The scene shows two men with faces contorted in concentration and greed. The man on the right points at a ledger, which is being filled in by his colleague on the left. The wealth of both men is suggested by their rich, albeit anachronistic, clothing. The exchange rates in the ledger are written in French. These give valuable clues to the dating of the picture, as the rates listed first came into use on 11 July 1548 and were superseded on 16 December 1551. The language used for the ledgers in the various versions of this painting differs between Dutch and French. The French language in the present work probably indicates that it was painted for a French patron, or perhaps the artist lived in a French-speaking area of the Netherlands. The crowded nature of the scene, with the two figures positioned tightly together and the desk placed impossibly close to the door, lends the painting an uncomfortable atmosphere. The table is littered with coins, which are being evaluated by the men according to the latest exchange rates. The two figures have traditionally been called ‘Misers’ (this is retained in the title of the present work), but are most likely tax collectors. The scene is intended to amuse the viewer with its caricature-like features and colourful costumes. However, the underlying message is a warning against greed, because life is short, as symbolised by the flame of the candle which will soon burn out.
Image rights: Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II
'The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein'
Kate Heard and Lucy Whitaker
ISBN 978 1 905686 32 2
Probably acquired by Queen Anne