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The pairing of unequal couples has a literary history dating back to antiquity when Plautus, a Roman comic poet from the 3rd–century BC, cautioned elderly men against courting younger ladies. By the late–15th and early–16th centuries, the coupling of old men with young women or old women with young men had become popular themes in northern European art and literature.

This painting provides a clear illustration of the ideas that old age, especially lecherous old age, leads to foolishness—with the fool participating in the deception by helping to rob the old man's purse—and that women's sexual powers cause men to behave absurdly and to lose their wits and their money. The deck of cards may allude to competition between the sexes, morally loose or amorous behavior, and the loss and gain of money through gambling.

The painting is an example of Massys' ability to assimilate elements from both northern and Italian art. Apparently familiar with Leonardo da Vinci's grotesque drawings of physiognomy and distortion, Massys adapted the facial type for the old lecher from one of Leonardo's caricatures, and the complicated pose of the suitor from Leonardo's lost drawing of an ill–matched pair, known today through a later copy.

More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication Early Netherlandish Painting, which is available as a free PDF


Probably Steven Wils the younger [d. 1628], Antwerp.[1] Probably Herman Neyt [d. 1642], Antwerp.[2] James-Alexandre, comte de Pourtalès-Gorgier [1776-1855], Paris; his heirs; (Pourtalès-Gorgier sale, his hôtel, Paris, 27 March-4 April 1865, no. 176). Comtesse de Pourtalès;[3] Comte Edmond de Pourtalès [d. 1895], Paris, by 1888;[4] by descent to Comtesse de Pourtalès, Paris.[5] Count Bismarck, Paris and New York, by the late 1940's.[6] (Spencer A. Samuels, New York), by 1969; purchased 7 October 1971 by NGA.

Exhibition History

Exposition des primitifs flamands et d'art ancien, Hôtel de Gouvernement Provincial, Bruges, 1902, no.359.

Technical Summary

The painting is in good condition. There is repaint along the join of the two horizontal boards. The face and body of the fool as well as the faces of the woman and the old man contain small, scattered areas of repaint. A portion of the woman's chest, above the bodice, has been repainted, and a painted crackle pattern has also been added. The fool appears to have two pupils in his proper left eye. The pupil at the right is more like the other eyes in the painting and is probably the original. The left pupil might be a remnant of an abraded shadow or an old restoration. On the reverse, at lower right corner, is a partially destroyed red resinous seal.


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Hulin de Loo, Georges. Exposition de tableaux flamands des XIVe, XVe, et XVIe siècles. Catalogue critique. Exh. cat. Hôtel du Gouvernement Provincial, Bruges. Ghent, 1902: 101, no. 359.
Hymans, Henri. "L'Exposition des primitifs flamands à Bruges." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 28 (1902): 303.
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