Gabriel Metsu’s move from his native Leiden to Amsterdam in the mid-1650s had a considerable impact on the character of his paintings.1 In Amsterdam he shifted his attention from biblical, mythological, and literary subjects to scenes of domestic life. Moreover, instead of large-scale canvas supports, he started using panels of modest dimensions, which he painted with a softer and more delicate touch than the broad and fluid brushwork of his Leiden period. These changes, however, evolved gradually and did not occur overnight. Old Woman at Her Meal in an Interior is a fascinating painting that shares stylistic and thematic qualities of both his Leiden and Amsterdam periods, which indicates that he likely executed it soon after he arrived in Amsterdam.
Much as with his early Leiden-period history paintings, Metsu has here used a canvas support. The painting’s size (81.9 x 69.2 cm) does not match the scale of his most ambitious works (see, for example, GM-101, fig. 1), but it is the largest of his early Amsterdam-period paintings. Its broad and fluid brushwork shares qualities with works by Jan Baptist Weenix (1621–60/61), an artist Metsu seems to have known when he was in Utrecht in the early 1650s.2 Old Woman at Her Meal in an Interior is one of the last works Metsu painted in which Weenix’s influence still reverberates, but the painting also includes a number of carefully rendered areas, including the old woman’s hands, the earthenware plate, the half-cut bread, and the glass on the floor, all indicating an evolution in his manner of painting.
Interestingly, Old Woman at Her Meal in an Interior relates to the types of interior genre scenes that Gerrit Dou (1613–75) depicted in the second half of the 1640s, subjects that were of no interest to Metsu when he was in Leiden. Only after he moved to Amsterdam did Metsu begin painting scenes with themes inspired by Dou, either on his own initiative, having spotted a gap in the Amsterdam art market, or to meet explicit demands from local collectors for paintings with a “Leiden” character.3 The present painting, for example, is thematically and compositionally related to Dou’s An Old Woman at Prayer before Her Meal from the early 1640s (fig 1). In these two paintings an elderly female, accompanied by her pet, is shown seated at a tripod table laden with food. Both scenes are set in a modest interior filled with an array of household items lying on the floor or hanging on the wall. The wooden panel support that Dou used for his painting, however, is about one-seventh the size of Metsu’s canvas, and Dou executed his picture in a meticulous technique that is fundamentally different from Metsu’s fluid brushwork.
Metsu’s and Dou’s paintings differ in the artists’ use of light and color. Even though Dou’s work has a relatively strong light and dark contrast, Metsu deepened this effect to a near-chiaroscuro with a spotlighted circle on the wooden floor. Moreover, he reduced the number and the intensity of bright color areas. The result is a more tranquil image with a stronger focus on the center of the composition. The same combination of more evocative lighting and monochrome coloring can be seen in some early works by Nicolaes Maes (1634–93). This artist began painting old women and kitchen maids soon after he returned to his native Dordrecht after training with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) in Amsterdam. These similarities in style suggest that Metsu traveled to Dordrecht to study some of Maes’s paintings, although the chronology of their works from the mid-1650s is uncertain.4 It may be that both artists independently transformed Dou’s work in a slightly Rembrandtesque manner. Though not a student of Rembrandt, Metsu had incorporated stylistic and thematic borrowings from paintings by the Amsterdam master as early as 1653.5
Metsu was not the only painter that followed Dou in depicting old women in humble interiors. Various artists from Leiden and surrounding areas repeatedly painted this figure type—with dark, penetrating eyes, prominent cheekbones, and pouting lips—in modest interiors.6 Metsu first depicted this particular model in his Twelfth Night of 1653–55 (fig 2), and she reappears a number of times in Metsu’s works of his early Amsterdam period—selling pancakes, reading a book, feeding a dog, eating porridge, and combing a young woman’s hair.7 All these latter works are smaller and slightly more refined in execution than Old Woman at Her Meal in an Interior, suggesting that Metsu completed them slightly later. Remarkably, he continued representing this same old woman into the mid-1660s.8
Metsu’s image of an old woman eating by herself indicates that she was a widow. Elderly women who had outlived their husbands were popular subjects in both the visual arts and contemporary literature. In the last chapter of his Houwelyck (1625), entitled “Weduwe” (Widow), Jacob Cats (1577–1660) discussed widows as exemplars of life’s transience and encouraged them to concentrate on spiritual matters rather than earthly ones.9 Cats also associated widows with sobriety and modesty, and advised them to refrain from extravagance, even with regard to food. A passage from Consolation Letter of Widows (1630) by Pieter Iansz Twisck (1565–1636), originally a letter the Mennonite author had sent to his recently widowed sister-in-law, also reflects such expectations:
The greatest honor and praise for widows is moderation in all her doings: moderation not only in food, in the care of her body, in her clothing, demeanor, and behavior but also with regard to her family, when she is in the presence of other people, in front of authorities and her familiar friends.10
Contemporary viewers would have associated the widow’s meal of meat, cheese and bread with sobriety and moderation, a notion reinforced by the modest interior and the way she tilts her head slightly forward to suggest a humble demeanor.
Metsu gave the scene a religious undertone by including a glass of red wine on the floor and a piece of bread on the tripod table, Eucharistic associations that accord with Metsu’s Catholic religious beliefs.11 Metsu’s most overt Catholic painting, Saint Dorothy, from the mid-1660s, depicts the saint expressing her loyalty to Christ at an altar surrounded by an abundance of Catholic paraphernalia, including a ciborium, a large covered cup designed to hold the Host for the celebration of the Eucharist.12 The reference to the Christian sacrament in Metsu’s Old Woman at Her Meal in an Interior is subtle by comparison.