Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mercy in Mercantile Times

[Gabriel Metsu, Userer with Tearful Woman, 1654, Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

Mercy in Mercantile Times

Seventeenth Century Dutch painters were devoted to painting scenes from everyday life, with all its drama, humor, and social dynamics. These genre paintings served as social commentary and in some cases were meant to deliver moral lessons. This certainly seems to be the case with this painting by Gabriel Metsu (1629-1627). He has staged a scene that shows us a forlorn woman in tears (kerchief appropriately upstage) standing before a money lender or "userer." In her foreground lower hand she hold the remnants of a document--probably a promissory note or other legal docuemt. She has clearly come to plead her case. Looking at the money lender's face, the indication is one of scorn or judgment. One can easily surmise that there is a debt owed and not enough money to pay it. It is doubtful that it is her debt given the monetary practices of the times. Gender equity in the financial sphere is still an evolving ideal. Perhaps a husband gone off to sea and not returned. While it is difficult to be that precise with this painting, it was the birth of mercantilism and international trade that also provided the primary cause for the growth of lending and borrowing, the amassing of wealth and broken lives.

In keeping with the prevaling view of the time, usury was looked at as a necessary evil (in the truest sense of the idiom). Metsu doesn't really look favorably on either side of the transaction--the coldness of the money lender who can barely be bothered to look up at his client, the helplessness and vulnerability of the woman who really has few options. The userer wears his cloak almost as a protection from her. But the painter's real point is made through subtleties and painterly devices. In the left background behind the money lender's head is a folded sheet of paper or canvas. On that surface, there is a portion of a face looking at the scene with both interest and some judgment. Whose face is that? It seems religious, possibly Jesus or John. While there is a near subliminal moral overtone set by this aspect in the painting, there is an overt indication of the artist's perspective in his use of light and shadow on the woman's purse. At first glance it looks as if cloth or the liner has been pulled out of the bag. But it is no accident that the light catches it in such a way as to look like a hand reaching into the bag. This can be nothing other than the artist's projection of his view of how the money lender operates.

It is interesting to me that the real attitudes and feelings about money and the relational transactions were relegated to subsidiary details. To address them directly was taboo then as it is now. Of course, the history of and attitudes about lending and borrowing have evolved since the 17th Century. But given the degree of consumer debt and the precarious state of the economy, I could imagine this scene playing out many times over in modern dress and on the telephone. One hopes the quality of mercy prevails.

John Bloom © 2006