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.
There are hints at some kind of narrative that might explain the fleshy abundance that confronts the viewer. A shadowy figure can be seen on a bridge in the distance, and an even more crepuscular presence is sketched into the nearby water. But the overwhelming sense of the painting is, to borrow a phrase from contemporary performance artists, to assert: The artist is present. Here I am, Metsu, unveiled, unashamed, imperfect and unflinching in my confrontation with my audience.
Is that, perhaps, a counterweight to the more conventional games and manipulations of reality in his other work? If Metsu stripped himself down to the essentials in his self-portrait as a hunter, he tended to load his other works with material things and narrative enigmas.
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.
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.