Gabriel Metsu. Part 1 – Early life and The Letter

A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing by Gabriel Metsu (c.1654)
A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing by Gabriel Metsu (c.1654)

In A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing (above), Gabriel Metsu depicted himself as a nobleman and hunter, but of course the unusual twist to the depiction was the fact that he depicted himself in an a full-length, un-idealized, naturalistic nude pose.

If I was asked who was my favourite artist or what was my favourite artistic era, I would probably choose one of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painters.  To be more precise, I would almost certainly choose an artists who painted genre scenes, all of which I find quite fascinating. Nowadays the most well known and most popular Dutch Golden Age painter is almost certainly, Johannes Vermeer.  However, for the next two blogs, I am going to feature some of my favourite works by a contemporary of Vermeer, and who during their lifetime was by far the more popular.  Let me introduce you to Gabriel Metsu.

Gabriel Metsu was the son of the Flemish painter Jacques Metsu, and Jacomijntje Garniers.  Jacques Metsu besides being a painter was also believed to be a tapestry designer or cartoon painter.  A cartoon being a full size drawing made for the purpose of transferring a design to a painting or tapestry or other large work.  Records show that Jacques came from “Belle in Flanders” which is now Bailleul, a small town in French Flanders close to the France-Belgium border. Jacques Metsu married his first wife, Maeyken, who died in 1619 without giving him any children.  He married his second wife, Machtelt Dircx the following year and the couple went on to have four children, but only the first child, Jacob, survived childhood, the others probably succumbed to the plague which  swept through the region in 1624 and which also claimed the life of Machtelt.

Jacomijntje Garnier’s family came from Ypres but by 1608 when she was eighteen years of age she was living with her family in Amsterdam.  It was in this year that she became betrothed to her first husband, Abraham Lefoutere, a citizen of Antwerp.  His profession was given as a teacher but some records show him as an innkeeper.  The couple had four children, Philips, Sara, Marytgen and Abraham who died in infancy. Her husband, Abraham, died in 1614 and soon after Jacomijntje remarried.  Her second husband was Willem Fermout but he too died at a young age in 1624

Jacomijntje Garnier moved, with her three children, to Leiden and there she met Jacques Metsu and the couple were married in November 1625.  In 1629 she became pregnant with Gabriel but sadly her husband, Jacques died in the March of that year, eight months before Gabriel was born, some time between the end of November and the middle of December 1629.  Jacomijntje’s occupation around this time was given as a midwife.  Gabriel Metsu, along with his step-brother and two step-sisters from his mother’s first marriage, were brought up by her alone, until, in 1636, when Gabriel was six years old, she married her fourth husband, Cornelis Gerritsz. Bontecraey, who then became their stepfather   Bontecraey was a wealthy captain and owner of a barge and two houses in Leiden.  He died in 1649 making Jacomijntje a widow for the fourth time.  She died two years later in 1651.

  There are few hard facts with regards Gabriel Metsu’s early artistic training and teenage years.  However it is believed he could have helped in the workshop of Claes Pietersz de Grebber, a silversmith.   Because Gabriel Metsu’s earliest work, which is still in existence, entitled Ecce Homo, which he completed around the late 1640’s was a religious one,  it is believed that his early artistic tuition must have come from a history painter.  It maybe just a coincidence, but his employer’s son, Anthonie de Grebber, who Metsu must have known, was a history painter and maybe he gave Gabriel some of his first artistic tuition.   In 1644, when just fifteen years of age, Gabriel Metsu joined a  group of local artists, and even at  such an early age, his name was entered in the membership rolls as a “painter.”  Other larger Dutch cities such as Gouda and Haarlem had their own painters’ guild, Guild of Saint Luke, and it was mandatory that artists were members of these guilds in order to sell their wares.  Leiden, up until March 10th 1648, had no such guild but on that date the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde (Leiden Guild of St Luke) was founded by Gerard Dou and Abraham Lambertsz van den Tempel.  Six days after its formation Gabriel Metsu, aged 18,  became a member.

I will continue Gabriel Metsu’s life story in my next blog but for today I want to feature two of his most famous works, two narrative pendants, Man Writing a Letter and its companion piece Woman Reading a Letter, both of which were completed around 1666 and now hang in the National Art Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.  Dutch artists were the first to make the private letter a central focus in genre scenes.

Man writing a Letter by Gabriel Metsu  (c. 1664-1666)
Man writing a Letter by Gabriel Metsu
(c. 1664-1666)

The setting for the painting, Man Reading a Letter, is a study.  The scene is bathed in sunlight.  We see a young, fine-looking man, with long blonde curls, sitting at a table, pen in hand.  He is finely dressed in a black velvet jacket and the white of his shirt and neckerchief are lit up by the sunlight, which streams through the open window in front of him and reflects off the light-coloured back wall.   His hat is precariously balanced on the back of his chair.  He is quietly contemplating the words he wants to write to the woman he loves.  The sunlight highlights him.  He is at centre stage of this work and the sunlight acts as a spotlight.  If this is indeed a love letter he is writing then he must be careful with his words.  He cannot countenance a misunderstanding caused by what he has written.  Look at the resolute expression on his face.  He is totally lost in thought knowing the importance of the words he uses.  They have to say exactly what he wants them to say.  He must avoid ambiguity.  The missive must be perfect.

