In art, I was always a subversive. Told about the genius of Mozart, I would demand to hear Bruckner's Fourth in E flat major or Mahler's Second in C minor, the "Resurrection" (Klemperer, of course).
When my music teacher wanted me to study Sibelius, I insisted on listening to the symphonies of Carl Nielsen. (They were at least Finnish contemporaries.) Push Delibes at me, and I demanded Albert Roussel's Symphony No 3. I couldn't stand the silly plots of 18th-century opera. Most of all, I couldn't stand to have music chosen for me. If I was supposed to like Vaughan Williams, I would choose Britten.
Occasionally, I got it right. Britten, for example. Mahler, too, ignored in the 1950s when he became a hero of mine, but adored today. Bruckner never really made it, as I later acknowledged. Listen to this grandiose Austrian and you are reminded of Waugh's remark about the invasion of Crete: like everything German, it's very impressive – but goes on far too long. I can no longer stand Roussel. But I felt the same about literature. At school, Dickens was regarded as a Victorian lightweight; I thought he was rather good, and in my English literature course at university he turned out to be a hero of social justice, a journalist-recorder of capitalist oppression. Forget Oliver Twist. For the smell of industrial rape, read Hard Times. You could learn more from sea shanties, I realised, than drawing-room quartets.
Thus I entered the National Gallery of Ireland's magnificent exhibition of the forgotten work of Gabriel Metsu this week with subversion in my pocket. Here was the almost totally ignored master of the Dutch Golden Age, long ago eclipsed in our imagination by Vermeer. Yet in his own lifetime, Vermeer made little money from his work and was regarded as painting "in the style of Metsu". What happened? How does "taste" drive one artist into obscurity and the other into paradise? It was that ruthless. In 1749, Metsu's The Visit to the Nursery went for 850 guilders, Vermeer's Allegory of Faith for a mere 70. Sixteen years later, Vermeer's Milkmaid sold for 560 guilders, Metsu's Woman Drawing for 1,050. Yet my 1986 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica gives Vermeer a 292-line biography, Metsu a paltry 15. Why?
No one in the mid-17th century doubted Vermeer's artistic skill. But there was something a bit standoffish about his work. If Head of a Girl is physically close to the viewer – her turned head quite literally looking at us, her earring glistening, her face as pretty as the subject's in A Lady Writing – many of Vermeer's figures, if more delicate than Metsu's, stand or sit behind mountains of hanging carpets, tables, virginals, chairs. (Look at Woman with a Pearl Necklace or even The Painter in His Studio.) If the detail is photographic, there is a distance between his people and us. The Love Letter's young lady is a dozen square feet of tiled floor away from us. Perhaps The Soldier and The Laughing Girl is closer to Metsu's chummy proximity, the back of the red-coated cavalier dwarfing the soon-to-be seduced lady with the glass and the far too eager smile.
For Metsu brought not just intimacy to his work but the rough side of life as well, elderly women bakers and pancake makers and boring old drunks; An Old Man Holding a Pipe and a Jug, half-smiling, half-bitter, a right-in-your face kind of look, is exactly the kind of guy you should stay away from in a bar. I got a bit bored with all the lascivious would-be lovers brandishing cockerels and fowls with sexual connotations – in the early 1660s, the Dutch verb vogelen (literally, "to bird") referred to copulation – and the exhibition programme which piously informs us that "poultry, hares and fresh produce were commonly understood sexual symbols when handled by young women".
There's no doubt that Metsu's women look harsher than Vermeer's and the maidservants – pouring water or leering at the secret meetings of their mistresses – are vicious as well as mischievous. Nothing much is left to chance – and if all this lacks subtlety, at least we are involved. Take A Lady Writing a Letter. The lady, quill pen in hand, has turned to us with an amused, almost adulterous smile. "Well, what would you write?" she seems to be asking. And the grey-faced infant in The Sick Child is quite clearly dying. The sidelong, tired eyes are those of death. And death, in the 17th century – from plague and dysentery rather than war – was the ever-present terror. Many of Metsu's own relatives died young, including his father, and there's a similarly distressing look of carelessness on the face of the sick woman in A Doctor's Visit. Metsu's paintings are also noisy. People laugh, mutter, proclaim too loudly in rooms cluttered with annoying, yapping dogs and unpleasant, mean-looking cats.
In other words, this is Planet Earth. And to a newly enriched middle class – especially in a land where Protestantism had replaced Catholicism in many great cities – the more common the painting and the less romanticised and the less dripping in religiosity the better. Merchants were now the masters of taste; no longer did cardinals and holy fathers decide the subject matter of their flock. Those bleak Protestant Dutch churches obtain their beauty from their architecture, not from the faith of the devout. The Irish Times's philosopher-in-residence, Fintan O'Toole, has taken some regional liberties with history by suggesting that Ireland's northern Protestants might be given free tickets to Metsu, the near-contemporary of their hero, William of Orange, to learn that they didn't need to live up to "the stereotype of killjoy sexlessness". Given Ian Paisley's excited condemnation of Jezebel – I was present for some of his best Belfast performances in his Free Presbyterian Church – O'Toole might have a point, though I always suspected that the "dark" side of Catholicism had a sneaky attraction to Paisleyites.
I'm not sure, on balance, whether I can really put Metsu above Vermeer. He doesn't have Vermeer's precision, nor his control of light. Candles and fires are stark in Metsu. In Vermeer, they illuminate. The Dublin exhibition ends on 5 December, after which Brits will have to take the train to Amsterdam after 16 December or cross the Atlantic to Washington after 17 April. But be subversive. That's what art should be about. Journalism too.Reuse content