The Fighting Dutchmen

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

Forget Vermeer: For Centuries Metsu was the star. Can he shine again?

The Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu has got it rough. Any show by Vermeer, his close colleague, is a blockbuster. The first Metsu survey in five decades just opened at the National Gallery in Washington, to zero fanfare. Things were once the other way around. For centuries, sophisticated audiences preferred Metsu's detail-filled storytelling to Vermeer's cryptic, detached observation.

In 1662--five years before Metsu died, at only 38--the Amsterdam poet Jan Vos sang Metsu's praises: "Nature in her fruitfulness from spite alone can wither/Now she sees that life can be created from dead paint." All Vermeer got was a mention in a poem on another artist, written by a printer from Delft.

In 1783 Louis XVI of France spent a fortune on a Metsu, then turned down two Vermeers.

Sixty years later, the writer John Smith declared "the superiority of Metsu over every artist in the Dutch school." He called Vermeer one of Metsu's "scholars and imitators." As late as 1878, Vermeer's Young Woman With a Water Pitcher set a record price only because it was sold as a Metsu.

Without unseating Vermeer, it's worth trying to imagine ourselves back into the tastes of a Metsu-friendly past.

Vermeer's star first rose in the 1850s, when critics decided he was great because he looked so modern. …