The Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu has had it rough. Any show by Vermeer, his close colleague, is a guaranteed blockbuster. The first Metsu survey in five decades recently opened at the National Gallery in Washington, to zero fanfare. Things were once the other way around. For centuries, sophisticated audiences by far preferred Metsu’s detail-filled storytelling to Vermeer’s cryptic, detached observation.
You’d need a time machine to grasp Metsu’s fall from grace.
Set it to 1662, five years before Metsu died at 38, and out might pop the Amsterdam poet Jan Vos, singing the praises of one of Metsu’s domestic scenes:
“What miracle does Metsu show us, surely ‘tis a wonder:
A living being, flesh and blood; wool and silk and silver….
Nature in her fruitfulness from spite alone can wither,
Now she sees that life can be created from dead paint.”
(There were no verses on Vermeer—just a mention in a poem on another artist seen as greater.)
Set the machine to 1783, and there would be Louis XVI of France himself, pushing for admission to the Metsu show. His agents had happily spent 18,051 francs on a Metsu for the royal collection—then refused to spend a centime on the two Vermeers they were offered.
Set it to 1842, and the British connoisseur John Smith would have emerged declaring “the superiority of Metsu over every artist in the Dutch school.” Vermeer he catalogued as one of Metsu’s “scholars and imitators.”
You’d need to set your machine to 1878, not too long before H.G. Wells dreamed the thing up, to finally step through to the past and find Vermeer’s Woman with a Water Jug setting a record price—but only because it was being sold as a Metsu.
The question isn’t whether we ought to go back to liking Metsu more than Vermeer. We are who we are, when we are, and that has clearly left us preferring the latter. But it is worth seeing if we can imagine ourselves having tastes different from those we actually have.
Vermeer became famous beginning in the 1850s, when a few critics on the cutting edge decided he was great, because he looked so modern. I’d say that was partly about how much his paintings looked like photos. By the time of Vermeer’s rescue from obscurity—pulled out from under Metsu’s shadow—19th-century eyes had had a few decades to get used to the photographic medium, to see it as a new modern norm and to recognize it in Vermeer, who almost certainly had used lenses in preparing his paintings.
Vermeer also has other qualities we moderns have liked: He’s cryptic and silent, cool and opaque—“the sphinx,” he was called, by his first modern admirers—and his paintings hold together just as well as compositions on a surface as they do as narratives and scenes. They also seem to appear on his canvases almost by magic, almost photographically, instead of showing traces of the craftsmanship that made them.
In 1878, Vermeer’s Woman with a Water Jug set a record price—but only because it was being sold as a Metsu.
Those are qualities earlier aesthetes had much less interest in. They preferred what Metsu could give them: lots of independent, episodic bits of business to take in, inventoried one at a time, treasure-trove-wise.
Even when he comes closest to Vermeer, Metsu has so much more going on in his pictures. (We now know that Vermeer, off in Delft, took a great deal from Metsu, the Amsterdam big shot; it seems the influence sometimes went the other way, too.) Metsu’s painting of a woman reading a letter, quite Vermeer-ish and now at the National Gallery of Ireland, has lots for the eye to set down on: a lone slipper sitting unexplained in the foreground, a cute dog, a basket of laundry, a maid and a mistress and a curtain and a mirror and a painting, as well as fabric shiny and matte, boldly colored and low-key, all set down in a range of impressively visible techniques that Vermeer camouflages.
The picture’s got its share of puzzles to work through. Who sent the letter? What does it say? What is the maid’s view of things? And the dog’s? But they feel as though, with the correct information, you could resolve them into a coherent storyline. In Vermeer, on the other hand, we’ve often got truly modern obscurity—not a story at all, but just an instant, captured, with all the opacity of real life.
Metsu’s Irish painting almost gives a lesson in how to look at pictures, and it has nothing to do with how we look at them now. Instead of standing back and taking in the entire composition at once—as we do, almost automatically, with little reproductions such as the ones on a page or onscreen—we ought to follow Metsu’s maid’s example, and get close enough to pull away a curtain and put our noses right in the scene. A viewer of a Metsu scene should also feel like a participant in it, not like a remote, Vermeer-ish voyeur. (For people who know their perspective, as Metsu’s patrons would have, the bizarrely off-center vanishing point in this picture, a Metsu trademark, would also have acted as an invitation to come close.)
See how the three creatures in the painting are behaving: 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 once again.
Blake Gopnik writes about art and design for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously spent a decade as chief art critic of the Washington Post and before that was an arts editor and critic in Canada. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University, and has written on aesthetic topics ranging from Facebook to gastronomy.