Adriaan E. Waiboer, with Pieter Roelofs and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., with contributions by Wayne E. Franits, E. Melanie Gifford, Bianca M. du Mortier, Pieter Roelofs, Marijn Schapelhouman, and Linda Stone-Ferrier, Gabriel Metsu, 1629-1667. Cat. exh. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, September 4 – December 5, 2010; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, December 16, 2010 – March 20, 2011; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 17 – July 24, 2011. Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010. 210 pp , 154 color illus. ISBN 978-0-3001-6724-5.
Eddy Schavemaker, Eglon van der Neer (1635/36 – 1703). His Life and Work (Aetas Aurea, XXII). Trans. by Michael Hoyle. Doornspijk: Davaco, 2010. 574 pp, 54 color , 342 b&w illus. ISBN 978-90-70288-18-4.
Genre painting, a secular specialty focusing on contemporary life, developed rapidly in the Dutch Republic, featuring domestic scenes of an emerging middle class society. To nineteenth-century writers this form of painting was taken to be simply a literal account of an earlier age, discussed, until quite recently, in a superficial and sometimes condescending way, even as prices for these works have soared. Eddy de Jongh’s game-changing emblematic research and Svetlana Alpers’s re-direction of thinking toward relationships between art and science in the seventeenth century have both encouraged scholars to re-consider the significance of scenes of everyday life, but also to reflect upon what this branch of art can reveal about seventeenth-century attitudes toward painting itself.
In the wake of the major Vermeer exhibition of 1995-96 have appeared monographic exhibitions or studies on genre painters less known to the general public including Jan Steen (1996), Pieter de Hooch (1998), Gerrit Dou (2000), Caspar Netscher (2002), Gerard Terborch (2004), and Frans van Mieris (2005). The two volumes reviewed here – one on Gabriel Metsu and one on Eglon Hendrick van der Neer - are both valuable contributions that offer new information and thinking while building on recent scholarship. In Adriaan Waiboer’s exhibition volume which focuses on forty of the more than 130 extant works by Metsu (followed by a catalogue raisonné announced for late October), the reader immediately realizes the superb quality of this artist’s handling of the brush, his capacity to employ different kinds of facture, and his distinctive ways of involving the viewer through capturing both external material reality and internal psychological presence. Metsu’s creativity in both genre and narrative scenes is shown to lie equally in his artful emulations, appropriations and amalgamations of subjects, formats and techniques from leading contemporaries with such diverse approaches as Dou and Terborch. This strategy, the author argues, was intended to help Metsu compete successfully within the Amsterdam art market after he moved from Leiden in 1654.
Waiboer explores the artistic reciprocity between Metsu and Vermeer, both of whom were influenced by Terborch. If Metsu was inspired by Vermeer’s placement of forms and his late use of abstracting brushwork, Vermeer in turn responded to Metsu’s subjects and techniques, retaining his own distinctive touch. That Metsu’s paintings greatly superseded Vermeer’s in price and popularity throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a potent reminder of how much the taste of a period may sway assessment of an artist’s quality or importance and how veneration for a particular artist (Vermeer in our time) can cast his colleagues into relative obscurity.
Additional excellent essays in the volume take up topics relevant not only to Metsu but to Dutch art in general. Wayne Franits’s consideration of luxury (building on recent publications by Jan de Vries) proposes looking beyond consideration of luxurious objects as material goods for a growing consumer culture to wider cultural practices like letter writing or even the evolution in manners and art toward more genteel taste. Linda Stone-Ferrier focuses on Metsu’s depiction of street vendors and markets near his home in Amsterdam as related to the powerful role of individual neighborhood organization in promoting the comfort and stability of residential civic life. Pieter Roelofs’s close investigation of Metsu’s early owners, which also explores the history of his reputation, notes that having many patrons helps explain his departures from labor-intensive techniques requiring extensive time. Technical analysis is explored in detail in Melanie Gifford’s lucid essay on Metsu’s varied (“eloquently imprecise”) painting techniques and how they relate to those of his contemporaries. Bianca M. de Mortier’s essay on costume in Metsu’s paintings as related to manners of the period goes beyond its fascinating lore about dress and domestic articles (sewing cushions, beauty patches, eyeglasses, etc.) to show how they can illuminate the lives of their original users. Finally, Marijn Schapelhouman frames discussion of Metsu’s rare drawings with broader observations about the difficulties art historians have always encountered in finding and evaluating artists’ drawings.
While the volume on Metsu could build on an earlier exhibition catalogue (Leiden, 1966) and on Franklin Robinson’s monograph of 1974, producing a text and catalogue raisonné on Eglon Hendrick van der Neer must have seemed a formidable task. Although his artistic importance had been recognized from Houbraken on and in Smith’s and Hofstede de Groot’s catalogues, no comprehensive account has been published in more recent times. Far more than Metsu, Van der Neer was a borrower and appropriator during a long life that took him to France, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Brussels, and ultimately to the Elector Palatine’s court at Düsseldorf. Like Metsu, he also produced portraits and history paintings as well as landscapes. Yet because he lived until 1703, more than thirty years beyond Metsu, his career extended far into that murky and difficult terrain of later Dutch art. During this period the quality of paintings commonly shows a marked decline – especially for artists attempting to continue styles and subjects that had flourished during the middle decades of the seventeenth century. Van der Neer’s celebrated pupil Adriaen van der Werff would later complain that his teacher had retarded his success by teaching him an old fashioned “modern manner” rather than the fashionable new “Italian manner.”
This closely researched volume, which approaches 600 pages, is divided into ten chapters which cover the artist’s life (I); early influences of Metsu, De Hooch and Terborch (II); Van der Neer and Frans van Mieris (III); Van der Neer and Van der Werff (IV); history paintings (V); two chapters (VI and VII) on the “elegant” and “emblematic modern” (the latter are small paintings from the 1670s inspired by earlier emblem books and moralizing prints); portraits (VIII); landscapes (IX); and critical fortunes (X). Four appendices include material about genealogy, documents, reproductions of early printed sources, and a catalogue of Adriaen van der Werff’s works up to c. 1680 to help clarify the problem of distinguishing his earlier works from those of his teacher.
Schravemaker catalogues a surviving oeuvre of 150 paintings (with copies) by Van der Neer, arguing that many more works have been lost or are now known only from documents that he presents, along with a catalogue of mistaken attributions. Leafing through the reproductions, which include fifty welcome color plates, the reader is struck by frequent variations in the effect and quality of works that not only display diverse and frequent borrowings of subjects, compositional types and ways of painting, but are also executed with varying degrees of care and assurance. Yet a woodenly painted example can be followed by one of impressive originality and delicacy of touch such as the stunning Gyges with the Wife of Kandaules in Düsseldorf which frames the voluptuous rear view of a female nude with the serene geometry of a De Hooch-like palace interior.
A virtue of this book, in addition to its extensive research, is that it does not try to make inflated claims for its subject, as authors of monographs can be prone to do. Schavemaker rates Van der Neer an artist whose “ambition was greater than his talent” and who sought to disguise technical shortcomings, particularly in the representation of figures, by skillful borrowings from other artists then in fashion. Yet, the author also gives full marks to Van der Neer’s achievements, including a surprising group of long-ignored late landscapes which often reach an impressive level of refinement that attracted the most discerning collectors of his day.
Susan Donahue Kuretsky