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Quentin Massys

(MESSYS, METZYS)

A painter, born at Louvain in 1466; died at Antwerp in 1530 (bet. 13 July and 16 September), and not in 1529, as his epitaph states (it dates from the seventeenth century). The life of this great artist is all adorned, or obscured, with legends. It is a fact that he was the son of a smith. There is nothing to prove, but it is not impossible that he first followed his father's trade. In any case he was a "bronzier" and medalist. On 29 March, 1528, Erasmus wrote to Boltens that Massys had engraved a medallion of him (Effigiem meam fudit aere). This was perhaps the medal dated 1519, a copy of which is at the Museum of Basle. In 1575 Molanas in his history of Louvain states that Quentin is the author of the standard of the baptismal fonts at St-Pierre, but his account is full of errors. As for the wrought iron dome over the well in the Marché-aux-Gants at Antwerp, which popular tradition attributes to him, the attribution is purely fanciful. Tradition also states that the young smith, in love with a young woman of Antwerp, became a painter for her sake. Indeed this pretty fable explains the poetical character of Massys. All his works are like love songs. Facts tell us only that the young man, an orphan since he was fifteen, was emancipated by his mother 4 April, 1491, and that in the same year he was entered as a painter on the registers of the Guild of Antwerp. He kept a studio which four different pupils entered from 1495 to 1510.

He had six children by a first marriage with Alyt van Tuylt. She died in 1507. Shortly afterwards, in 1508 or 1509, he married Catherine Heyns, who bore him, according to some, ten children, according to others, seven. He seems to have been a respected personage. As has been seen, he had relations with Erasmus, whose portrait he painted in 1517 (the original, or an ancient copy, is at Hampton Court), and with the latter's friend, Petrus Egidius (Peter Gillis), magistrate of Antwerp, whose portrait by Massys is preserved by Lord Radnor at Longford. Dürer went to visit him immediately on his return from his famous journey to the Low Countries in 1519. On 29 July of that year Quentin had purchased a house, for which he had perhaps carved a wooden statue of his patron saint. In 1520 he worked together with 250 other artists on the triumphal arches for the entry of Emperor Charles V. In 1524 on the death of Joachim Patenier he was named guardian of the daughters of the deceased. This is all we learn from documents concerning him. He led a quiet, well-ordered, middle-class, happy life, which scarcely tallies with the legendary figure of the little smith becoming a painter through love.

Nevertheless, in this instance also, the legend is right. For nothing explains better the appearance in the dull prosaic Flemish School of the charming genius of this lover-poet. It cannot be believed, as Molanus asserts, that he was the pupil of Rogier van der Weyden, since Rogier died in 1484, two years before Quentin's birth. But the masters whom he might have encountered at Louvain such as Gonts, or even Dirck, the best among them, distress by a lack of taste and imagination a dryness of ideas and style which is the very opposite of Massys's manner. Add to this that his two earliest known works, in fact the only two which count, the "Life of St. Anne " at Brussels and the Antwerp triptych, the "Deposition from the Cross", date respectively from 1509 and 1511, that is from a period when the master was nearly fifty years old. Up to that age we know nothing concerning him. The "Banker and His Wife" (Louvre) and the "Portrait of a Young Man" (Collection of Mme. André), his only dated works besides his masterpieces, belong to 1513 and 1514 (or 1519). We lack all the elements which would afford us an idea of his formation. He seems like an inexplicable, miraculous flower.

When it is remembered that his great paintings have been almost ruined by restorations, it will be understood that the question of Massys contains insoluble problems. In fact the triptych of St. Anne at Brussels is perhaps the most gracious, tender and sweet of all the painting of the North. And it will always be mysterious, unless the principal theme, which represents the family or the parents of Christ, affords some light. It is the theme, dear to Memling, of "spiritual conversations", of those sweet meetings of heavenly persons, in earthly costumes, in the serenity of a Paradisal court. This subject, whose unity is wholly interior and mystic, Memling, as is known, had brought from Germany, where it had been tirelessly repeated by painters, especially by him who was called because of this, the Master der Heiligen Sippe . Here the musical, immaterial harmony, resulting from a composition which might be called symphonic, was enhanced by a new harmony, which was the feeling of the circulation of the same blood in all the assembled persons. It was the poem arising from the quite Germanic intimacy of the love of family. One is reminded of Suso or of Tauler. The loving, tender genius of Massys would be stirred to grave joy in such a subject. The exquisite history of St. Anne, that poem of maternity, of the holiness of the desire to survive in posterity, has never been expressed in a more penetrating, chaste, disquieting art.

Besides, it was the beginning of the sixteenth century and Italian influences were making themselves felt everywhere. Massys translated them into his brilliant architecture, into the splendour of the turquoise which he imparted to the blue summits of the mountains, to the horizons of his landscapes. A charming luxury mingles with his ideas and disfigures them. It was a unique work, a unique period; that of an ephemeral agreement between the genius of the North and that of the Renaissance, between the world of sentiment and that of beauty. This harmony which was at the foundation of all the desires of the South, from Dürer to Rembrandt and Goethe, was realized in the simple thought of the ancient smith. By force of candour, simplicity, and love he found the secret which others sought in vain. With still greater passion the same qualities are found in the Antwerp "Deposition". The subject is treated, not in the Italian manner, as in the Florentine or Umbrian "Pietas", but with the familiar and tragic sentiment which touches the Northern races. It is one of the "Tombs" compositions, of which the most famous are those of Saint Mihiel and Solesmes. The body of Christ is one of the most exhausted, the most "dead", the most moving that painting has ever created. All is full of tenderness and desolation.

Massys has the genius of tears. He loves to paint tears in large pearls on the eyes, on the red cheeks of his holy women, as in his wonderful "Magdalen" of Berlin or his "Pietà" of Munich. But he had at the same time the keenest sense of grace. His Herodiases, his Salomes (Antwerp triptych) are the most bewitching figures of all the art of his time. And this excitable nervousness made him particularly sensitive to the ridiculous side of things. He had a sense of the grotesque, of caricature, of the droll and the hideous, which is displayed in his figures of old men, of executioners. And this made him a wonderful genre painter. His "Banker" and his "Money Changers" inaugurated in the Flemish School the rich tradition of the painting of manners. He had a pupil in this style, Marinus, many of whose pictures still pass under his name.

Briefly, Massys was the last of the great Flemish artists prior to the Italian invasion. He was the most sensitive, the most nervous, the most poetical, the most comprehensive of all, and in him is discerned the tumultuous strain which was to appear 100 years later in the innumerable works of Rubens.

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