Our painting represents a mildly satirical scene with a city treasurer controlling the ledger of a tax collector. Both men wear clothes and hats from a century earlier. The exact meaning of this composition must have been clear to contemporary viewers, but has since then long been lost.
Many, over sixty, versions exist of this composition, of which the original must have been painted in the first half of the 16th century, either by Quinten Massys, or by Marinus van Reymerswaele.
Our panel painting must originally have been larger and of a vertical format. It dates from the second half of the 16th century. On the left page of the ledger is written a date: 1578. The use of smalt, grinded blue cobalt glass, for the colour of the chaperon of the tax collector is indeed typical in Flanders during that period.
About the tax collectors
The subject of our painting has long been unclear: misers, tax collectors, money lenders or even a banker and his client.
In fact our painting represents two tax collectors.
The man at left with the pen is actually a city treasurer. He is inspecting and transcribing the accounts for the past seven months of the tax collector, who sits at his right. The public office of tax collector was in those days auctioned off, rented to private individuals. The tax collector had to pay to the government a stipulated amount of money, whatever he made on top of that was his gain.
The costumes that both men are wearing are archaic, dating from the 15th century. The city treasurer, sitting at left, is dressed in a richer way. He is conscientiously doing his job while the right figure, the tax collector, who is being audited, has a greedy grin. With his pointing forefinger and gaze out of the painting he connects with the viewer, almost challenges us to check the entries in the ledger.
Both the red turban of the left man and the chaperon of the right man already appeared in paintings by Jan van Eyck and should again be associated with wealth. Maybe these elaborate headpieces represent the pharisaic bonnets worn by Netherlandish rhetoricians, and which would have been understood by contemporaries to signify hypocrisy.
Our painting should be seen as a moral dilema, as a form of criticism on taxes, on avarice, in fact on the concept of a money economy. But because both men are dressed in an old way from a century earlier we can not consider it as criticism of the contemporary reality. This subject must probably not have been overtly satirical as it retains some characteristics of so-called professional portraits.
About our composition
At least sixty 16th and even early 17th century versions exist of this popular, iconic composition, all of different quality.
It is thought that all may reflect a lost original by Jan van Eyck (circa 1390 – 1441), seen by Marcantonio Michiel in the collection of Camillo and Niccolo Lampognano in Milan circa 1520.
The question remains open as to which painting should be seen as the original source for all these versions:
- the moneychanger and his wife by Quinten Massys (Metsys) of circa 1514 from the Louvre?
- the tax collectors by Quinten Massys of the late 1520s from the Lichtenstein Collection in Vaduz and in Vienna?
- the tax gatherers by Marinus van Reymerswaele, probably of the 1540s, from the National Gallery in London?
About eye glasses
The city treasurer in our painting wears eyeglasses.
Eyeglasses (“discs for the eyes”) seem to have been invented in Italy, probably in Pisa, during the late 13th century. Florence, which already had a large glass industry, became an important production centre. Following the invention by Guttenberg of the printing press during the middle 15th century and the availability of books, newspapers and engravings to the ‘common’ man, its use became widespread. These early spectacles did not have sides yet; they were used as a pince-nez. Therefore they were not easy to keep in place. While reading one had to hold his head back or simply hold them in place with one hand. The best lenses were produced in Italy (Florence), the best frames in Germany (Nuremberg en Regensburg).
The chaperon of the tax collector, sitting at right, must originally have been deep blue. Its strange greenish colouring actually help to date our painting, as it was painted with “smalt”.
Smalt was a cheaper pigment of blue, used mainly in the second half of the 16th and the very start of the 17th century. It was cheaper than azurite blue and much cheaper than ultramarine blue, which was made of Afghan lapis lazuli (that typical blue that you also find on the mask of Tutanchamun).
Smalt was actually made of grinded blue cobalt glass. The problem with smalt, which only arose after some time, maybe even after a few decades after the painting was finished, is that the blue glass particles sink within the oil that binds the oil paint. Result: blue turned into a greenish-brownish tonality. Actually the larger the glass particles, the less smalt has kept its original blue colour.
Smalt can of course be “restored” to its original blue colouring, but to me this would seem to be a pity, as its use dates the painting.
About Quinten Massys
Leuven 1466 – 1530 Antwerp
His last name is also spelt Metsys or Matsys.
Painter of religious subjects and of portraits, genuine and satirical ones.
It is said to Massys started as an ironsmith. According to Karel van Mander Massys turned to painting when, during sickness, he was too weak to work at the smithy.
In 1491, aged 25, he settled as a Master of the Guild of Painters in Antwerp. It is not known whom he studied painting under in Leuven.
His career coincides with the growing importance of Antwerp, while Bruges lost its position as prime harbour and business centre of Flanders.
About Marinus van Reymerswael
Reimerswaal 1490/95 – 1546/56 Goes
Painter of religious scenes and of genre scenes.
Van Reymerswael was born in the homonymous town in Zeeland. He studied at Leuven university in Flanders in 1504. In 1509 he became a pupil in Antwerp of Symon van Daele, a glass painter. He is not known as a pupil of Quinten Massys, though he was very strongly influenced by him. Nor is he recorded as a Master active in Antwerp.
He is documented in his birthplace between 1533 and 1640 and from 1540 until 1546 in nearby Goes, also in Zeeland.
His choice of subjects was limited, but he was very successful with them.
About our painting
Our painting dates from the second half of the 16th century. In the right page of the ledger one can read a date: 1578.
Two of the other versions of this composition are also dated: 1537 and 1552. But one might wonder as to the reliability of these dates.
Our horizontal painting must originally have been part of a larger, vertical composition:
- all other versions of the tax collectors have indeed a vertical format;
- in 16th and also in 17th century panel painting the grain direction of vertical oak panels would always be vertical. In our horizontal painting the grain direction is not horizontal, bu vertical;
- in the upper left part of our composition one sees a diagonal line: this is actually the lower part of the bird’s tail of a parakeet that appears in several of the other versions of the Tax collectors.
This might indeed be a rather shocking revelation, but then again when you have a close look at our comparative works you will see that the composition of a fair number of them have been cut not horizontally, but vertically.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because, although a fragment of a larger composition, comparable to the one of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, it is a very nice, independent painting of very good and very detailed quality.