While retaining the meticulous technique developed by his Netherlandish forbearers, Jan Massys moved throughout his career toward a refined mannerist style that paid tribute to Italian art. Jan Massys was born the talented son of Quentin Massys, the leading painter in Antwerp in the early decades of the 16th century. Despite this prestigious ancestry, little is securely known of Jan’s seemingly peripatetic career. Along with his brother Cornelis, Jan most probably took over his father’s workshop upon the latter’s death in 1530. He was admitted as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp two years later. Scant documentation in Antwerp until 1555 has led scholars to believe that Jan travelled extensively during his early years of activity. Based on stylistic affinities, it is possible that he sojourned in Fontainebleau, at the court of Francis I who fostered a vibrant school of painting. The artist is known to have visited Italy around 1549. On his return to Antwerp circa 1555, Jan embarked on a period of sustained activity, possibly triggered by a series of financial hurdles. His work appears to have been held in high esteem by his contemporaries, as he was employed by the city council and his name frequently features in local inventories. Although Jan’s style is much indebted to his father’s, his predilection for alluring depictions of the female nude became a feature unique to his art. Using the biblical narrative as a pretext for his iconic renditions of the female form, Jan turned time and again to biblical heroines such as Lot’s daughters (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique), Judith (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), and Bathsheba (Paris, Musée du Louvre).
A particularly popular biblical heroine in the Netherlands, Mary Magdalene is the focus of the present painting. Behind the saint, a luxurious velvet curtain has been pulled back to reveal fanciful, classicizing architecture amidst verdant hills. The color of the landscape and drapery echo the emerald tonality of the Magdalene’s embroidered, gem-studded bodice, the delicacy of which is enhanced by the gossamer texture of her chemise, its transparency conveyed with remarkable skill. Enveloped in a sumptuous red cloak, her cheeks flushed and blond hair carefully coiffed and bejeweled, the Magdalene is a seductive vision of feminine ideals of beauty as they were defined in the age of Jan Massys. Cradled in her arms, her attribute, an ointment jar, serves as a marker of her virtue, recalling the moment she humbly anoints Christ’s feet.
Jan Massys prominently signed and dated the painting 1571 beneath the ledge at left. The painting appears to have been unknown to Max J. Friedländer and Leontine Buijnsters-Smets, who respectively published a remarkably similar Magdalene that was formerly in the Guimbail collection as an autograph work by Massys (see M. J. Friedlander, Early Netherlandish Painting, XIII, New York and Washington, 1975, p. 76, no. 34, pl. 18; and L. Buijnsters-Smets, Jan Massys. Een Antwerps schilder uit de zestiende eeuw, Zwolle, 1995, p. 205, no. 42). The dimensions of that painting and the present lot are nearly identical, but compositions differ in several respects, including the arrangement of the drapery folds and the rendition of the saint’s face. Indeed, the ex-Guimbail Magdalene’s features are more wooden and overall the execution is far less refined than that of the present painting. Accordingly, the ex-Guimbail painting must surely now be considered to be at best a secondary, workshop version of the present lot, which should be regarded as the prime version of Jan Massys’s composition.
We are grateful to Maria Clelia Galassi for endorsing the attribution to Massys on the basis of a photograph (private communication, 17 November 2020), who notes the painting’s excellent quality. Dr. Galassi will include the painting, which is one of the last dated works by the artist, in her forthcoming monograph, JAN MASSYS (c.1510 - 1573). A Renaissance Painter of the Flemish Beauty.