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Quentin Massys - The unequal couple (ill-matched lovers)

by Alexandra Tuschka

Young women whose true interest is financial and not at all genuine matters of the heart - this theme - also known as "unequal couples" or appropriately referred to in English as "ill-matched lovers" - enjoyed great popularity in the Netherlands of the late 15th to mid-16th century. Here, most depictions of the subject follow a fairly clear scheme: against a dark, undefined background are two people, clearly distinguished by age and coloring. The women, with their high foreheads, thin lips, pale skin and delicate fingers, correspond to the ideal of beauty of the time, while the old man in the picture, with dark, dirty skin and a mostly lecherous and toothless smile, forms the unaesthetic opposite. The close-up view allows the artists to depict the age differences in a particularly drastic and obvious way. Although the ladies smile and, as here, often gesture their affection to the gentleman, the true motivation for this love affair becomes clear all too quickly. One reach into the old man's purse and some of the money disappears into his own pockets. The fool that Massys included in the picture makes it all too clear how quickly a man can be made a fool of.

A compositional peculiarity in this work is the apparent extension of the man's arm. By overlapping with the woman's green velvet dress, one might think that he himself is handing the wad of money over to the fool - were it not for the unmasking finger on the woman's chest, on which a jeweled ring flashes. Massys gives his figures slightly caricatured features. The man's dark hand claws into the girl's hair and could not be clearer in its gesture. The jester comments on the game with a click of his tongue. He is already courageously grabbing the wad of money, which is handed to him backwards. The "power of women" was an omnipresent theme of the artists of the time and the "unequal couple" a welcome example of the seductive power of women, who can make fools of men. Rarer by far, but nevertheless present, we find - among others in Cranach - the distribution of roles also vice versa.  

Quentin Massys - The unequal couple

Oil on canvas, 1520 - 1525, 43,2 x 63 cm, National Gallery of Art in Washington DC


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