ponder the contrasts between the physical life and spiritual life as discussed in his Bible opened before him. The humor is subtle, but obvious. And when Matsys foregoes all references to the saints, unleashing his satirical humor as seen in his early 16th-century The Fool (below), his figure becomes laugh-out-loud funny (not to mention more than a little risqué).

The Fool, early 16th-century, Quentin Matsys.


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