Friday, January 1, 2010

Le Peseur d’or et sa femme, Quentin Metsys, 1514

In amongst the religious paintings of the Flemmish school, this wonderful painting “le Peseur d’or et sa femme” by Quentin Metsys (1514) is, in every way, at odds with those that surround it at its home in the Louvre. At first glance, it is a painting about the secular activity of counting money that sits between much larger religious oil on wood paintings. Similarly, its domestic interior seems far from the landscape backgrounds to Christ and his followers in other paintings. And again, unlike their neighbors, the man who weighs gold and his wife are realistic human figures with worldly desires. Indeed, as figures, there is something innocent and endearing about the fresh-faced Dutch couple engaged in a common activity of the day.

However, prolongued viewing of “le Peseur d’or et sa femme” reveals that it is about much more than the simple activity of weighing money, and they are anything but innocent. The fact that the wife cannot keep her eyes focused on the bible before her, eagerly overseeing, perhaps instructing, her husband’s work is the first indication of the painting’s gesture towards allegory. A preoccupation with counting money as a distraction from biblical studies is surely the bell of avarice, greed, desire and materialism. The two figures in the background, glimpsed through the open door most immediately appear as town gossips, again telling the tale of a fascination with worldly judgments and the power of knowledge, especially as it relates to the activities of the neighbors. The label of the painting in the Louvre goes even further when it declares the painting to be about vanity, its transience, and of course, with the symbols of the scales of justice, the denunciation of avarice and the celebration of honestv. And so the domestic scene branches outwards to embrace a moral lesson.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the mise-en-scène is the enigmatic mirrored object in the foreground. It is apparently a common case for the weights, and featured more than once in Dutch painting of the period. Again, it is both realist and metaphorical: at close range the mirrored surface depicts another man reading by a window. What he reads is obscured to the viewer, however, I am sure, like the mirror in the background of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434) the image in the reflection has kept art historians busy for years. Even without knowing the significance of the man reading, the opening up of the canvas to another spatial plane is extraordinary in 1514. And with the obvious reference to Van Eyck, the painting starts to speak about the relationship between the man and woman, the expression of love (here depicted through a common fascination with money) and the political and ethical opinions this raises.

And so, before long, what was at first glance a realist depiction of every day life becomes an allegorical lesson on mortal vices, a critique of materialism in the eyes of the church, and a subtle revellation of unstated desire.


John Muse said...

Hi, Frances. Can you say a bit more about a., the illustration in the book, which appears to reference the very woman reading it, b., the open doorway in the upper right, which appears to look across a courtyard into another door, and c., the position of her hands. Wicked weird.

Frances Guerin said...

I thought it was the bible, but then I read somewhere it was the book of hours which completely trashes my reading of it. The two figures look like town gossips - and for me, it's not the placement of the hands I find interesting, it's the hands themselves, they are like something out of an El Greco.