From the world of outdoors, a horseman – dashing, smart and confident – has stepped into the gloomy interior of a blacksmith’s shop. He strikes a superior pose and his status is underlined by his expensive scarlet coat, its gold braid and the hilt of his sword glittering in the dim light. While the horseman stands upright and aloof, the blacksmith, in a simple apron and shirt, bends to his task. His hammer is ready to strike the red-hot iron of a horseshoe.
Scenes of tradesman at their work, like this one, were popular. Metsu seems to have found particular success in depicting blacksmith shops – this is one of several which he made around this time. His success depended partly on very precise observation and the meticulous painting of detail. Here we see the blacksmith’s tongs, pliers, hammers and punches on their racks above the forge, and glow of the hot iron.
Although their postures are different, there is a certain harmony – or at least a balance – between these two men of differing social status. Their poses reflect each other: each man has one arm raised and the other held out in front of him. And there is a balance too between the two men and the horse. The horseman watches the smith at work, and the smith looks up at the horse. It returns his gaze with passive acceptance, its foreleg raised on a timber frame ready for the shoe. Meanwhile, the young apprentice in the background, turning the grinding wheel and tending the forge, completes another symmetry. The three figures might also be seen as representing the three ages of man: youth, maturity and old age.
The painting is an early work by Metsu, probably dating from about 1657 when the artist was in his late twenties. He had recently moved from his home town of Leiden to settle permanently in Amsterdam. He was a highly adaptable painter who was able to work across several of the many genres which were popular in the city at the time, including portraits, history paintings and still-life paintings. Scenes of tradesmen at their work, like this one, were also popular. Metsu seems to have found early success in depicting blacksmith shops. It was an unusual theme, but this is one of several which he made around this time.
Metsu could make such scenes seem real – one of his skills. His success depends partly on very precise observation and the meticulous painting of detail. Here, we see the blacksmith’s tongs, pliers, hammers and punches on their racks above the forge, and glow of the hot iron. He also suggests something of the relationship between the smith and his customer. The smith’s job, like that of all craftsmen, is not just about shaping iron, but about dealing with customers too.
In the early nineteenth century, before it was acquired by the National Gallery, it was described as a painting thought to illustrate the story from the flight of King Charles II after the battle of Worcester in 1651, when he visited a blacksmith’s shop disguised as a servant. There is absolutely no evidence that this is the subject – it was probably a clever piece of marketing by the seller.
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