Economic Activity as Reflected in Painting:

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  • Topic: Early Netherlandish painting, Flemish painters, Quentin Matsys
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  • Published : January 20, 2012
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ECONOMIC ACTIVITY AS REFLECTED IN PAINTING:
THE CONTRASTING VIEWS OF ECONOMISTS AND ART HISTORIANS [1]

Manuel Santos-Redondo
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

[las diferencias con respecto al Documento de Trabajo disponible en la Web estan subrayadas]

1. Introduction
The Moneychanger and his Wife is probably the picture most widely used to illustrate economic activity, and so it is (supposedly) well known by economists, managers, and accountants. The accounting book which appears in the picture is the origin of former AECA (Spanish Association of Accounting and Business Administration) logotype. It is a Flemish painting from the early 16th century. Not so many economists are, however, aware that there are two different versions of this picture: one by Quentin Massys, painted about 1514 (now in Paris, the Louvre), and another by Marinus (Claeszon) van Reymerswaele, painted in 1539 (now in Madrid, in the Prado).

There are significant changes between the two versions. This being the Scholastic period and also the epoch of the commercial revolution in Europe, we would expect this picture to have some sort of economic meaning, and for the changes in the pictures to reflect these changes in economic activity and economic thought. We will argue in this paper that there does exist such a meaning; and that also the very important changes between Massys’s and Reymerswaele’s pictures have much to do with the economic changes in Europe in the beginning of the 16th century.

Most art historians have seen in Massys' and Reymerswaele's paintings a satirical and moralising symbolism, The Money Changer and his Wife being the representation of greed. Others think that the picture shows economic activity in a respectable way. Flanders at that time was the centre of a flourishing industrial and commercial activity, and also was the centre of a mercantile trade in works of art. Both things led to a representation of the professional activity of moneychangers, goldsmiths, and bankers in a way that shows those activities as respectable professions. The second view is the one implicitly shared by economists when choosing this picture to illustrate many books on economics or business.

Some scholars have proposed more subtle interpretations. Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, the historian of economic thought who first aroused the interest of economists in the Spanish Scholastics of "School of Salamanca", considers Massys' painting to be an illustration of the intention of Scholastics to make compatible the commercial customs of the time with Church doctrine on usury. According to her interpretation, Massys' painting would mean the money lender working and, at the same time, discussing with his wife the fairness of a particular commercial deal, helped by the religious book his wife is reading.

It is important to notice that, 25 years on, the book in Reymerswaele’ painting is no longer a religious work but an accounting book. But art historians claim that there is still some symbolism in the painting which gives it a moralising and satirical intent. According to them, this symbolism was clear to contemporaries but not to us; or sometimes would have been intentionally difficult to notice for those contemporaries who were not in the same religious group as the painter or his client. For instance, the long, curved fingers of the bourgeois couple allegedly represented avarice. But Reymerswaele painted the fingers of Saint Jerome in the same way , so it must have an aesthetic intention and not a symbolic one.

In the process of reviewing the different interpretations provided by art historians of this picture and other similar ones, we shall see that they are consistent with the views that most art historians share about the economy (as Hayek points out in his chapter of The fatal conceit, 1988, "The Mysterious World of Trade and Money") rather than based on any objective interpretation of the...
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