Quentin Matsys

Quentin Matsys, his first name also given as Quinten or Kwinten and his last name as Massys or 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 trade.

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 share in employing the workmen from every craft. It was not until the opening of the 16th century that Antwerp took the lead which it afterwards maintained against Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Mechelen and Leuven.

Quentin Matsys was one of the first notable men of the guild of Antwerp. A legend relates how he, a smith from Leuven, was led by affection for the daughter of an artist to change his trade, acquiring skill in painting. Less poetic but perhaps more likely is another version of the story: Quentin's father, Josse Matsys, a smith, held the lucrative offices of clockmaker and architect to the municipality of Leuven. The question arose as to which of his sons, Quentin or Josse, should follow the paternal business and which should seek a new profession. Josse the son elected to succeed the father, and Quentin then gave himself to the study of painting.

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

What characterizes Quentin Matsys in particular is the strong religious feeling which he inherited from earlier schools. This feeling was permeated by a realism which often favored the grotesque. The faces of the boors of Steen or Ostade may well have their predecessor in the pictures of Matsys, although he was not inclined to use them in the same homely way. From the example of van der Weyden comes Matsys' strictness of outline, unshaded modelling and thorough finish of trivial detail; from the van Eycks and Memlinc through Dirck Bouts can be seen the superior glow and richness of transparent pigments.

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

The Moneylender and his Wife (1514)
Oil on panel, 71 x 68 cm Musée du Louvre, ParisNot much given to atmosphere, his paintings verge on caricature in emphasizing the tenderness of women or embodying the brutal gestures and grimaces of gaolers and executioners. Strenuous effort is devoted to the expression of individual character. This tendency in Matsys is chiefly illustrated in his pictures of male and female market bankers (Louvre and Windsor) in their display of intense greed and avarice. The other impulse, with its dwelling on the feelings of tenderness, may be seen in two replicas of the Virgin and Child at Berlin and Amsterdam, where the ecstatic kiss of the mother seems unreal. But in these examples is a remarkable glow of colour making up for any exaggeration.

An expression of despair is strongly marked in a Lucretia at the museum of Vienna. But on the whole, the best pictures of Matsys are the quietest: his Virgin and Christ, Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa (London and Antwerp) display a serene and dignified mastery. He had considerable skill as a portrait painter. His Egidius, now at Longford, which drew from Sir Thomas More a eulogy in Latin verse, is but one of many, to which we may add the portrait of Maximilian of Austria in the gallery of Amsterdam. Matsys in this branch of his practice was greatly influenced by his contemporaries Lucas van Leyden and Mabuse.

His tendency to polished detail lacked that subtlety of modelling seen in Holbein and Dürer. There is reason to think him 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 that painter, with whom he had colloborated.

Matsys died at Antwerp in 1530. The puritanism of feeling which could be said to have slumbered in him was fatal to some of his relatives. His sister Catherine and her husband suffered at Leuven in 1543 for what was then the capital offence of reading the Bible: he being decapitated, she buried alive in the square fronting the cathedral.

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, countess of Tyrol, also known as Margarete Maultasch ("Satchel-mouth").

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, as well as the latest, a Healing of Tobias of 1564, in the museum of Antwerp, are evidence of his tendency to substitute imitation for originality. Another son, Cornelis Matsys, was also a painter.