Gabriel Metsu A Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664–1666 oil on panel unframed: 52 x 40.5 cm (20 1/2 x 15 15/16 in.) National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit Gift, 1987 (Beit Collection), x.39446 © National Gallery of Ireland, Photographer: Roy Hewson


April 10 to July 24, 2011 – National Gallery of Art, Washington

Featuring some 35 paintings, this exhibition will be the first monographic show of Metsu’s work ever mounted in the United States.

The son of the Flemish painter Jacques Metsue, Gabriel Metsu was born in Leiden in 1629. In 1644, at the age of fifteen, Metsu is recorded as one of a group of artists who were lobbying for the establishment of a Leiden Guild of St. Luke, and in 1648 he became a founder-member of the organization. With the exception of short absences in the early 1650s, he spent the next decade in Leiden. By July 1657, however, he had moved to Amsterdam. On April 12, 1658 he married Isabella de Wolff, a relative of the Haarlem classicist painter Pieter de Grebber (c. 1600-1652/1653). In January of the next year, Metsu became a citizen of Amsterdam, where he died in 1667 at the age of only thirty-eight.

It has been assumed that in addition to the early artistic training he would have received from his father, Metsu also must have studied with Gerard Dou, who was Leiden’s leading genre painter during the 1640s. This assumption may well be correct, but is not without problems, given that early works from Metsu’s Leiden period tend to be executed in a fairly broad and fluid manner far removed from the meticulously crafted, small-scale paintings of Dou and the other Leiden fijnschilders. With the possible exception of the local painter Jan Steen, Metsu, in fact, seems to have been influenced more by the Utrecht artists Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-c. 1660) and Nicolaus Knüpfer (c. 1603-1655). Interestingly, after moving to Amsterdam, Metsu’s style demonstrates more of the high level of detail and finish associated with the Leiden school.

The influence of several other artists–notably Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, and Pieter de Hooch–is sometimes very evident in Metsu’s work, but despite the existence of a sizeable number of dated paintings, these influences occur without any clear chronological pattern, and it is difficult to establish a structure for Metsu’s stylistic development.

Metsu’s most widely acclaimed paintings are the genre pictures, generally depicting a small number of relatively large figures within an upright composition. In addition to his indoor genre scenes Metsu painted a handful of depictions of outdoor markets, a number of religious subjects and portraits, and a few still lifes. His only known pupil was the genre and portrait painter Michiel van Musscher (1645-1705).

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