Yesterday’s painting by Jan Gossaert was termed an “occupational portrait” and today I offer you another one. This painting entitled The Moneychanger and his Wife was painted by the Dutch artist Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele in 1539. It is almost certainly an adaption of a painting of a similar name painted in 1514 by the Dutch painter Quentin Massys whom he met whilst in Antwerp,. Marinus was born in 1490 in the “lost coastal city” of Reimerswaal , which was flooded in 1530 and totally lost to the sea in 1634. He studied at the University of Leuven in 1504 and trained as a painter in Antwerp in 1509. He was known for his satirical paintings.
It is interesting to note that the Spanish Association of Accounting and Business Administration (Associatión Española de Contabilidad y Administración) (AECA) adopted a section of this painting as a symbol of their association.
The reason they wanted to use it was given as:
“The painting which has inspired our logotype is internationally famous as an image of financial activity during the Renaissance: it shows a scene typical of the counting house of a banker of the period. The subject of the pair of moneychangers shows us a new profession which has appeared in the period, a profession related to the world of finance, taxes and commercial accounts. Reymerswaele adapts the subject of the banker and his wife from Massys’s painting now in the Louvre in Paris. In Reymerswaele’s painting, the bourgeois married couple are seen counting out gold and silver coins, and the husband is weighing them with great care in a small set of scales, since most of them would be clipped or scraped. The coins are probably the product of tax-collection, an exchange of foreign currency or the repaying of a loan. This would imply the use of the abacus which the banker has at his right on the table, and then the setting out of accounts in the accounts book which the wife is holding in her delicate fine hands.”
Take a close look at the two figures in the painting. They both exude an air of elegance in their wearing of expensive and lavish clothes. There is a definite air of opulence. Puyvelde, the Flemish art historian, wrote that the realist portrait of the Moneychanger and his Wife is a caricature of rapacious and greedy business people commenting that “the profit motive is more clearly marked in the faces and thin fingers” In sixteenth century painting, long curved fingers was a sign of greed or even avarice. Long fingers and long noses were also used to represent Jews. The male person in this painting could well be Jewish and at this time, as it is nowadays, the Jews played a very important part in the economic activity of Flanders. In those days the main bankers were Italian Lombards but the Jews acted as money lenders to the less wealthy members of the public such as butchers and bakers. Unfortunately, many of those who borrowed the money had trouble repaying their loans and this probably reinforced the strong anti-Semitic feeling which was prevalent at the time.
The Prado museum guide comments on the painting:
“In this painting we find all the characteristics of Northern European painters: minute detail, fine quality raw material, an empirical approach to reality, and above all, the naked sordidness with which Van Reymerswaele approaches one of the principal evils of his time: usury, the greater of all possible sins in a commercial society such as Flanders. Corruption and fraud affected all levels of society, even the clergy, producing a critical reaction on the part of writers, theologians and artists”.
Most art historians have seen in Reymerswaele’s paintings a satirical and moralising symbolism, The Money Changer and his Wife being the representation of greed. Others think that the picture shows economic activity in a respectable way. Flanders at that time was the centre of a flourishing industrial and commercial activity, and also was the centre of a mercantile trade in works of art. Both things led to a representation of the professional activity of moneychangers, goldsmiths, and bankers in a way that shows those activities as respectable professions. The second view is the one implicitly shared by economists when choosing this picture to illustrate many books on economics or business
So, what do you make of the picture?