Two strikingly ugly men in extraordinary clothing are seated at a table in a panelled interior. One writes in a ledger, the other – his features contorted into a sneer – grasps at a pile of coins. Documents, some of them legible, are piled on a cupboard behind the pair.
Marinus van Reymerswale and his workshop produced a number of versions of this very successful composition; many include manuscripts and legal documents that contain references to the town and inhabitants of Reymerswale, where Marinus probably spent much of his life.
All are satires of greed and corruption, and they might even have contained recognisable caricatures of officials from Reymerswale. Tax collectors were paid percentages of the revenues they collected, and had many incentives to extort every last mite from taxpayers. The two men, hideous in spite of their rich clothes, are vilified for their bureaucratic and legalistic greed.
Marinus van Reymerswale and his workshop produced a number of versions of this very successful composition. Many include manuscripts and legal documents that contain references to the town and inhabitants of Reymerswale, where Marinus probably spent much of his life (the town disappeared beneath the waters of the Ooster Schelde in the seventeenth century). Here, the ledger in which the man is writing contains an account of the town’s income over seven months, while on the shelf above his head is a deed issued in 1515 by two Reymerswale aldermen, including one Cornelis Danielsz. Other documents reference the Voxen family, whose members held various offices in the town in the first half of the sixteenth century.
The clothing would have looked old-fashioned to contemporary viewers: the red (now faded to pink) heart-shaped hat looks like those worn by stylish women in the mid-fifteenth century, and both hats are ‘dagged’ – or cut in the style of the early fifteenth century. The man on the left is a municipal official; in another version his ring is ornamented with the coat of arms of Reymerswale. These men might even have been recognisable caricatures of real people, possibly members of the Voxen family or associates of Danielsz., himself known for corrupt practices. His brother-in-law, Dirck Jansz., had bribed his way into his position as Burgomaster in 1516, and was a colleague of one Adriaen Adriaensz. Voxen.
This painting is a careful copy of a picture now in the Louvre, Paris. Simplified versions of the composition exist at Antwerp and Warsaw. The Paris painting is clearly the original – its underdrawing was done freehand, whereas that in our painting was traced. Our picture is not by the same artist as the Paris one: the technique is very different and, in some respects, more sophisticated. The artist of the National Gallery painting was better at transitions of tone and hue in the draperies, but less successful at highlights: the teeth and fingernails have an unnatural gleam. It may have been done by someone working in Marinus’s workshop, though not trained by him.
The number of versions indicate just how successful a scene this was, with variants showing a Banker and his Wife and Two Misers. All are satires of greed and corruption. Tax collectors were paid percentages of the revenues they collected, and had many incentives to extort every last mite from the tax-payers. The two men, hideous in spite of their rich clothes, are vilified for their bureaucratic and legalistic greed.
The same objects and documents appear in different versions, which continued to be produced during the ten or fifteen years after Marinus’s disappearance in 1545. The artists seem to have had access to Marinus’s pattern drawings and other reference material. They would have found such things in his workshop, or perhaps with his successors if they had continued to run his business after his death. The simplified versions are difficult to date, and some have inscriptions in French rather than Dutch. Marinus’s heirs may have been supplying an international market, or perhaps one or two of them moved south into the French-speaking areas of the Low Countries. The texts in the ledgers also change from version to version, and were perhaps open to different interpretations, though all were meant as attacks on avarice.
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