1902 Encyclopedia > Gabriel Metsu

Gabriel Metsu
Dutch painter of history paintings, genre works and portraits

GABRIEL METSU, a Dutch painter of celebrity (born in 1630, died after 1667), is one of the few artists of renown in Holland whose life has remained obscure. Houbraken, who eagerly collected anecdotes of painters in the 18th century, was unable to gather more from the gossip of his contemporaries than that, as early as 1658, Metsu, at the age of forty-three, submitted to a dangerous surgical operation. The inference drawn by superficial readers from this statement has been that death immediately ensued. A more careful perusal would have shown that Houbraken knew that Metsu had given lessons to De Musscher in 1665. Local records now reveal that Gabriel was the son of Jacques Metsu, who lived most of his days at Leyden, where he was three times married. The last of these marriages was celebrated in 1625, and Jacomma Garnijers, herself the widow of a painter, gave birth to Gabriel in 1630. Connected by both his parents with art, Metsu was probably taught first by his father and then by Gerard Dow. He probably finished his training under Rembrandt. So far back as 1648, but a few days earlier than Jan Steen, who is said to have painted his portrait, Metsu was registered in the painters' corporation at Leyden; and the books of the guild also tell us that he remained a member in 1649. In 1650 he ceased to subscribe, and works bearing his name and the date of 1653 give countenance to the belief that he had then settled at Amsterdam, where he continued his studies under Rembrandt. His companions at the time would naturally be De Hooch and Van der Meer, whose example he soon followed when it came to his turn to select the class of subjects for which his genius fitted him. Under the influence of Rembrandt he produced the Woman Taken in Adultery, a large picture with the date of 1653, in the Louvre, in which no one would suspect the painter of high life or taverns were it not that his name is written at full length on the canvas. The artist who thus repeated the gospel subjects familiar to Flinck and Eeckliout was also acquainted with the Oriental wardrobe of Rembrandt, and ready to use it, like all his contemporaries. But he probably observed that sacred art was ill suited to his temper, or he found the field too strongly occupied, and happily for himself, as well as for his admirers, he turned to other subjects for which he was better fitted. We may doubt whether he tried the style of allegory as illustrated in a picture of Justice Protecting Virtue and Chastising Vice in the gallery of the Hague. There is every reason to think that this rough and frosty composition was wrought by quite another master. What Metsu undertook and carried out from the first with surprising success was the low life of the market and tavern, contrasted with wonderful versa-tility by incidents of high life and the drawing-room. In each of these spheres he combined humour with expres-sion, a keen appreciation of nature with feeling, and breadth with delicacy of touch, unsurpassed by any of his contem-poraries. In no single instance do the artistic lessons of Rembrandt appear to have been lost upon him. The same principles of light and shade which had marked his school-work in the Woman Taken in Adultery were applied to subjects of quite a different kind. A group in a drawing-room, a series of groups in the market-place, a single figure in the gloom of a tavern or parlour, was treated with the utmost felicity by fit concentration and gradation of light; a warm flush of tone pervaded every part, and, with that, the study of texture in stuffs was carried as far as it had been by Terburg or Dow, if not with the finish or the brio of De Hooch. Metsu's pictures are all in such admirable keeping, and so warm and harmonious in his middle or so cool and harmonious in his closing time, that they always make a pleasing impression. They are more subtle in modulation than Dow's, more spirited and forcible in touch than Terburg's; and, if Terburg may of right claim to have first painted the true satin robe, he never painted it more softly or with more judgment as to colour than Metsu.

That Metsu married and became a citizen of Amsterdam in 1659 would only prove that his residence in the com-mercial capital of the Netherlands was later than historians have generally assumed. But there is no reason to think that Metsu claimed his citizenship at once. The privileges of a burgess were given in exchange for a payment of dues, and these painters had various ways of avoiding unless they married. One of the best pictures of Metsu's manhood is the Market-place of Amsterdam, at the Louvre, respecting which it is difficult to distribute praise in fair proportions, so excellent are the various parts, the characteristic move-ment and action of the dramatis persons,, the selection of faces, the expression and the gesture, and the texture of the things depicted. A tin can in the arm of a cook is a marvel of imitation, but the cook's face is also a marvel of expression. Equally fine, though earlier, are the Sportsman (dated 1661) and the Tavern (also 1661) at the Hague and Dresden Museums, and the Game-Dealer's Shop, also at Dresden, with the painter's signature and 1662.

Metsu is one of the painters of whose skill Holland still preserves examples, yet whose best pictures are either in England or in France or in the galleries of Germany. The value of his works is large, and at the Pommersfelden sale in 1867 the Jealous Husband Dictating his Wife's Letters, though but one of several replicas, was bought by Lord Hertford for little short of £2000, while for the Ride of the Prince of Orange, in the Gsell collection at Vienna, £3000 was paid by Baron Rothschild in 1873. (J. A. O.)

The above article was written by: J. A. Crowe, author of Lives of Early Flemish Painters.

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