One of Gabriel Metsu’s great strengths as an artist was his ability to absorb ideas and influences from other artists. Here he has borrowed a device from Gerrit Dou, who had probably trained him in Leiden a few years earlier.
Dou had found success with a series of ‘niche paintings’ – scenes, sometimes portraits, often of shops or tradespeople who were portrayed in a grand architectural frame. It was a device which proved popular, and allowed artists to give a greater sense of depth to a painting.
Here, Metsu borrows the idea – presumably because of its popularity. But where Dou’s figures are usually lively and animated, Metsu’s old lady is absorbed and reflective. The pestle and mortar, the flagon and the book in front of her suggest that she has some connection with the medicinal arts. She may be a herbalist pondering a recipe for a concoction.
One of Gabriel Metsu’s great strengths as an artist was his ability to absorb ideas and influences from other artists. He was also adaptable, able to work across several of the many genres popular at the time – portraits, history paintings, still-life paintings and scenes of amorous intrigue. This picture is an interesting example of how he put that adaptability to use.
It can be dated to around 1660, about three years after Metsu moved to Amsterdam from his native Leiden. There, he had probably been trained by, and certainly knew, the artist Gerrit Dou. Dou had recently found success with a series of ‘niche paintings’ – scenes, sometimes portraits, often of shops or tradespeople who were portrayed in a grand architectural frame, like the stone arch we see here. There’s an example in our collection: A Poulterer’s Shop.
This is an unusual genre. While the details and the figures are extremely realistic, it is clear that the scene is far from being ‘real’. A typical Leiden tradesman would not have displayed their produce in such a grand and formal setting. But it was one which proved popular, with its distinctive device which allowed the artist to give a greater sense of depth to the painting. The bird cage, the paper protruding over the sill and the vine growing around the arch all seem to come forward into our space. A dramatic shaft of light which highlights the objects and figures in the foreground intensifies this illusion. Meanwhile, the old woman’s chair, and the shadowy fireplace, help draw our eye deep into the background.
We can’t be absolutely sure that this painting was made after, rather than before, Dou’s development of the niche device. It is highly likely, however, that Metsu is borrowing from him – presumably because he saw potential demand for this new genre. He has created a very different atmosphere though. The attention to fine detail – especially the sheen on the metal pestle and mortar, and the worn pages of the book – is typical of Dou’s painting style. But where Dou’s figures are usually lively and animated, Metsu’s old lady is absorbed and reflective. Perhaps she is daydreaming, distracted from her book, or, more likely, considering what she has just read. The pestle and mortar, the flagon and the book in front of her suggest that she has some connection with the medicinal arts. She may be a herbalist pondering a recipe for a concoction. The piece of paper in the foreground once had an inscription which might have made her occupation clear, but it is now worn and damaged; only one or two letters can be made out.
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