Quentin Matsys

From Academic Kids

Missing image
The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Matsys (1525-30)
Oil on wood, 64 x 45,5 cm National Gallery, London

Quentin Matsys, also known as Quentin Massys, Quentin Metsys or Kwinten Metsys (1466 - 1530), was a painter in the Flemish tradition, founder of the Antwerp school. He was born at Leuven, where he first learned a mechanical art.

His works include A Portrait of an Elderly Man (1513), The Money Changer and His Wife (1514), and The Ugly Duchess (1515).

The Ugly Duchess is perhaps the best-known of his works. It served as a basis for Sir John Tenniel's depiction of the Ugly Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is probably not a depiction of any one model, though it is sometimes said to be a portrait of Margaret, Duchess of Carinthia, also known as Margaret Maultasch ("Satchel-mouth").

During the greater part of the 15th century the centres in which the painters of the Low Countries most congregated were Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. Towards the close of the same period Leuven took a prominent part in giving employment to workmen of every craft. It was not till the opening of the 16th century that Antwerp usurped he lead which it afterwards maintained against Bruges and Ghent, Brussels, Mechelen and Leuven.

Quintin Matsys was one of the first men of any note who gave repute to the gild of Antwerp. A legend relates how the smith of Leuven was induced by affection for the daughter of an artist to change his trade and acquire proficiency in painting. A less poetic but perhaps more real version of the story tells that Quintin had a brother with whom he was brought up by his father Josse Matsys, a smith, who held the lucrative offices of clockmaker and architect to the municipality of Leuven. It came to be a question which of the sons should follow the paternal business, and which carve out a new profession for himself. Josse the son elected to succeed his father, and Quintin then gave himself to the study of painting.

We are not told expressly by whom Quintin was taught, but his style seems necessarily derived from the lessons of Dieric Bouts, who took to Leuven the mixed art of Memlinc and Van der Weyden. When he settled at Antwerp, at the age of twenty-five, he probably had a style with an impress of its own, which certainly contributed most importantly to the revival of Flemish art on the lines of Van Eyck and Van der Weyden.

What particularly characterizes Quintin Matsys is the strong religious feeling which he inherited from earlier schools. But that again was permeated by realism which frequently degenerated into the grotesque. Nor would it be too much to say that the facial peculiarities of the boors of Van Steen or Ostade have their counterparts in the pictures of Matsys, who was not, however, trained to use them in the same homely way. From Van der Weyden's example we may trace the dryness of outline and shadeless modelling and the pitiless finish even of trivial detail, from the Van Eyck's and Memlinc through Dierick Bouts the superior glow and richness of transparent pigments, which mark the pictures of Matsys.

The date of his retirement from Leuven is 1491, when he became a master in the gild of painters at Antwerp. His most celebrated picture is that which he executed in 1508 for the joiners' company in the cathedral of his adopted city. Next in importance to that is the Marys of Scripture round the Virgin and Child, which was ordered for a chapel in the cathedral of Leuven. Both altar-pieces are now in public museums, one at Antwerp, the other at Brussels. They display great earnestness in expression, great minuteness of finish, and a general absence of effect by light or shade. As in early Flemish pictures, so in those of Matsys, superfluous care is lavished on jewelry, edgings and ornament.

Missing image
The Moneylender and his Wife (1514)
Oil on panel, 71 x 68 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

To the great defect of want of atmosphere such faults may be added as affectation, the result of excessive straining after tenderness in women, or common gesture and grimace suggested by a wish to render pictorially the brutality of gaolers and executioners. Yet in every instance an effort is manifest to develop and express individual character. This tendency in Matsys is chiefly illustrated in his pictures of male and female market bankers (Louvre and Windsor), in which an attempt is made to display concentrated cupidity and avarice. The other tendency to excessive emphasis of tenderness may be seen in two replicas of the Virgin and Child at Berlin and Amsterdam, where the ecstatic kiss of the mother is quite unreal. But in these examples there is a remarkable glow of colour which makes up for many defects.

Expression of despair is strongly exaggerated in a Lacretia at the museum of Vienna. On the whole the best pictures of Matsys are the quietest; his Virgin and Christ or Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa (London and Antwerp) display as much serenity and dignity as seems consistent with the masters art. He had considerable skill as a portrait painter. Egidius at Longford, which drew from Sir Thomas More a eulogy in Latin verse, is but one of a numerous class, to which we may add the portrait of Maximilian of Austria in the gallery of Amsterdam. Matsys in this branch of practice was much under the influence of his contemporaries Lucas of Leiden and Mabuse.

His tendency to polish excluded to some extent the subtlety of modulation remarkable in Holbein and Dürer. There is reason to think that he was well acquainted with both these German masters. He probably met Holbein more than once on his way to England. He saw Dürer at Antwerp in 1520. Matsys also became the guardian of Joachim Patinir's children after the death of this painter, with whom he had colloborated.

Matsys died at Antwerp in 1530.

The puritan feeling which slumbered in him was fatal to some of his relatives. His sister Catherine and her husband suffered at Leuven in 1543 for the then capital offence of reading the Bible, he being decapitated, she buried alive in the square fronting the cathedral.

Quentin's son, Jan Matsys, inherited the art but not the skill of his parent. The earliest of his works, a St Jerome, dated 1537, in the gallery of Vienna, the latest, a Healing of Tobias, of 1564, in the museum of Antwerp, are sufficient evidence of his tendency to substitute imitation for original thought. Another son, Cornelis Matsys, was also a painter.

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