Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Tax Collectors

Marinus Van Reymerswaele (c.1493- c 1567)
The Tax Collectors
c. 1540s
Oil on oak panel
94.1 cm x 77 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

A nearly identical picture by Marinus Van Reymerswaele hangs in The National Gallery in London

However it would appear that the picture in The Louvre is the earlier work

Other simplified versions are in Antwerp and Warsaw. But the narrow range of themes which the artist painted were very popular. The existence of many old copies and studio repetitions is an indication of the popularity of his satirical critique of his subject matter.

It would appear from the writing on the various Deeds that the picture depicts two tax gatherers in the town of Reymerswaele.

In the fifteenth century Reymerswaele was the third most important town in Zeeland after Middelburg and Zierikzee. However disaster struck in 1530 with the Saint Felix Flood and Reymerswaele became a separate island. It was abandoned in 1631 and the town was submerged under the waters of the Ooster Schelde.

One of the few facts we know about Van Reymerswaele is that he was a Calvinist

The man on the left is entering into an account book the excise and tax revenues for the town for a period of seven months. He may be the Treasurer or Tax Collector of the town.

The other man who appears to be quite a grasping and unattractive fellow is either one of the collectors or Alternative Book-Keeper who was meant to keep an eye on the Treasurer or his surety

The tax collector or treasurer on the left is a rather extraordinary figure. He appears to be rather sexless, possibly feminine. This is emphasised by his rather extraordinary headgear which it is understood was popular amongst women in the mid-fifteenth century.

The man on the right is the picture of Avarice. His grasped hands, his sneering and contorted countenance. His gaze at the viewer of the picture is neither friendly nor welcoming, quite the opposite in fact. One eye seems to be bigger than the other.

These two gentlemen do not appear to be ordinary people.

As in Biblical times, tax collectors were not popular. At the time of the painting, the usurer, the miller, the money changer and the tax collector were commonly said to be "Lucifer`s Four Evangelists" It is unlikely that as a Calvinist Van Reymerswaele thought they were amongst the "Elect"

Tax collectors received a percentage of the tax collected. Therefore they were not disposed to remit taxes even from the poor and destitute

The taxes collected include imposts on miller`s fees (that is on flour and bread) and on the beer stall

It has been hypothesised that the present work and the many other known examples of its compositional type were in turn based upon a second, lost, derivation of Metsys' that was itself adapted by Marinus van Reymerswaele. See Lorne Campbell in The Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen. The Early Flemish Pictures, Cambridge, 1985

In two other versions of the painting the French texts on the ledgers put the message of the painting beyond all doubt:

"The avaricious man is never sated with money ... Have no care for unjustly gained riches for they will be of no profit to you on the day of reckoning and vengeance. Be therefore without avarice."

This message is reinforced by all the symbols in the painting especially the candlestick holder with the extinguished candle at the top of the work which looms over the scene below. Christ, the Light of the World, is not present. The two men are creatures of the Dark.