The Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu has got it rough. Any show by Vermeer, his close colleague, is a blockbuster. The first Metsu survey in five decades just opened at the National Gallery in Washington, to zero fanfare. Things were once the other way around. For centuries, sophisticated audiences preferred Metsu’s detail-filled storytelling to Vermeer’s cryptic, detached observation.
In 1662—five years before Metsu died, at only 38—the Amsterdam poet Jan Vos sang Metsu’s praises: “Nature in her fruitfulness from spite alone can wither/Now she sees that life can be created from dead paint.” All Vermeer got was a mention in a poem on another artist, written by a printer from Delft.
In 1783 Louis XVI of France spent a fortune on a Metsu, then turned down two Vermeers.
Sixty years later, the writer John Smith declared “the superiority of Metsu over every artist in the Dutch school.” He called Vermeer one of Metsu’s “scholars and imitators.” As late as 1878, Vermeer’s Young Woman With a Water Pitcher set a record price only because it was sold as a Metsu.
Without unseating Vermeer, it’s worth trying to imagine ourselves back into the tastes of a Metsu-friendly past.
Vermeer’s star first rose in the 1850s, when critics decided he was great because he looked so modern. That was partly about how much his art looked like the new medium of photography.(Vermeer had used lenses in making his art.) It was also about Vermeer’s other “modern” qualities: his images are cool and cryptic and work brilliantly as coherent, flat compositions. They show few traces of the handicraft that made them.
Early aesthetes preferred what Metsu could give them: lots of independent, episodic bits of business to take in.
Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter has just the kind of plenty they liked: a lone slipper, a cute dog, a basket of laundry, a maid and a mistress and a curtain and a mirror and a painting, all set down in a range of impressively visible techniques. And it almost gives a lesson in how to look at pictures like itself. Instead of standing back and taking in the entire composition, the painting itself tells us to follow Metsu’s maid’s example and get close enough to stick our noses into the scene. A viewer of a Metsu should feel like a participant in it, not like a remote, Vermeer-ish voyeur.
See the three creatures in Metsu’s painting: they are all absorbed in their own looking, at different parts of the scene set before them and before us. If we could learn from them, we might learn to love Metsu.