Why buy a Vermeer when a Metsu is available?”
So said a Parisian art dealer in 1800 reflecting the era’s conventional wisdom. Gabriel Metsu was a bona fide star in the pantheon of Dutch Masters, praised by poets and seen as a peer to Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and the other 17th century Dutch Masters. Vermeer’s work was not widely known at the time. Any comparisons made with Metsu, if they were made at all, were unfavorable to Vermeer. Stop the clock anytime before 1850, in fact, and Vermeer is the also-ran.
That sentiment, which had prevailed for over 150 years, would be turned on its head in the 1850s when critical revaluation of Vermeer launched him into the stratosphere, eclipsing Metsu’s star for the following 150 years, and counting.
What prompted the change? Short answer: photography.
Metsu was a stylistic chameleon, equally adept at scenes from everyday life (called genre painting), portraiture, historical and religious themes, and still lives. His settings could be a bustling market or a stately interior. His subjects ranged from the working class to wealthy courtesans – a nobleman hunter, a chicken merchant, a drunk, a baker.
Woman Reading a Letter shows an affluent girl doing just that in an elegantly composed interior by the light streaming in from a window. In The Intruder, we find two girls being interrupted in a dressing chamber by a gentleman caller who is restrained by an assistant. His Sick Child slumps languidly, like Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta, on his loving mother’s lap.
In these and throughout his oeuvre, Metsu seemed to capture narratives in progress, moments stolen from larger stories, inviting the viewer to fill in the gaps. Who is that officer intruding on the two women? How will the woman reading the letter respond to its author, presumably the eager gentleman pictured in an earlier work, Man Writing a Letter? Metsu was a storyteller with a mastery of form and technique whose “superiority over every artist in the Dutch school” was proclaimed as late as 1842.
Which is right about the time Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre perfected his technique for capturing images on silver-plated copper. With the rise of commercial photography in the ensuing decades, our ways of seeing the world changed and with it our impressions of the visual arts.
Vermeer is, of course, the most photorealistic of painters. His clean lines, nearly invisible brushstrokes, and clarity of light and color seem to take the painter himself out of the painting.
Today, to many, the fact that he almost certainly used lenses to produce his meticulously rendered compositions only deepens the appeal. An artist who is also a pioneer in the science of optics is an innovator after our own modern hearts. We can easily imagine the great-rooms of Silicon Valley’s tech billionaires decorated with the neat, code-like iconography of Vermeer, can we not?
In a very short time popular and critical preference reversed from Metsu’s open-ended emotional narratives to Vermeer’s cool, clinical, static moments. As the culture mavens of the modern world, from the tastemakers of 19th century salons to the literary elite of today, grew to adore ever more fondly their pearl-earringed girls and stolid milkmaids, so did Gabriel Metsu’s star dim even further.
They were joined at the hip, these two, or perhaps at the fulcrum, for one’s ascent seems irrefutably tied, seesaw-like, to the other’s descent.
Where Are They Now?
Vermeer’s moment as a popular darling shows no sign of abating. His best-known work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, was the anchor of a popular 2001 novel and a 2003 film. The fascinating 2013 documentary Tim’s Vermeer explored an amateur historian’s reconstruction of a technique by which Vermeer may have actually achieved his photorealistic effects by tracing an image of his subjects projected on canvas.
A 2011 retrospective of Gabriel Metsu at the National Gallery in Washington briefly spurred renewed interest in his work, after which point he appears to have returned to the shadowlands into which he has been banished.
In this rivalry, time was doubly on Vermeer’s side. His frozen moments, lacking context, strives for the eternal while his expert emulation of a machine-like precision, centuries before machines could “paint” images, made him a man before his time.
Will Metsu rise again? Quite possibly. In a world where artificial intelligences seem to encroach daily on the domain of men, a simmering cultural counterforce (The Revenge of the Non-Nerds?) may yet lead the arbiters of public taste to recognize with renewed vigor the uniquely human artistry in Gabriel Metsu’s rich, enigmatic, emotional stories.
End Note: Thanks to Rocky Nystrom for bringing this tale to my attention.