Perhaps no Dutch artist was as facile with the brush as was Gabriel Metsu. His ability to capture ordinary moments of life with freshness and spontaneity was matched by his ability to depict materials with an unerring truth to nature. These qualities were particularly admired by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critics, from Houbraken to Fromentin. In 1754, for example, Descamps, who wrote with great admiration about Metsu’s sense of design, softness of touch, and harmony of color, concluded by proposing “Metsu as the greatest model that Holland has produced, for all those who wish to follow or imitate the same genre.” By 1821 Metsu’s art was so esteemed that it was said to have reached the highest level of “perfection” to which “imitative art is able to attain.” Thus it is of some consequence that in 1833, when John Smith described The Intruder in his catalog of Metsu paintings, he termed it “a chef d’oeuvre of the master. The beauty of the composition, the elegance of the drawing, the delightful effect which pervades it, together with the colour, and accomplished execution, fully entitle it to this appellation.”
Smith’s enthusiasm for this painting has been shared by all subsequent critics, and indeed The Intruder stands as one of Metsu’s most finely wrought and carefully conceived works. Despite some losses in the GlazingApplying transparent layers of paint that influence the colors or tonalities of the layers below., all of the fluidity of his touch is evident in the array of fabrics and materials that give such luster to the image: the soft velvet of a morning jacket, the sheen of a silk skirt, the smoothness of carefully laid wooden floorboards, and glistening reflections on the pewter pitcher and candle stand. Moreover, in a painting that displays a wide range of human emotions, Metsu has indicated the gestures and expressions of his figures with remarkable ease and naturalness.
All of these qualities show Metsu at his best and confirm the accolades that have always been accorded him. Nevertheless, truthfulness to nature, whether in the depiction of fabrics or human emotions, was merely incidental to the narrative he wanted to portray. For above all, Metsu was a storyteller. In painting after painting he sets up encounters between the sexes, in which individuals respond to interruptions or proposals, unimportant incidents that nevertheless elicit strong emotions. Although his scenes often have an anecdotal character, they appear to be taken from life, especially because he leaves the viewer guessing as to the outcome of the scenario he portrays.
This painting is no exception. While the physical activities of the protagonists are clear, the particular set of circumstances that preceded the event and those that will follow are impossible to fathom. Just why has this handsome young officer burst into the room and which of the two comely young ladies has he come to visit? It is difficult to judge from his gaze. In any event, the woman at her toilet is clearly delighted to see him, and the maid, who gently restrains him, smiles at his impertinence with a good-natured expression. The young woman who emerges from her bed, however, looks at him with undisguised disdain. To judge from the disarray of her clothes and the presence of her fur-lined red jacket and skirt thrown over the chair, she must have been lounging in bed and has quickly tried to dress after hearing the commotion at the door. Her state of relative undress, as well as the fact that she is putting her foot into her slipper as she clambers from the bed, adds a sexual overtone to the unexpected visit. The pewter pitcher and candle, side by side on the floor in the immediate foreground, may have a similar intent, for their shapes have sexual allusions that would have been understood as such by contemporary observers.
Metsu’s painting had an afterlife that may help in an assessment of the character of his narrative. In 1675 Eglon van der Neer (1634–1703) painted A Woman Washing Her Hands [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Eglon van der Neer, A Woman Washing Her Hands, 1675, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague in which a suitor in the background is restrained by a maid in much the same way as in The Intruder. In this instance, the object of the suitor’s attention is quite clearly the woman leaving the bed rather than the lady at her toilet. In contrast to Metsu’s integrated composition, no psychological connection exists between the foreground figures and the background scene. Indeed, Van der Neer apparently juxtaposed the two as thematic opposites rather than intending them to be an integrated narrative: in emblematic literature, hand washing was considered synonymous with purity, a virtue not to be expected from the sexual inclinations of the couple in the background. Metsu, in his more subtle composition, may have also incorporated a similar, although less extreme, contrast between domestic virtue and sensual pleasure. The woman at her toilet holds a comb in her hand, which, like the basin and ewer in Van der Neer’s painting, was symbolically related to moral cleanliness and purity in Dutch emblematic literature. It is thus not inconceivable that Metsu wanted to suggest in this work those spiritual and sensual choices that continually confront men and women in the course of their daily lives. This interest in depicting individuals in the midst of a moral dilemma is also found elsewhere in his oeuvre.
Metsu was a keen observer not only of everyday life, but also of other artists’ works; indeed, few other Dutch artists managed to forge their style from so many countervailing influences. During his early years he was influenced by the Utrecht artist Nicolaes Knüpfer (c. 1603–1655), whose history paintings and freely executed bordello scenes clearly appealed to him. Elements of the style and choice of subject matter of Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1613 - 1675) also can be found in his work from this period. After Metsu moved from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1657, he responded to other artistic models as well: Nicolaes Maes (Dutch, 1634 - 1693), Gerard ter Borch the Younger (Dutch, 1617 - 1681), Pieter de Hooch (Dutch, 1629 - 1684), and, eventually, Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 - 1675).
Although The Intruder is not dated, it was almost certainly executed around 1660 when the influences of De Hooch and Ter Borch were strongest. From De Hooch, who moved to Amsterdam in about 1660, Metsu gained an appreciation for the importance of establishing a structural framework for his scene through the spatial clarity of the room. Here, for example, the bond between the woman sitting at her toilet and the suitor is visually enhanced by the way each is enframed by an arch-shaped architectural element. Compositionally, Metsu has used the chair in the right foreground and the bright red robes thrown upon it as a means to separate the intruder from the women’s space, which is defined by the clearly articulated floorboards in the foreground.
The nature of the narrative owes far more to Ter Borch than to De Hooch. Ter Borch explored a similar theme of sexual innuendos in The Suitor's Visit, a work that Metsu certainly knew. Indeed, one can see enough subtle compositional and thematic reminders of The Suitor’s Visit in the present painting to suggest that Ter Borch’s work served as a point of departure for Metsu. Metsu, however, opted for a more anecdotal approach: his narrative is more complex, and the gestures and expressions more specific to the situation described. This narrative style, which may well be an outgrowth of Metsu’s early attraction to Knüpfer’s overtly theatrical compositions, gives his work great sensual appeal, but at a cost. All too often Metsu lets the activities of the moment override the subtle nuances of psychological insight that are at the core of Ter Borch’s greatest works.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014