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Friday, February 20, 2015

Gabriel Metsu

A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing, ca. 1654-1656, Gabriel Metsu (a self-portrait).                      
It's no great revelation that tastes change, whether in music, painting, architecture, sculpture, or any other of the fine arts. Indeed, a case could be made that the same is true in virtually all cultural contexts. People tire of the old, or just as often discover excitement and delight in that which is new, sometimes even at the expense of what was clearly better in the old. The changing of cultural tastes can be slowly evolutionary or dizzyingly revolutionary. The Greeks had it right when the coined the phrase, "Fame is fleeting." Records are made to be broken. Words are made to be misspoken. Actors, entertainers, writers, poets, and painters are made to be tokens of the times in which we live. During the times in which Gabriel Metsu lived during the mid-1600s fame as a Dutch painter was second only to that of Rembrandt (at his height) and probably exceeded that of Jan Vermeer, the other Dutch painting icon of that period. Surprisingly, that's the way it remained for over two-hundred years.

Vegetable Market in Amsterdam (detail), ca. 1657-1661, Gabriel Metsu, one of his earlier works demonstrating a highly refined painting technique and eye for details.
(The image above depicts only the lower two-thirds of the painting.)
Jan Vermeer was about three years younger than Metsu, and out lived him by some eight years. Vermeer lived and worked from Delft. Metsu was from Leiden just a few miles north. It's uncertain whether the two were acquainted but there's little doubt Vermeer knew of Metsu's work and it's likely the reverse was true. They were, in fact, to some degree, competitors in the highly evolved world of Dutch Golden Age painting. There is a striking resemblance in most of Vermeer's beloved interiors to some of those painted by Metsu. How do we know it wasn't the reverse, that Metsu may have been influenced by Vermeer? Well, aside from their age difference, the evidence is circumstantial in that neither artists was all the scrupulous in dating their works. However, we have some 133 works by Metsu which have survived (fourteen dated), while Vermeer's surviving pieces number around 32 with two or three more in dispute.
An Old Woman Baking Pancakes,
with a Boy, c. 1655-58, Gabriel Metsu
Diana and her Nymphs,
1655-56, Jan Vermeer
The Poultry Seller, 1662,
Gabriel Metsu
It is Vermeer's earliest works from the mid-1650s when he was just getting started that are most interesting in this regard. Diana and Her Nymphs (above, left) from around 1655 is one of his earliest. Gabriel Metsu was already an established artist by this time. Old Woman Baking pancakes with a Boy (above, right) dates from around the same period. The similarities are striking. Vermeer's lighting seems based upon that of Metsu, who seems to display a greater degree of expertise in handling his figures and their details. Moreover, it's unlikely Metsu would have taken to imitating a novice painter such as Vermeer, despite Vermeer's obvious talent. Likewise, there is little more than conjecture as to who Vermeer may have studied under (if anyone). He's often thought to have been self-taught, which would have made any influence by the elder Metsu all the more likely.

The Sick Child, ca. 1664-66,
Gabriel Metsu
Gabriel Metsu was born in 1629, the son of tapestry worker and painter from whom he likely picked up his initial training at an early age. Metsu became one of the earliest painters' guild members in Leiden around 1648 (age nineteen). Although he garnered the patronage of one or two wealthy families for whom he painted portraits and personalized genre scenes such as his 1661 A Visit to the Nursery (below) set in fictionalized settings, the majority of his works were modest in size and seem to have been aimed at the traditional, middle-class art market, which was wildly lucrative at the time. Although there are two or three examples of the kind of lighting and interior composition as in Metsu's The Sick Child, (right), that can also be seen in Vermeer's, it would seem that Vermeer later tended to standardize his efforts, almost invariably lighting them from the left, staging them in a room of modest size and décor repeated in various configurations. There is very much a sameness to the vast majority of Vermeer's modest number of reliably attributed works. Beyond that, there seems to be an ever-present empathy in Metsu's work not seen in Vermeer's.

A Visit to the Nursery, 1661, Gabriel Metsu, painted for the Hinlopen family.

The Drinker, 1650-67, Gabriel Metsu
It has long been generally accepted that Vermeer employed a fairly large and sophisticated camera obscura built into his studio which he utilized in laying out his images on canvas (which accounts for much of the sameness mentioned above). Not to impugn Vermeer's skill as a painter, but Metsu's works shows no evidence of any such reliance. Their settings are so varied, and the camera obscura's lighting demands so rigid as to virtually eliminate such a possibility. Metsu seems to have enjoyed most the painting of the neighborhood "characters" surrounding him, the town drunk titled, The Drinker (right), or merchants selling their work through windows (sort of 17th-century drive-thrus) such as his Baker Blowing His Horn (below, left) from around 1660-63. As was also common at the time, Metsu sometimes painting various popular scenes from the Bible such as his undated Noli Me Tangere (below, right). As compared to these, Metsu's Dead Cockerel (bottom) seems strangely out of context. It seems doubtful even the Dutch would have wanted a dead rooster hanging from their living room wall...the kitchen, maybe.

Noli Me Tangere,
Gabriel Metsu
A Baker Blowing His Horn,
 ca. 1660-1663, Gabriel Metsu

The Dead Cockerel, 1650-59, Gabriel Metsu


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