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Gabriël Metsu was a unique artist from Leiden in the 17th century Dutch Republic. He would produce a great mixture of work across his career, making it harder to categorise his oeuvre than in the case of other artists from this period.
There have been over one hundred artworks attributed to Metsu, and despite his relatively short life he was able to establish himself as one of the major figures within the Dutch Golden Age. This era was boosted by the considerable trade opportunities found within the republic and some of that money would drift into the arts. Metsu himself would take on a good number of genres within his career, with his contributions to history paintings, still lifes, portraits, and genre painting being the most memorable. Born in the city of Leiden in 1629, the artist would have come across a great number of influences, both locally and also elsewhere in the country, and so perhaps decided to cast his stylistic net just as far and wide as it could go. Gabriël moved to Amsterdam in his late twenties in search of fortune, and this was a path followed by many artists at that time, though there were also artistic opportunities within Leiden as well at that point.
As with many artists from the Dutch Golden Age, there are gaps in our knowledge about his life, particularly in his early years of development. We do know that he joined an artist's guild in Leiden in 1648 but his artistic journey up to that point is relatively unknown. His wider family may well have subsidised his education because his own mother was relatively poor, though where his artistic education came from is something of a mystery. Some have suggested that Gerard Dou would have tutored him and he was a Leiden fijnschilders, which had a particular style which included darkened scenes of domestic life. He was by sixteen years the senior of Metsu, and so that seems quite a likely possibility. Metsu also achieved high artistic standards from a relatively young age, meaning that he must have had considerable help up to that point. It is from around the early 1650s that an influence of Dou can be seen, helping us to determine when we was working alongside Metsu.
The artist would most frequently depict the lives of local people, going about their daily tasks in something known as genre painting. He would often focus on younger women, and would draw attention to their plight through his paintings. There were some religious depictions, but not many. He would also capture some scenes outdoors, often within dimly lit environments. There were then portraits of more privileged families, such as The Hinlopen family, which started to appear in the 1660s. Whilst his oeuvre was inventive and varied, you will also be able to find influences from other Dutch painters from around that period within some of his own work, such as how domestic scenes might allow us to peak through to other rooms from an open door or window. Some of the interior details also bear similarities in how the tiled floors and drapery were added into these intriguing artworks. He would also focus intensely on the interior decorations and the reflections of light from other materials such as glass.
Table of Contents
- Life Synopsis
- Who influenced Gabriël Metsu?
- Style and Technique
- Gabriël Metsu's Most Famous Paintings
- Which other artists came from Leiden?
- What other Dutch genre painters were there?
- Where does Gabriël Metsu fit into the Dutch Golden Age?
The artist was born in Leiden in around 1629. His father was Flemish painter Jacques Metsue but he passed away when Gabriël was still a baby. We believe that the artist then started to collaborate with others whilst around fifteen years of age and then joined Leiden's Saint Luke's Guild around four years later. By 1654 he would choose to relocate to Amsterdam where he would spend the rest of his life. He married Isabella de Wolff in 1658 and aside from his own work he also taught a number of other artists in his mid to late thirties before sadly passing away. Despite his relatively short life, Metsu was able to contribute around one hundred paintings in total, with potentially many more that have not yet been correctly attributed to this Leiden master. His work would display influences from a number of other Dutch artists making it an interesting survey of styles of that era, particularly when combined with his own technical brilliance. The variety that he delivered has also made it hard to attribute some paintings which may have come from his hand or another, with many notable artists working in the Netherlands at that time.
Who influenced Gabriël Metsu?
The clear and acknowledged influence of Gerrit Dou would not come about until the artist was several years into his career. Dou taught him directly, but prior to that Metsu had already developed a style which was a little more free-flowing than found in the methods of the local Leiden fijnschilders. He therefore received some tutoring before that, with the likes of Anthonie Claesz de Grebber and Nicolaus Knüpfer mentioned by some as possibilities, but without much evidence to support these claims. There were mythological and religious paintings in his early years but these were replaced with genre work once he had relocated to Amsterdam. This change may have been influenced more by local tastes rather than his own desire to move in a new direction. Some of the flourishes in his domestic scenes would also start to appear by this point, with many pointing to the influence of famous names such as Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch the Younger and Pieter de Hooch. The artist enjoyed success within his own lifetime but has actually risen in popularity and prominence since then, and is regularly mentioned in the same breath as the other artists discussed here.
