National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Ill-Matched Lovers Quentin Massys (artist)
Netherlandish, 1466 - 1530
Ill-Matched Lovers, c. 1520/1525
oil on panel
overall: 43.2 x 63 cm (17 x 24 13/16 in.) framed: 61.6 x 81.3 x 7.6 cm (24 1/4 x 32 x 3 in.)
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund
1971.55.1
Not on View
From the Tour: Antwerp in the Early 1500s
Object 4 of 7

Massys settled in Antwerp in 1491, soon becoming its leading painter and an influential citizen. His fame was enhanced by stories, probably exaggerations of the truth, that he had been a blacksmith and taught himself to paint. Among his acquaintances were several of the city's leading humanists. Perhaps his contacts with these men prompted Massys to take up the kind of moralizing secular subject seen here.

An old lecher, whom Massys modeled after a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, fondles a willing young woman. She meanwhile slips his purse to a gnomelike accomplice in a fool’s cap. The large, brightly lit figures press close to the front of the painting, as if seen through a window. This separation makes us aware that we are witnesses of the scene, not participants, and therefore free to judge and make a moral choice. Messages like this one about the consequences of vice were familiar to audiences in Antwerp, not only from books like Sebastian Brandt’s Ship of Fools and Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, but from a large body of popular poetry and from moralizing skits performed during city festivals. Massys’ painting evokes these lines from an anonymous Dutch poet:

A rover—short, old, and free
With purse running over with gold,
Took a Venusberg lass for a spree
Who took clients like him in her hold.
That lass has her loose, lowly wiles,
Undoing his purse with its glut
While showing a face full of smiles
Like the grin of a flat halibut.

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