This woman is engrossed in sketching a stone bust; hanging over the edge of the table is an engraving. Copying sculpture and images such as this was part of an artist’s training. In the background we can see an easel, as well as books, a globe and a classical arch and column, which evoke a wider world of learning and intellectual enquiry.
Images of women quietly absorbed in their work were particularly popular at the time – often they were maids or women of modest means doing domestic chores. But while a few women did work as artists, this room is too grand to be a painter’s studio, and the woman is expensively dressed. So this image goes beyond a simple lesson on the virtues considered ideal for women. It elevates artistic practice by stressing its intellectual context and also, by inference, it confirms the status of women as artists.
This woman, resplendent in scarlet, seems to be perfecting her drawing skills. She is engrossed in sketching a stone bust, propped up with what seem to be pieces from a broken sculpture; hanging over the edge of the table is an engraving. Copying sculpture and images such as this was part of an artist’s training, and in the background we can also see an easel. Behind it, the books on the shelves, the globe, the classical arch and the carved column evoke a wider world of learning and intellectual enquiry.
This is not a painting which records a moment in the life of an art student, in a real studio. Metsu used the same props – the bust, the etching and the pink skirt – as well as the same model in similar poses in other paintings set in different contexts.
This particular composition may have been appreciated for several reasons. Images of women quietly absorbed in their work were particularly popular at the time and were valued as images of virtuous housekeeping in a well-run home. Often they were maids or women of modest means doing domestic chores in the kitchen, but while women did work as artists in seventeenth-century Holland, this room is too grand to be a painter’s studio. The woman’s fur-trimmed jacket and gold-hemmed dress are expensive – certainly not working clothes. So here we have an image which goes beyond a simple lesson on virtues considered ideal for women. It elevates artistic practice by stressing its intellectual context and also, by inference, it celebrates women in the role of artists. This was a rare confirmation, though Metsu himself did paint another female artist in a picture (now in a private collection) which also includes an easel, a piece of sculpture, books and a globe.
Looking closely at the print lying on the table here may tell us something about Metsu’s own training as an artist. Despite the fold in the paper, he has left just enough of the print visible for it to be identified. It is an etching by Lucas Vorsterman of a painting by Gerard Seghers: Christ at the Column before the Flagellation. Seghers was a Catholic artist from Antwerp. He was known for his religious scenes – which would not have been popular with the Calvinist Protestants of Leiden, where Metsu was born, or Amsterdam, where he was now working. However, Metsu was probably baptised a Catholic and may have been trained in Utrecht by Catholic painters. Perhaps he too learned his craft by sketching similar prints of religious scenes.
Whatever the truth of the matter, there is also a deeper, less personal resonance inherent in this painting. It draws attention to the connections and overlaps at the core of artistic training and tradition. Metsu has painted a woman learning how to draw. She is copying the work of a sculptor as well as an engraving copied from a painting by another artist. There isn’t just the work of one artist represented here, but contributions from five.
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