How to replace a masterpiece

David Wolfe explores how the National Gallery used a unique opportunity to celebrate one of its lesser known artists

In 1987, the National Gallery of Ireland received through a donation one of the most famous works in its collection – pending the painting’s safe return to its owner. The previous year, it had been stolen from its owner’s stately Co. Wicklow home, the second time the painting had been stolen. It was later recovered, and took pride of place on the wall of the National Gallery. Earlier this year, it was once again missing from its rightful place; thankfully, however, under much preferable circumstances.

Prize treasure… Johannes Vermeer, Woman Writing a Letter, With her Maid, c. 1670-1671. Image: National Gallery of Ireland

Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid is the prize treasure of the National Gallery’s vast Dutch collection. The work is one of the finest examples of genre painting, a form of art which sought to provide glimpses into the lives of ordinary people by depicting them engaged in routine domestic activities. In fact, the painting is so prime an example of its style that it is the featured image on the Wikipedia entry for genre painting.

From February until June, the painting was on loan to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as part of its blockbuster Vermeer exhibition, which claimed to bring together more works by Vermeer than has ever previously been done – 28 out of around 37 surviving works. There, it was viewed by almost half a million people over a four month period, an exciting privilege for our National Gallery.

In the meantime, however, its curators were left with the tricky task of rearranging the display in the temporary absence of its proud centrepiece. “We really needed to think about what to fill in that space,” says Dr Lizzie Marx, Curator of Dutch and Flemish Art. The solution? Not one, but a pair of paintings by a contemporary of Vermeer.

Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter and Woman Reading a Letter are pendants, meaning, as may be guessed from their titles, that they are companion works, painted and intended to be displayed together. “There’s almost a sort of narrative taking place between these two when you put them together,” Marx explains.

Really, really clever… Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1665–1667. Image: National Gallery of Ireland

In one, a finely dressed gentleman sits with quill in hand, composing a letter, a fashionable Persian rug laid beneath his materials, underscoring his evident wealth. Before him, the window is flung open, while a globe sits by his elbow and a landscape painting featuring livestock hangs on the wall. Directly beside him on the wall of the gallery, a young woman reads a letter, secretively turning away from her maid, who politely occupies herself by glimpsing a painting behind a curtain. It depicts ships on a rough sea, indicating potential strife ahead. In her hand, the maid holds a separate letter, subtly bearing the signature of the artist.

The similarities with Vermeer are striking. Beyond the subject of letter-writing, a favourite of many Dutch genre painters, there are similarities about the rooms in which both artists’ works are set: with identical floor tiles and skirting, Metsu’s man and Vermeer’s woman could be sitting in the same room. The maid also is a common element of both artists’ paintings. Marx points out that these are status symbols of the period, along with items such as the Persian rug and the silver inkwell, the wealth of the painting’s subject mirroring that of its patron. Artists of every era respond to the world around them, absorbing and reproducing the elements which define its character, and in this Metsu succeeds just as well as Vermeer. Marx highlights that there was inevitably an “artistic exchange” and mutual influence between this “circle of artists” all operating in the Netherlands in the latter part of the 17th century.

Striking similarities… Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter, c. 1665-1667. Image: National Gallery of Ireland

Certain techniques as well as imagery appear common to both artists as a result. “I think sensitivity to light is something that both of those artists really share,” Marx adds, referencing the way in which light “pours into the scene”, highlighting in particular a double shadow in Metsu’s painting which gives it depth and dimension. “That’s done by sheer observation which is really, really clever.” More “mundane details” also contribute to the character of the genre: “It’s just this attention to detail which I think really defines what the genre painters in this period are doing.”

While acknowledging that Vermeer is often considered to be “a cut above the rest”, Marx sees it as unfair to “pit the artists against one another”. More importantly, she feels it better to leave that decision up to the individual viewer: “What’s really good about having all of these genre paintings on display means that anyone coming here can make that decision about what they like.”

“It really varies from person to person,” Marx says – while today Vermeer is the darling of Dutch genre painting, tastes change and may one day favour Metsu over other artists of his era. Indeed, Vermeer himself remained a relatively obscure painter until the end of the nineteenth century, and only in 2009 did he overtake Rembrandt as the Netherlands’ “most cherished painter” in public polls. Vermeer’s temporary absence from the gallery gave hundreds of thousands of visitors the opportunity to more fully consider and appreciate Metsu’s work, out of the shadow of his contemporary. As Marx is keen to emphasise, “it’s really up to the person themselves”.

While curators and visitors alike delighted at the return of Vermeer to the gallery last month, its trip abroad has allowed the merits of a lesser known artist – not to mention other items in the vast collection – to be more carefully and deliberately considered. Perhaps in the future Metsu will be celebrated with a dedicated exhibition of his own in one of Europe’s esteemed galleries. For now, Dubliners can be glad of the opportunity to appreciate his work among so many others in Ireland’s very own, completely free of charge.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is the current Social Media and Managing Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as News Editor, Assistant News Editor and copyeditor.