We took in the Gabriel Metsu show at the National Gallery today. Gabriel who? Oh, you know. Metsu. The great contemporary of Vermeer, both influenced and influenced by. Apparently for a long time he was more famous than his now-more-famous contemporary. Why have a Vermeer, says a collector (I quote from memory) when you can have a Metsu?
It's a worthwhile and instructive way to idle away a couple and it helps to enrich one's understanding of the golden age in Dutch Art. But do not be misled: Metsu is not a patch on the master. Looking at a Metsu after a Vermeer is like reading Fanny Burney after Jane Austen: entertaining in its way but a stern reminder of why the other is so much admired.
Which invites the question--how could an earlier age have made such a mistake? It's a question that deserves an answer but on reflection, I suspect any answer may be found. Specifically: isn't it almost always the case that the producer is on one track and the consumer another--that the artist (to be specific) is tracing out lines of inquiry in which the audience isn't really interested (yet?). Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying the artist is a superior being on a plane apart from the riffraff. I will say he may have thought about some issues, puzzled over some problems that the riffraff hasn't considered--but merely because the riffraff hasn't got there yet. Back to Metsu: clearly he learned about light and color and form from Vermeer (and other great contemporaries). But he's also a superb story teller and thus perhaps more accessible than the more austere and closer-to-abstract Vermeer. Maybe it just took time for Vermeer's particular, if somewhat arcane, virtues to shine through. Shine through I think they do but don't stick up your nose at the Metsu show: it's a valuable addition to any enthusiast's knowledge of the period and its style.