Jan Massys The Penitent Magdalene
The Penitent Magdalene
Click on the main picture to view details

Jan Massys ( Antwerp c. 1509 - Antwerp c. 1575 )

Jan Massys was born into a south Netherlandish family of artists. His father Quinten Metsys, who spelt his surname variously, was the leading painter of early 16th-century Antwerp. Jan worked in the style of his father, whose studio he may have taken over following his death in 1530. Two years later, though still under the age of majority, Jan was admitted as a master in the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp.

In 1544, together with his brother Cornelis and other artists, Jan was sentenced in his absence and exiled from Brabant because of his heretical sympathies. His wife remained in Antwerp, and he was registered as a fugitive. He may have gone to France, in particular to Fontainebleau, perhaps also to Germany; he was in Italy around 1549. In 1550 he tried to have his sentence reduced, and before 11 December 1555 he returned to Antwerp. After his return a series of court cases was brought against him by some of his brothers and sisters, because he had defaulted on the distribution of family inheritances. Despite his financial problems, or perhaps because of them, Jan was most productive as an artist during his second Antwerp period (1555–78), when almost all of his dated paintings were executed. Even the town council bought his work; for instance, in 1559–60 he sold them a Judgement of Solomon (untraced). Old inventories further reveal that his work enjoyed a certain degree of popularity. In 1569 he took on another apprentice, Olivier de Cuyper.

Only a few works may be attributed with any certainty to the first Antwerp period (1531–43). Jan probably copied a number of his father’s works, and they may even have collaborated before the latter’s death. Some works designed or left unfinished by Quinten were certainly completed by Jan. The first dated painting generally attributed to Jan is the St Jerome (1537; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum), which is completely in the style of Quinten. Only one signed and dated painting is known from the artist’s period in exile: a Virgin and Child (1552; Genoa).

Throughout his career Jan continued to work in a traditional style. He seems not to have had any contact with his more progressive contemporaries, such as Frans Floris and Jan Sanders van Hemessen. His satirical genre scenes, for example groups of courting couples and unequal lovers, are uninspired variations on themes already treated by his father. Jan stuck mainly to a small number of popular subjects, which he often repeated: the Virgin and Child, St Jerome and Mary Magdalene. However, he is best known as a painter of the female nude. As was often the case in the 16th century, he frequently used Old Testament, allegorical and mythological subjects as a pretext for the depiction of the nude. The sensuality of his figures is reminiscent of the works of the Fontainebleau school, a feature already evident in his early signed Judith (1543; Boston, MA, Museum of Fine Arts). His more mature style, of 1555–75, can be seen in compositions such as Bathsheba Bathing (Paris, Louvre), Lot and his Daughters and Susanna and the Elders (both Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts). Among his best works are versions of Flora (Venus Cythereia), one with a view of the harbour at Genoa (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum) and another with the shipping lanes of Antwerp in the background (1559; Hamburg, Kunsthalle). In these works a large-scale, classicizing figure reclines awkwardly in a rhetorical pose in the foreground, with a topographical view in the distance.

Massys is represented in the following collections: Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Brussels; Louvre, Paris; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Kunsthalle, Hamburg; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Palazzo Bianco, Genoa, amongst others.