At home in the world: Dutch art in Washington

Gabriël Metsu’s “Man Writing a Letter” (1664-66), oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland.

Gabriël Metsu’s “Man Writing a Letter” (1664-66), oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland.

During a recent visit to Washington D.C., I had a chance to spend the day among the Netherlandish works at the National Gallery of Art, where a show of “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” is drawing long lines through Jan. 21. Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) created few works in his lifetime, roughly 35 – eight of which live in New York. Their scarcity makes them rare, as does their refinement. Still, it seemed as if every one of them is in the D.C. show, along with much of the art-loving world. Indeed, it was hard to see these relatively small paintings for the people.

But spying the artwork among its admirers leads you to focus on the second half of the show’s title – the (other) masters of genre painting, the genre being one the Dutch excelled at, intimate, contemplative interiors that extolled the Dutch virtues of cleanliness, economy, industry and egalitarianism.

There is also a sense of Dutch globalism at work here, for the Netherlands – a small, sea-challenged country nonetheless built a mercantile empire. Painting after painting contains women, as well as men, reading, writing, playing an instrument or gazing thoughtfully amid a light-dappled window, a map, a landscape – a reminder that, in the words of Shakespeare, “there is a world out there.”

Among these works is Gabriël Metsu’s “Man Writing a Letter” (1664-66), an oil on panel that has not one but three “windows on the world” – an actual interior window through which we spy a globe and a half-seen landscape, which provide the backdrop for the tender youth seen in profile, poised with pen on paper.

Metsu may not be as well-known as Vermeer, but in “Man Writing a Letter,” he created a work that encapsulates all that is great in the Dutch Golden Age.

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