Quentin Matsys (Dutch: Quinten Matsijs) (1466–1530) was a painter in the Flemish tradition and a founder of the Antwerp school. He was born at Leuven, where he was trained as an ironsmith. Near the front of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp is a wrought-iron well, known as the "Matsys Well," which according to tradition was made by the painter-to-be.
During the greater part of the 15th century, the centres in which the painters of the Low Countries most congregated were Tournai, Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. Leuven gained prominence toward the close of this period, employing workmen from all of the crafts. Not until the beginning of the 16th century did Antwerp take the lead which it afterward maintained against Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Mechelen and Leuven. Matsys, as a member of Antwerp's Guild of Saint Luke, was one of its first notable artists.
A legend relates how Matsys, while a smith in Leuven, fell in love with the daughter of a painter; by changing his trade to painting, he hoped that she would love him in return. Less poetic but perhaps more likely is another version of the story: Quentin's father, Josse Matsys, was clockmaker and architect to the municipality of Leuven. The question arose as to which of his sons, Quentin or Josse, should follow in this lucrative business. Josse the son elected to succeed the father. Quentin then took up the study of painting.
We are not told expressly by whom Matsys was taught, but his style seems to have derived from the lessons of Dirk Bouts, who brought to Leuven the influence of Memling and van der Weyden. When Matsys settled at Antwerp at the age of twenty-five, his own style contributed importantly to reviving Flemish art along the lines of van Eyck and van der Weyden.
What characterizes Matsys in particular is a strong religious feeling, an inheritance 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 had predecessors in the pictures of Matsys, though he was not inclined to use them in the same homely way. From the example of van der Weyden comes Matsys' firmness of outline, clear modelling and thorough finish of detail; from the van Eycks and Memling by way of Dirck Bouts, the glowing richness of transparent pigments.
The date of his departure 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 subdued effects of light or shade. Matsys, like the early Flemish painters, lavishes care on jewelry, edgings of garments, and ornament in general.
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