Just as the attribution of individual artworks changes over time, raising or lowering the fortunes of collectors and museums in the process, the perceived importance of particular artists, and their place in art history, changes as well — depending on who is writing history at the time.
Gabriel Metsu was one of the most important and well respected painters of the 17th Century, and remained the star of the Golden Age of Dutch painting well into the 19th. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that Johannes Vermeer, largely ignored over that time and now held in such high esteem as to approach reverence among some (yours truly included), began to eclipse his contemporary.
Critics in those centuries praised Metsu and wrote of Vermeer as one of his imitators; collectors turned down Vermeers in favor of Metsus, or bought them because they were sold as Metsus.
How history has changed.
Like Vermeer and another contemporary, Pieter de Hooch, Metsu painted scenes of domestic life, often illuminated by light spilling into the room from a window at the very edge of the composition; light that is given a character of its own and a stage of objects and a wall in the room on which to perform.
The other characters, the people in the scenes, also had their parts as actors. Where Vermeer’s luxuriously clad young men an women live in an enigmatic suspension of time, their thoughts and purpose only vaguely hinted at, Metsu was more of an overt storyteller, with clearer emotional suggestions, though his stories were also left largely to the imagination of the viewer.
Man Writing a Letter (above, top) and Woman Reading a Letter (second down) were meant as companion pieces, each suggesting part of the same story. Metsu’s genre scenes spoke to the character of his times, and found wide acceptance among collectors. Vermeer, though a product of his times, was perhaps not indicative of them, and has risen to a higher status in the last 100 years than he found in his own age.
Metsu is receiving renewed attention, however, in part due to an exhibition of 35 of his most highly regarded works organized by the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, in cooperation with the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Having been on view in the other two venues, the show is now at the National Gallery in Washington until July 24, 2011. There is a catalog, Gabriel Metsu, Rediscovered Master of the Dutch Golden Age (more here), accompanying the exhibition, and I’ve gathered some reviews and resources below.
Far from being disadvantageous, it may be that comparisons to Vermeer’s work, particularly in paintings like the two at top and Woman with a Sick Child (third down) spark interest among 21st Century art lovers, bringing Metsu back into the light and place in history that he deserves.
[Suggestion courtesy of Eric Lee Smith]