Today’s post is rather unusual, since it’s about a copy of a better known painting. Some of you may already be familiar with The Moneylender and his Wife by Quentin Massys, a moralizing artwork about the depravity of money that keeps a couple away from spiritual enlightenment. It’s a highly complex painting, with lots of symbolism and visual tricks.
Twenty-four years later, when Dutch artist Marinus van Reymerswaele redid the same artwork, some of its beauty got lost – mainly the vibrant colors, intricate details and the depth of the scene. So you’re probably wondering, and rightfully so, why would I choose the lesser known, simpler painting. If you’re guessing it’s because of the kick-ass hat that the moneychanger is wearing, then yes, you’d be right. But not entirely. That haute couture extravaganza deserves a post of its own. What intrigued me more, however, was van Reymerswaele’s talent in revealing the psychology of his subjects.
The Moneychanger and his Wife is, to a large extent, identical in its composition to The Moneylender and his Wife. A moneychanger and his spouse are completely immersed in counting and weighing their copper, silver and gold coins on a small scale, with the woman forgetting about the scripture book she was reading. Compared to Massys’ version, here the couple looks far more focused and intent. The man is slightly frowning, as if in the midst of deep concentration, while his wife is leaning on her right arm, away from her book, to have a better view of the money. Her left hand looks like a claw, ready to snatch the coins. There is considerably more tension in this version, van Reymerswaele doing a stellar job at capturing their greed and preoccupation. The couple in the original painting, on the other hand, looks serene and calm, the woman even seeming absent minded.
Another important distinction is that van Reymerswaele’s background is messy and chaotic. The piles of books and sheets reveal the moral disorder and character of the subjects and, just like in the original painting, the snuffed candle is a reminder of their mortality.
Van Reymerswaele redid this artwork several times. His 1539 version, at the Prado Museum, is more technical and visually intricate, with a greater emphasis on the clutter and disorder. Too bad the hat doesn’t look as good.
So, which one is your favorite version?