Adriaan E. Waiboer, curator at the National Gallery of Ireland and leading expert in Dutch painting, recently addressed Vermeer’s superstar status in a perceptive study* of the historical fames of Vermeer and Gabriel Metsu. Metsu was one of the most accomplished painters of the time and was enthusiastically collected by his contemporaries: Vermeer less so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Metsu not only maintained but, perhaps, improved his standing as one of the most celebrated painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Metsu’s works were snatched up for noble collections throughout Europe. Vermeer’s name, instead, had all but vaporized. In 1783 Louis XVI of France spent a fortune, 18,051 francs, on a Metsu after he had declined two Vermeers, the Astronomer and the Geographer. Sixty years later, the writer John Smith declared “the superiority of Metsu over every artist in the Dutch school” and dubbed Vermeer as one of Metsu’s “imitators.” In order to increase market value, some Vermeers were attributed to painters including Metsu himself. This state of affairs was completely reversed by the end of the 19th century when Vermeer was “rediscovered” and his reputation and monetary value soared. The Dutch painters Metsu, Frans van Mieris and Gerrit Dou, who had commanded unlimited approval for centuries, were unceremoniously relegated to lower rungs of the Dutch art ladder almost to the embarrassment the triumphant image of Dutch art established by the “moderns” Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn and Vermeer.
Although recognizing the values of Vermeer’s art, Waiboer posits that the reevaluation of the Delft master has been skewed by a modernist penchant for “streamlined and stylized aesthetic, as evidenced by contemporary design and architecture,” and that this fact has unjustly penalized Metsu. Metsu, then, has been largely viewed through a “lens colored by their admiration for Vermeer,” thereby inhibiting the “appreciation of the true qualities of his [Metsu’s] work.” While not officiating an outright revision, the savvy art historian nonetheless declares that the game is far from over. “As artist’s critical fortunes have always fluctuated and will do so in the future, our views on Metsu and Vermeer will undoubtedly change. The question is in what way? Will Vermeer’s fame continue to grow in the next centuries, or will Metsu’s eventually superseding that of his contemporary again?”
There can be no doubt that modernist values, which confer a premium to pictorial values while penalizing explicit narrative and moralistic finger-wagging, have greatly benefitted the reevaluation of the supreme Dutch triumvirate. What remains to be seen, however, is if it will be Metsu or Gerrit ter Borch to challenge Vermeer’s position. For while the compositional originality, supreme technique and level of psychological introspection that Ter Borch gave to his figure pieces may be reasonably weighed against Vermeer’s talents, the chameleonic nature of Metsu, who openly and with amazing ability cloned the work of his cutting edge contemporaries, makes it difficult to understand just which version of Gabriel Metsu—Mestu-Dou, Metsu-Ter Borch, Metsu-Van Mieris or Metsu-Vermeer—will rival Vermeer-Vermeer.
By the way, Waiboer has recently published a catalogue raisonne of Metsu. Although I have not yet had the fortune to read it, I imagine will be of great help in redefining the role of this valuable and quintessential Dutch painter.
*Adriaan E. Waiboer, “‘Why buy a Vermeer when a Metsu is available?’ The Relationship between Two Dutch Genre Painters”, Gabriel Mestu, New Haven and London, 2010, pp. 29-51.