CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Gabriel Metsu: The love letter

Exhibition: 15 May - 29 August 2004

From the museum website

At a mere 10 1/8 x 9 5/8 inches, A Young Woman Receiving a Letter by Dutch artist Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667) holds the distinction of being the smallest painting on display in the Timken’s galleries. It might also be argued that this diminutive celebration of bourgeois life ranks as the most charming work in the Putnam Foundation Collection—“one of the purest and most delicious examples of Dutch genre painting at its height in the late 1650s and early 1660’s,” according Dutch paintings specialist Franklin W. Robinson.

A Young Woman Receiving a Letter dates to the last decade of Gabriel Metsu’s life. During this period Metsu focused increasingly on subjects drawn from everyday life in a manner that approaches the minutely detailed, highly refined style of Gerard Dou, Rembrandt’s first pupil and a painter of highly finished genre scenes, who is thought to have been Metsu’s teacher in his native Leiden.

The young woman in the Timken painting is shown in an elegant garden setting, framed by the arches on an open arcade and the glimpse of a grand Palladian villa in the distance. The delivery of a letter appears to have interrupted the young woman, who sits with an open book in her lap. Barely discernible on the letter is the word Juffr[ouw], a form of address indicating that she is unmarried. As to identity of the letter writer, art historians are quite certain that the gentleman in another Metsu painting, A Man Writing a Letter, now in the collection of the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, is the man in question.

Some persuasive evidence supports this assumption. The paintings are nearly identical in size and appeared as a pair in three separate sales in 1814, 1815, and 1818. Furthermore, their comparable size and complementary three-quarter-length format support the assumption that Metsu conceived them as pendants or companion pieces.

The exhibition Gabriel Metsu: The Love Letter celebrates the reuniting of these paintings after nearly two centuries. They were first brought together in late 2003 for the exhibition Love Letters: Dutch Genre Painting in the Age of Vermeer. Following the close of that exhibition in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Musée Fabre and two private lenders agreed to loan their Metsu paintings to the Timken.

Throughout the history of Western culture, letters have been cherished for their intimacy and immediacy. However, the Dutch artists of the seventeenth century—the Dutch Golden Age—were the first to make the letter a central theme in images of everyday life. Peter Sutton, executive director of the Bruce Museum and curator of Love Letters in the Age of Vermeer, notes that the earliest Dutch paintings depicting figures with letters seem to have been executed about 1630. In his opinion Gabriel Metsu, whose letter paintings date to the late 1650s and 1660s, was one of the most accomplished masters of this theme, at his best when treating the theme within the eloquent dialogue of companion pieces, as in the Timken and Musée Fabre panels. Gabriel Metsu: The Love Letter affords visitors to the Timken the rare opportunity to see the Timken and Musée Fabre panels—prime examples of painting during the Dutch Golden Age—reunited in the company of other paintings by Metsu devoted to the writing, receiving, and reading of letters. The exhibition is funded by the Friends of the Timken and the Putnam Foundation.