Quentin Matsys (also recorded as Quinten or Kwinten and Massys or Metsys) was born in Leuven in 1466.
During the 15th century, the centres in which the painters of the Low Countries most gathered were Bruges, Ghent and Brussels. Leuven gained prominence toward the end of this period, employing workmen from all of the crafts. In the beginning of the 16th century Antwerp took the lead which it afterward maintained against Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, Brussels, and Leuven. Matsys, as a member of the Antwerp guild, was one of its first leading artists.
We do not know by whom Matsys was taught, but his style seems to have derived from the art of Dirk Bouts, who himself was influenced by Memling and van der Weyden. When Matsys at the age of 25 settled at Antwerp, his own style contributed importantly to reanimate Flemish art along the lines of van Eyck and van der Weyden.
What characterizes Matsys in particular is a strong religious feeling. This feeling was impregnated by a realism which often favored the grotesque.
In 1491 he became a master in the guild of painters at Antwerp. Several of his altarpieces are now in public museums at Antwerp and at Brussels. They display an gravity in expression, a strictness of rendering, and subdued effects of light or shade. Matsys lavished care on edgings of garments, jewelry, and ornament in general.
Not much given to atmosphere, his paintings sometimes rely on the literalness of caricature: emphasizing the melancholy refinement of saints, the brutal grimaces and gestures of wardens and executioners. Painstaking effort is devoted to the expression of individual character.
But overall, the best pictures of Matsys are the quietest. They display a serene and dignified mastership, gaining in nuance and delicacy in the works of his maturity. It is believed that he may have seen the work of Leonardo da Vinci in the form of prints made and circulated among northern artists.
Matsys had considerable skill as a portrait painter. He was greatly influenced by Lucas van Leyden and Jan Mabuse. He may lack the subtle modelling of Holbein and Dürer. There is reason, however, to think him well acquainted with these German masters. He might have met Holbein more than once on his way to England. Dürer visited his house at Antwerp in 1520.
Matsys died at Antwerp in 1530.
The Ugly Duchess is perhaps hi best-known work. It served as an inspiration for John Tenniel's depiction of the Duchess in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.