The interactions of food sellers and their clients was a theme that greatly appealed to Gabriel Metsu. He painted no fewer than fifteen market scenes over the course of his short career, making it the most popular theme in his oeuvre. Despite the prevalence of this subject matter in the works of Gerrit Dou (1613–75) and Frans van Mieris (1635–81), Metsu painted only one market scene during his Leiden period, Woman Selling Game from a Stall.1 Although he executed this work in the vicinity of Dou’s and Van Mieris’s studios, this painting differs strongly from those two artists’ works, as well as from Metsu’s own later market scenes, in terms of its large scale, broad painting technique, figure types and the emphasis on foreground still life elements.
Woman Selling Game from a Stall represents a robust female vendor of game and poultry who holds up a large hare by one of its paws for the approval of a young female customer. The coin the young woman holds in her hand indicates that the vendor has been successful in her marketing efforts. The foreground is filled with various dead birds, including a goose, a rooster and a duck. A pigeon, having escaped from its tipped-over wicker cage, is distracted by a black-and-white dog sniffing a dead rooster in the left foreground. A few other vending stalls are visible in the left background.
This ambitious youthful work measures 159.1 x 124.9 cm, making it one of the largest pictures of Metsu’s entire oeuvre.2 Its enormous size suggests that he painted it on commission rather than for the free market. It seems exceptional that someone would have ordered this work from the young artist, who had no previous experience in painting large still lifes. In fact, Woman Selling Game from a Stall is the first of Metsu’s paintings to feature any animal other than a dog.3
The piece is foremost a response to the work of the Utrecht artist Jan Baptist Weenix (1621–60/61). Metsu came into contact with Weenix through Nicolaus Knüpfer (ca. 1603–55), with whom he probably apprenticed in the early 1650s.4 Weenix, who is known to have collaborated with Knüpfer, was a specialist in both Italianate landscapes and animal still lifes.5 The clearest confirmation of Metsu’s admiration for Weenix’s paintings is his early The Dismissal of Hagar, ca. 1653–54 (fig 1). The stocky, muscular figures and Mediterranean setting in that painting call to mind the shepherdesses in Weenix’s Italianate landscapes.6 Moreover, the fluid painting technique, the manner of underpainting the composition, and the choice of pigments are also similar to that Utrecht master’s style.7
Stylistically, Woman Selling Game from a Stall relates to Weenix’s The Dismissal of Hagar. Metsu executed both paintings with elongated brushwork and they share an overall greenish-brown palette with a few concentrated accents of white and red. Furthermore, in both works the figures stand before an open door of a diagonally receding building covered by an arched wooden awning. Each painting also includes a tilted tree in front of the house and a view into the distance.
Although Weenix never seems to have painted a market scene with game and poultry that could have served as Metsu’s source of inspiration, he did paint a number of large still lifes. Some of these feature dead hares hanging upside down, as well as ducks, geese and swans lying on their backs with their heads drooping down (fig 2).8 It is also likely that Metsu knew of the market scenes painted by such Flemish artists as Pieter Aertsen (1507/8–75), Joachim Beuckelaer (ca. 1534–ca. 1574), and Frans Snyders (1579–1657), which show similar vending stalls with rich displays of various kinds of game and poultry.9
Composing this market scene proved challenging to the young artist. The interaction between the figures is awkward, as the vendor has turned toward the viewer while addressing the customer behind her. The positioning of the animals, the tables and the cage looks disjointed, even chaotic. Metsu may have exaggerated perspective effects to accommodate a client’s wish to hang the painting in an elevated position, but his efforts were not entirely successful.
Although the muscular physiognomy of Metsu’s vendor is reminiscent of women Weenix depicted in his paintings of the Italian campagna, her facial features and those of her customer resemble those in paintings by Maerten Stoop (ca. 1620–47).10 Stoop was a Utrecht painter whose oeuvre shows a strong affinity with the work of Knüpfer and Weenix. Although Stoop had died by the time Metsu arrived in Utrecht, his impact is evident in some of the younger artist’s early Leiden paintings.11
The women’s attire here is not typical of contemporary Dutch fashion. A revealing top that amplifies a woman’s chest to such an extent would hardly have been worn by female vendors in the markets of Leiden or Utrecht. Since the mid-sixteenth century, with paintings by Aertsen and Beuckelaer, artists had generally depicted market women as seductresses, with the foods they sell underscoring their sexuality.12 The slashed sleeves of the woman’s red top may have had a similar function. They are not in accordance with contemporary fashion, but they do appear in fantasy costumes worn by Metsu’s depictions of prostitutes and jesters.13
The female customer’s hooded cloak is typical of fashions from the southern Netherlands, which may suggest that Metsu painted this work for a Flemish immigrant in Leiden.14 As both of the artist’s parents had originally come from the southern Netherlands, the local community of refugees was among the artist’s clientele.15 Metsu’s most important commission prior to A Woman Selling Game from a Stall was The Triumph of Justice, which came from Michiel van Peenen, a merchant whose father was from Belle, the present-day Bailleul, near Lille, the same village in which Metsu’s father was born.16 Their shared origins must have been the determining factor for Van Peenen to approach Metsu, for the artist was not experienced in painting such complicated allegories.17 Likewise, Woman Selling Game from a Stall may have been commissioned from a client with shared Flemish roots.
Although the early provenance of Woman Selling Game from a Stall is unknown, the painting probably stayed in Leiden for an extended period of time. The eighteenth-century Leiden painter Louis de Moni (1698–1771), who was a great admirer of Metsu’s work, painted a copy after it.18 Although the work is a faithful repetition, it is far smaller in size (58.5 x 49 cm) than Metsu’s impressive youthful painting.