Monday, 1 April 2013

Metsu Catalogue

Picture: Yale University Press
I'm delighted that Adriaan Waiboer has followed up his catalogue of a recent Metsu exhibition with a full monograph and catalogue raisonne.  Outside the 'big three' (Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer) there seems to have been a dearth of good catalogues of Dutch artists.  There has been more of a focus on symbolic and sociological aspects of Dutch art, rather than the traditional connoisseurial concerns that have characterised the history of Italian art.  Publishing has also been skewed towards exhibition catalogues, with discussion focused on borrowed pictures rather than the whole oeuvre.  Recently the situation has improved with some major publications including Seymour Slive's Jacob van Ruisdael and Frans Post by the de Lagos. 

Waiboer's superb and supremely useful book makes it clear why catalogues are so important.  It clarifies Metsu's independent artistry, distinguishing him from the fijnschilder like Dou and rescuing him from the shade cast by "hyperbolic admiration of Vermeer" (p. 152).  The monograph reconstructs a plausible chronology and is strong on discussion of Metsu's sources and influences, including Weenix and Kupfer as well as Ter Borch and Vermeer.  Exhibition catalogues and thematic studies present only a partial view; here we see Metsu in the round, alongside uncertain attributions and lost works, and with well-reasoned rejected attributions. 

The catalogue includes exhaustive details of provenance, literature and exhibition history.  Reconstruction of provenance seems thorough at first glance, but he fails to record Harold Samuel's ownership of the Norton Simon Woman at her Toilet (A-28), which is mentioned in the catalogue of the Harold Samuel collection that Waiboer cites under A-121 (p. 262).

Waiboer describes well the evolution of Metsu's distinctive technique from the earliest 'creamy' and sometimes careless brushwork to a soft and fluid technique in response to Dou, which evolved towards a more individual approach of "fine yet pronounced strokes ... [a]lthough his brushwork was intended to approach that of the Leiden 'fine' painters, Metsu did not deny the traces of the brush and aimed to retain a distinct pictorial liveliness in the paint surface" (p. 105).  Compared to the fine painters of Leiden, he had a more varied technique that included more broadly painted passages alongside meticulous still life elements in the same pictures.  It's a shame that there are so few details reproduced in the book to illustrate these techniques; comparison with details from rejected attributions would have been especially valuable in validating the author's judgments.

Waiboer's monograph is particularly good at distinguishing Metsu's unique artistic qualities from those of artists he responded to.  He draws out Metsu's particular fondness for showing people interacting with their pets, and his ability to show figures engaging with the viewer rather than preoccupied in their tasks.  His discussion of the relationship between the Hinlopen family portrait in Berlin (A-87) and Ter Borch's model draws out that Metsu's picture is "brighter and more varied in colour and richer in detail ... more informal in character" (p. 96), and the discussion of his relationship to Vermeer in Chapter 5 is masterful, and gave me a fresh appreciation for Metsu. 

Metsu was a painter rather than a draughtsman.  He delighted in meticulous depiction of different textures, and responded to the painterly technique of the fijnschilder and the light effects captured by Vermeer.  On the other hand, his figures are often poorly articulated, he struggled with foreshortening and the depiction of space is often unconvincing.  Two drawings are attributed to Metsu, although with such a small corpus they could easily be after Metsu.  But I suspect he must have drawn hands, because his hands are excellent, and more individualised even than his faces.  

The book has one serious failing, which is its almost total failure to discuss condition.  Waiboer is careful to assess the quality of photographs when he has not seen the original, but does not bother to discuss the condition of the originals that he has seen.  There can be more uncertainty about attributing a badly worn and repainted original than judging a high-quality photograph of a perfectly preserved painting.  From the 133 entries for authentic paintings, only three have any mention of condition (A-59, A-60 and A-65); in the monograph there is also passing reference to the poor condition of A Visit to the Nursery (A-86, p.94) and to possible retouching of Ecce Homo (A-111, p.117).  Waiboer, a privileged art-world 'insider', had access to many paintings in private collections, and was presumably also able to examine pictures off the wall and to consult museum records.  Failure to share the fruits of this study is deplorable.

An example of the importance of condition is that Metsu's reds seem on the whole much better preserved than Ter Borch's.  Ter Borch seems to have used thin glazes that are easily lost in cleaning, which has left many of his pictures with distracting areas of flat, dull red, particularly in tablecloths, that contrast awkwardly with the brilliant depiction of satins in more hardy white paint.  By contrast, the reproductions in Waiboer's book indicate that Metsu's reds are better preserved.  Waiboer specifically discusses the prominent reds in A Man Visiting a Woman Washing Her Hands (A-126, p.136).  It seems from the reproduction that there has been some loss of glazes in the chair and the bed, particularly at the top, but on the whole it seems much better preserved than most Ter Borchs, with fine and varied effects.  It's possible that this is due to skilful repainting, but it seems likely that Metsu employed a more robust technique.  But without the necessary information about condition, we are left guessing.

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