Observe his opulent surroundings.  The floor is made up of smooth black and white marble slabs, a sure indication that the owner of this house is wealthy.   Everything points to this being a room belonging to a well-to-do person.  We can tell this by some of the furnishings on view.   The table at which he writes the letter is covered with a finely detailed expensive Oriental rug or table tapestry.  Behind him we see a landscape painting in an expensive heavily carved gilt Baroque frame. To his right, partially hidden by the opened window frame we see a globe.  The globe appeared in many Dutch paintings of the time and is almost certainly a reminder of the Dutch Golden Age when the country was one of the leaders in exploration and trade with the far corners of the world.

Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu  (c. 1664-1666)
Woman Reading a Letter by Gabriel Metsu
(c. 1664-1666)

The companion work to this painting is Woman Reading a Letter.  The Metsu’s pendants, when seen together, combine to become a set of narrative works in which we see the man writing to the woman and the woman reading his letter.  In this second work by Metsu, we see the lady sitting in the corner on a wooden zoldertje platform in a marble-floored hall.  She is wearing a long pink skirt, and her yellow top is trimmed with ermine, which is a sure sign of wealth.   A pillow rests on her knees, which has been used as a support whilst sewing.  Her sewing has been cast aside when the maidservant brought in a letter for her.  In her excitement at receiving the letter she has dropped her thimble which we see lying on the floor.    The letter obviously means a lot to her.  She is totally absorbed by what he has written.  Look how she tilts the letter at an angle as she thoughtfully reads it.  Maybe it could be that she needs the sunlight which is streaming through the window to illuminate the words, making them easier for her to read or maybe she is shielding the contents from her maidservant.  The painting is full of symbolism which adds intrigue to the painting.  With this being one of a pair of paintings we know that the man has written the letter to her, which she is now reading but what is the relationship between the man and the woman?  Look at the woman’s forehead. The hairline is receding and to achieve that it could be that some of her hair had been plucked or the forehead shaved giving a higher forehead, which was the fashion of the day.  Look more closely and one can see a single curl of hair at the centre of the forehead and this usually signified that the lady was engaged.

The inclusion of the dog is a symbol of fidelity and one presumes its inclusion probably signifies the woman’s faithfulness. According to some art historians and iconographers, a cast-off shoe, one of which we see on the floor, has erotic connotations.  I find that a slight stretch of their imagination but I suppose their line of thought is that lovers hastily cast of shoes in their rush to make love.  It is interesting to look at the maidservant who stands next to her mistress.  Because of her lowly status in the household she has been depicted in a drab brown dress although a little colour has been added with the blue of her apron.  Under her left arms she has a bucket with two arrows scribed on it.  Could this once again symbolise that love is in the air and these are Cupid’s arrows.  To me they look more like the arrows one used to see on the back of prisoners’ jackets in 1930’s movies.  She also holds in her left hand an envelope.  There is a word on the envelope which I cannot quite read although it seems to start with the letter “M”.  I read somewhere that the word is “Metsu” but until I stand before the original work I will not be sure.  Hopefully I will get to Dublin next month and have a closer look.

The maidservant is drawing back the green curtain, which is hanging from a rod, and which is covering a framed painting on the back wall.  Covers over paintings were not unusual as it was a means of preventing sunlight from falling on them causing them to fade.  The subject of the painting is a seascape in which we see two sailing ship battering their way through a storm. Is the subject of the painting symbolic?  There are two theories about this.  One is that the woman’s betrothed is a seafarer and the other is that the ship struggling in a storm symbolises the romantic struggles ahead for the two lovers.  Also on the wall is a mirror which is in a plain black frame, the colour of which I read symbolised a warning against narcissism and lewdness, but like the abandoned shoe I remain unconvinced with that theory.

As I said earlier, both the paintings are housed in the National Gallery of Ireland, part of the Beit Collection which is housed in the .  The paintings were owned by Sir Alfred Beit and his wife, Lady Beit.  Sir Alfred Beit was a British Conservative politician, philanthropist, art lover, and honorary Irish citizen.  He donated the two paintings I have featured today along with fifteen other masterpieces to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1987, whilst the other major art works remained at their home, Russborough House, which was once described as the most beautiful house in Ireland.   Sir Alfred and Lady Beit bought Russborough House in 1952 to house their art collection and in 1976 established the Alfred Beit Foundation to manage the property. Beit died in 1994 but Lady Beit remained in residence until her own death in 2005.  Due to a number of armed robberies and thefts of some of the paintings, which fortunately were recovered, the Foundation agreed to move them to the National Gallery of Ireland for safekeeping.

In my next blog I will complete the life story of Gabriel Metsu and feature some more of his paintings.