The winner-takes-all syndrome operates as much in the arts as it does in business and politics, and no artist has benefited more than Johannes Vermeer. In the past century and a half, he has ridden an ever-growing wave of romantic fervor, blockbuster promotion and middle-brow mythologizing, to the point that often it seems Dutch painting in the 17th century had only two names worth reckoning with: Rembrandt for drama and Vermeer for transcendence.
Vermeer is lurking around the edges of the National Gallery of Art’s newest exhibition of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, devoted to the work of his contemporary, Gabriel Metsu. Visitors will encounter two of the most Vermeer-like paintings of Metsu as they enter the exhibition, and one of these, depicting an elegant young man with delicate and beautifully rendered hands writing a letter in the light of an open window, serves as the cover of the exhibition catalogue and brochure.
But Metsu is not Vermeer, and if you spend enough time with Metsu’s work, Vermeer’s accomplishment seems a little narrow, and the mechanics of art-world popularity even more arbitrary.
They were both genre painters working in a resplendent age of commerce and prosperity, when it must have seemed to sensitive souls that the world was simply filled with more stuff. If the speed and restlessness of so much contemporary film and video reflect our astonishment and pride in a wired world of miraculous gadgets, so too the Eastern carpets, gleaming metals and glinting glassware of Dutch genre painting reflected a bewildered pride in the abundance, luxury and moral jeopardy made possible by maritime trade.
Metsu was the more popular and successful painter, and his popularity only grew after his early death in 1667. By the middle of the 18th century, Metsu’s work was selling for prices that put Vermeers — the few that were on the market — to shame, and as the art trade became ever more international, Metsu’s work circulated widely and influenced painters far beyond Holland. One of the largest paintings in the current exhibition was, for a time, in the collection of Louis XVI, and there is speculation that in at least one case, a dealer tried to pass off a Vermeer as a Metsu.
The wheels of fortune and fame started spinning in a different direction in the mid-19th century, and today it can be difficult to see Metsu’s work without being prejudiced by the more beloved Master of Delft. And it is all too easy to attribute to Vermeer things that were done as well (and in some cases invented) by other artists. That the Vermeer-like Metsus don’t feel quite up to the level of Vermeer says more about our 21st-century blinders than it does about the relative merits of the two artists.
Metsu’s work, at its best, has a supreme weirdness to it that one doesn’t encounter in his contemporaries. Sometime around 1654-56, when Metsu was in his mid-20s, he painted a self-portrait as a hunter, getting dressed after a dip in a nearby creek or canal. The large, naked form takes up an unseemly amount of the pictorial space, and the hunter is not a sinewy Acteon or a rosy-cheeked Adonis, but a somewhat lumpy man who seems on the cusp of robust early middle age. National Gallery curator Arthur Wheelock says that while working one’s own visage into a scene wasn’t uncommon for painters at the time, Metsu’s hunter is apparently the only naked self-portrait from the period.