by Cyndi Trang
April 2013

Early sixteenth-century Dutch portraits are full of interesting depth and details. Of particular interest are the Portrait of a Merchant and Money Changer and His Wife. Painted by Jan Gossaert in 1530, Portrait of a Merchant is a 25 1/16-by-18 11/16-inch oil painting which currently hangs in gallery 41 in the National Gallery of Art. The focal point of the painting is a white man shown from the bust up. The man is writing in an open journal and is in a black room with writing tools on a table in front of him. Money-Changer and His Wife is a portrait painted by Quinten Massys in 1514. This 27 3/4-by-26 3/8-inch oil painting currently hangs in the Louvre. The focal point of the painting is a husband and wife shown from the bust up. They are counting their money with a green table in front of them. Gossaert’s painting uses color and perspective similar to Quinten Massys’s Money Changer and His Wife.

Gossaert’s painting uses color to artfully depict different textures, thus expressing the quality of different items. In the painting, on the black background are two reams of white papers hanging on the wall on both sides of the man’s head. The two reams are crinkled around the edges and the papers in the back of the ream are brownish-yellow, creating a worn out and aged effect. The papers in front of the piles are white, which accurately reflects how newer papers are usually cleaner and crisper than old ones. The color he uses to paint the dagger also shows texture. The black dagger hangs horizontally from a golden, black, and gray coil dangling above the man’s head. Parts of it reflect a silver shine, which indicates that is probably made of steel. Thus, Gossaert remains true to the quality of the items.

This use of color to show texture and quality is persistent throughout the painting, but is best expressed in the man’s clothing and his jewels. He appears wealthy due to the quality of his clothes and rings. He wears four layers of clothing with the outermost layer descending to innermost layer as follows: red jacket, black tunic, brown shirt, and white shirt. Each layer has a rich color and minute details that add to the man’s smooth and wealthy look. His rich red jacket with black lining, white shirt, and brown shirt all have vine-like designs on them which contribute to the wealth of the fabric. His black tunic has horizontal, darker black stripes lining the front of it, each one centimeter apart, further adding to the details of the painting.  The white shirt protruding at the neck and wrists also has intricate, pearly, white bead designs lining it at the collar, which adds to the splendor of the clothing and hints at subtly portrayed wealth.

The man’s two rings also modestly hint at wealth due to their design and color. He has a pure golden ring on his left forefinger with the letters “IS” engraved in the center of the golden ring. On his left pinky is a golden ring with a square, ruby red gem in its center surrounded by golden swirls. All the objects in black have a curving, thicker outline which makes the objects even more visible and distinct from afar. Gossaert also emphasizes details by adding white dots of paint to the edges of the man’s sleeves. The technique appears like the artist had dipped the base of his brush with white paint and then dotted the sleeves’ edges. This technique gives the paint a different texture and helps create a more dynamic painting.

Similarly, Gossaert also uses perspective artfully in the painting. The depictions in the portrait are tilted about five degrees below the viewer; thus, the viewer appears to be looking down at the painting.  Hence, the man and objects in the painting are shown from a perspective that accurately depicts how the object should look from such an angle. For example, the table and open journal appear wider toward the viewer and narrow further away which creates a receding effect. The diameter in all the circular objects in the paining also depicts perspective. Their horizontal widths are wider than their vertical widths due to the angle at which they are depicted. The man’s face is also turned slightly ten degrees to the left of the viewer. Thus the artist shows more of the man’s left cheek and his right eye is smaller and at a lower angle compared to the left eye. Gossaert’s use of color and perspective is brilliant and similar to Massys.

Massys’ and Gossaert’s artworks are similar due to the paintings’ genre, colors, and perspective. Both are portrait paintings, although Massys’ depicts a man and his wife from the waist up. Both can be classified as genre paintings because they depict people doing a common day activity. Both also have elements of still life due to the inanimate objects placed on the table in the forefront of the paintings. Similar to the man in Gossaert’s painting, the main figures are also the main focus.

Massys also uses color to portray different textures and quality. For example, the golden coins on the table in front of the couple have a shine which reflects off their surface hinting at the possible texture of gold or copper. The transparent, glass jar in the left lower corner expresses the brilliant use of color due to its realism. The jar has a glass center with a copper bottom stand and copper ringed lid. The jar appears to be made of glass due to its vertical lines, opaque yellow greenish color, and distorted appearance that glass can have. The brown frock of the man, which is lined with fur, and the red dress of the lady, which is lined with fur, also have distinct details hinting at wealth. The furs on both garments are creating by quick, long brush strokes, thus giving it a fur-like texture. The materials for the clothing have rich, smooth color, which contributes to the underlying appearance of wealth. These uses of color to portray texture are skillfully exhibited and evident in Gossaert’s painting.

Massys and Gossaert also share similar knowledge of perspective due to their depiction of perspective. Just like Gossaert, Massys knew how to use perspective to depict depth. For example, the book and coins in Massy’s painting are wider when closer to the viewer and narrower away from the viewer. The most interesting use of perspective in this particular painting by Massys has to be the circular mirror in the forefront of the painting. The convex mirror reflects an image of a window showing the houses nearby. The viewer can tell the circular object is a mirror because the image it shows has a curve in the middle and the image is narrower towards the poles which are all characteristics that a round mirror would realistically portray.

Overall, Gossaert and Massy’s Portrait of a Merchant and Money-Changer and His Wife respectively, both represent how skillful early sixteenth-century portraits can be. The bold use of color to express subtle wealth and details is evident in both paintings. The clever use of perspective succeeds at realistically capturing life’s actions. In essence, both paintings are a wealth of interest and seem to encourage viewers to look deeper into the paintings for hidden meanings.

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