Style and Technique
The artist chose to become an artist in order to follow in the footsteps of his later father. He learnt to adapt to the changing whims of the art market in order to make himself as financially successful as possible. He had relatively little financial support once his early education was completed and so would have to make his work as appealing as possible to the local audience. Once in Amsterdam he realised that genre paintings was the way to go, and this content, combined with his own precise and detailed technical work, was the best way of selling art quickly and for reasonable sums of money. He would study the success of other artists and take elements of their approaches into his own work. He became impressively talented in the particular challenges brought about by his indoor scenes, where drapery, architecture, interior design, reflective glass and perspective would all need to be mastered. He managed to accomplish this and immediately put his name at the forefront of the Dutch Golden Age.
Gabriël Metsu's Most Famous Paintings
Man Writing a Letter and Woman Reading a Letter remain probably the artist's most famous paintings. The indicate clear similarities to the work of Vermeer and De Hooch, whilst also providing enough uniqueness to raise Metsu's own profile. The Cook and The Sick Child provide examples of his focus on the lives of ordinary, often single, young women and the difficulties that they faced. The richer part of society can then be seen in items such as A Musical Party and Portrait of the Family Hinlopen. Christ on the Cross reminds us of his early concentration on religious and mythological scenes, although that particular piece arrived in the 1660s. These famous paintings are today dispersed across major collections all across Europe, with several to be found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and several other key works located in the Irish Republic, at the National Gallery of Ireland. Metsu continues to receive considerable interest because of how he played a major role within one of the continent's most impressive periods of cultural development.
Which other artists came from Leiden?
Leiden is a city which lies in the Dutch province of South Holland. It has a relatively small population which runs into the hundreds of thousands but has played an important role within Dutch art for many centuries. Gabriël Metsu is by no means the only notable name to have come from this region, with others including the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan van Goyen and Willem van de Velde the Elder. Its location close to the sea has perhaps also influenced the style of these painters as well as the content that they have covered. Much more recently, another great artist appeared, Theo van Doesburg, who worked in an abstract manner in a similar way to Piet Mondrian. That said, it is fair to say that Leiden's influence within the arts peaked during the 17th century and is unlikely to ever quite rise to that impressive level again. With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that Metsu even felt the need to move to Amsterdam, but at the time he had to ensure a steady stream of patrons and sales.
What other Dutch genre painters were there?
Genre painting is a style of art found right across the history of European art, though it was in the Netherlands that it would appear most frequently. There were some artists who actually specialised in this approach, and their output would help later generations to understand more about the lives of ordinary Dutch people during the 17th century. Even prior to the Dutch Golden Age there were many examples of every day life seen in art, including a number of famous painter and etcher, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The term genre painting specifically refers to the anonymity of the subjects within the work, and can be either individuals or groups of people. It is that which differentiates from other related genres such as history painting. Vermeer, Dirck Hals and Pieter de Hooch were particularly well known for their genre paintings, with some artists incorporating fun and humour into their scenes, whilst others preferred a more precise, realistic account. It would become a popular style of art which the public grew fond of and this allowed many of its ideas to pass through several generations of Dutch artists across the 17th century.
Where does Gabriël Metsu fit into the Dutch Golden Age?
The Dutch Golden Age was a critical period in the development of the Netherlands. It was a time when this nation dominated in a number of industries, including trade, science and the military. Its artists were also highly accomplished and several cities would contribute influential painters during this period which lasted from around 1588 to 1672. Metsu was one of the masters to appear from Leiden, along with the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, and he worked across multiple styles but impressed most as a genre painter. 17th century Dutch art is famous for the type of content, but it also brought us masters in other fields, such as landscape art, portraiture, as well as continuing the wealth of history painting and religious depictions from previous centuries. Metsu came towards the end of the Dutch Golden Age, passing away just a few years before the generally accepted span of this era. His own influence and legacy would continue for many generations after thanks to the work of his pupils, and also the collectors in later centuries who worked hard to acquire some of these paintings.
Sadly, Gabriël Metsu would pass away whilst fairly young. He was in his late thirties at the time of his death and was truly peaking as an artist. This clearly would greatily impact his legacy, and we will never now how he might have further developed if he had enjoyed several more decades of work. In the centuries that have passed since then his reputation has fluctuated but today he is held in very high regard. He will normally be mentioned within discussions of the key masters of the Dutch Golden Age and his oeuvre has much to offer for those interested in this important period of European culture. We do know that he helped out the likes of Michiel van Musscher and Joost van Geel, both of whom would have highly successful careers of their own. It would be in the 18th and 19th century that interest by collectors in his work peaked, leading to some high value purchases of some of his paintings. Several Vermeer works were also mis-attributed to him, underlining the high regard that many academics held for his technical ability.