Portrait of an unknown man (ca. 1515)


This portrait of the artist Joos van Cleve shows a man with paper and coins, a possible reference to his profession as a merchant. Van Cleve counted many merchants among his clientele, who quickly amassed a lot of wealth due to the rise of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages. The growing wealth of merchants and guild masters created a new middle class, which acquired rights of citizenship thanks to their wealth. As a result, they were no longer subordinate to the nobility and clergy and were able to gain influence in the administration of cities. 

Joos van Cleve worked in Antwerp in the first half of the 16th century. During this period, the city of Antwerp grew into a prosperous and important port city. The power and wealth of the merchants grew steadily, partly due to trade with overseas territories. This trade had however also a downside, not everyone benefited from this growing prosperity. This imbalance between labour and prosperity has only increased ever since. Those who had amassed wealth became richer, without doing any work.