When he moved from his home town, Leiden, to Amsterdam, perhaps in 1654, he carved out a niche as a master of market scenes, which exercised his still-life skills as a painter of fruits, food and housewares, gave him ample scope to suggest mini-dramas of both commercial and sexual intrigue, and dramatized the basic, existential change creeping over the whole of the Western world: our ever deeper connection and alienation through networks of trade and exchange.
Even in one of the most sentimental of the market images, “An Old Woman Baking Pancakes With a Boy,” there is a deftly constructed but ultimately inscrutable triad of gazes among the three figures that creates a strange harmony: A boy stares imploringly at an old woman, whose tired eyes seem unfocused and distant, while a cat confronts the viewer with a hungry and unpredictable look of feline mischief. Everyone, or no one, is about to get what they want in this little drama.
The same narrative density distinguishes the rich, interior “high life” paintings from those of Vermeer. Inspired by the painter Gerard ter Borch, both Vermeer and Metsu were intrigued by the possibility of capturing the well-to-do at a slight remove, often alone or engaged in intimate exchanges about which we know enough to be intrigued but not enough to be certain.
If God kept pets, they would look a little like Vermeer’s vacant and alluring figures, oblivious in a blank and sexy way to their gilded cages. Metsu’s people, by contrast, are both clumsier and more real. Vermeer stripped away data, but even when Metsu seems most intent at capturing the lovely, spare, hushed geometry that defines Vermeer, he can’t keep his inherent weirdness entirely at bay. In the companion picture to the young man writing a letter, “A Woman Reading a Letter,” the room itself may be an elaborate fiction. Like in Vermeer’s work, the plaster wall is exquisitely rendered, the materials of the elegant woman’s dress and fur-trimmed coat are so finely painted they take your breath away, and although the top of her chair is hidden from view, its carved wooden form can be seen in shadow against the wall.
But where is the corner of the room? And why does the mirror, placed over the woman’s head like a geometrical counterpoint to the rounded human form, reflect an open window that doesn’t make any architectural sense? This is the world burnished to perfection, and if the mirror needs to hang where Metsu places it for balance, then who cares about something as mundane as a corner?
Metsu, who was a Catholic, also painted standard-issue Christian scenes, including a fine crucifixion from 1664. But if a single painting brings together the disparate talents and stylistic breadth of his career, it is the 1664-1666 “Sick Child,” with its play on the Madonna and Child theme and its eerie prefiguring of Mary with the body of Christ, or Pieta. A plaintive child is splayed out across the ample lap of woman whose skirts are richly colored in the hues of Raphael. Everything else in the painting is dark and mostly monochromatic. With its suggestion of both the infant Christ and the body of Christ, it captures the Alpha and Omega of everyone. On the wall there seems to be a map, as if to say, this is where you are, in the world of life, death and suffering. There is no outside to this quiet, calm but haunted space.
You could say, that’s just like a Vermeer. But what an injustice to Metsu.
Gabriel Metsu: 1629-1667
At the East Building of the National Gallery of Art from April 10 to July 24. The National Gallery, at 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.