In one of the most remarkable and unexpected paintings in Dutch art, Gabriel Metsu has here portrayed himself as a seated nude bather putting on his shirt after a dip in the water. Not at all modest, he smiles at the viewer like an actor addressing his audience. Lying on the ground near him are his rifle and powder horn, while the dead hare hanging from a tree branch suggests that he has taken his swim to cool off after his successful hunt. Standing patiently by his side is his faithful dog. Other, smaller figures are seen in the background, including a nude bather and a couple walking along a road near the bridge spanning the water where a man stands observing the scene.
Given the watery terrain of the Netherlands, remarkably few works actually depict people enjoying a swim. Bathers are sometimes seen in landscape paintings by, among others, Philips Wouwerman (1619–68), Paulus Potter (1625–54), and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29–82), but they are generally small-scale figures and not individualized as in this case.1 In fact, swimming does not seem to have been a common pastime for the Dutch. Water in urban areas was often polluted, and even in the countryside people rarely plunged into rivers and lakes. People even abstained from taking baths (except for medical reasons) out of fear that germs could enter the body once submersed in the water.2
The only artist, other than Metsu, to depict a single large-scale male bather was Gerrit Dou (1613–75) in a painting now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (fig 1). The thematic similarities with Metsu’s painting prompted one scholar to argue that Dou’s composition served as Metsu’s model.3 Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing, however, predates Dou’s painting by some 10 years. Moreover, Dou’s classicizing image of a soldier pointing into the distance is remarkably different from the smiling hunter in Metsu’s work. Unlike Dou, Metsu made no effort to hide corporal imperfections or irregularities and gave his hunter a distinctly portrait-like character.
The identification of the hunter as Metsu is based on a comparison of his facial features with Self-Portrait as a Painter (fig 2).4 Although Dutch genre paintings are filled with self-portraits and depictions of artists’ family members, Metsu’s rendering of himself nude is unique. The question of why Metsu portrayed himself in this extremely unconventional manner is difficult to answer, but it may be related to the guise he assumed here as a hunter. In the seventeenth century, hunting for all but the smallest game was restricted to the court, the nobility, and officers of the state.5 The young Metsu, who did not occupy an elevated position in society, would never have been allowed to participate in this sport, but, as is suggested in this painting, he may have been permitted to shoot hares.6 Despite the prominent status of hunting, however, Dutch artists often depicted hunters as lusty figures who were as interested in chasing women as game. The phallic shape of their long-barreled rifles often served as a visual pun to their virility. Metsu may have been playing on this association by the prominent placement of his rifle, and by signing his painting on the rifle’s stock.
Artists also played on verbal puns to suggest a hunter’s lustful desires. The Dutch verb vogelen (literally “to bird”) was used commonly to refer to copulating, and painters, including Metsu, often depicted hunters courting women by offering them birds.7 Likewise, the expression “hunting hares” was a metaphor for intercourse.8 Although hares appear less frequently than birds in depictions of hunters, Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris (1635–81) repeatedly included them in suggestive images of poultry and game shops to underscore a woman’s sexuality.9
Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing was probably meant to evoke a lascivious sportsman, with his nude muscular body and suggestive smile further accentuating his self-assured masculinity. Highlighting a hunter’s libido also seems to have been the central theme in another image of a sportsman that Metsu painted around the same time as Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing. This genre-like portrait represents a sportsman and his partridge dog enjoying a break in the woods (fig 3). Having put down his powder horn and rifle, the hunter proudly holds up a bird he has just shot, a gesture indicating his virility.10 Several years later, around 1660, the Leiden artist Arie de Vois (1630/35–80) drew inspiration from Metsu by painting his self-portrait as a hunter in the same pose as that in Hunter Showing His Prey.11 De Vois placed the long-barreled rifle next to the hunter’s hip, a rather explicit reference to the rifle’s phallic symbolic association.
It is tempting to think that Metsu intended this painting as a personal joke, but the picture probably found a prominent buyer during the artist’s lifetime or soon after his death. The English merchant Thomas Mayden, who lived on the Fluwelen Burgwal in Amsterdam, owned at his death in 1692, “een swemmer van [Metzu]” (a swimmer by Metzu), which was almost certainly Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing.12 In addition to “een swemmer,” Mayden owned another painting by Metsu described as “een smit” (a smith). This painting may have been A Cavalier Visiting a Blacksmith’s Shop (fig 4), which Metsu had completed not long after his painting of the nude hunter. Interestingly, the painting of the blacksmith’s shop depicts the artist in the role of a pompous officer who has ordered an old, feeble smith to make him some horseshoes. Perhaps the two paintings in which the artist featured himself in an unusual and somewhat humorous manner entered Mayden’s collection together.
The early eighteenth-century provenance of Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing is unknown, but the picture reappeared in the collection of Lucas Merens (1698–1776), a captain of the Dutch East India Company and mayor of the city of Hoorn. The Amsterdam art dealer Jan Spaan acquired Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing at Merens’s posthumous sale in 1778. He probably passed it on immediately to a foreign dealer, as no less than two years later the painting featured in a collection catalogue of the Swiss politician and writer François Tronchin.14 Tronchin, who assembled a large collection of Dutch paintings with the help of the French painter Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702–89), was the author of his own collection catalogue. He deserves credit for being the first to recognize Metsu’s self-portrait in the nude hunter.15 The painting passed through six generations of the Tronchin family until it was sold with the estate in the early twentieth century.
Descriptions of Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing in auction catalogues and art historical literature have always focused on its idiosyncratic subject matter. Tronchin’s catalogue is one of the few sources commenting on its distinctive brushwork, describing it as “large & moëlleuse” (broad and supple).16 Indeed, one of the key characteristics of Metsu’s painting is the fluid technique, as seen in the hunter’s body, the architecture, and much of the vegetation. Even more loosely painted are the landscape, the bridge, and the clouds in the background. Metsu, however, strongly varied his brushwork throughout the painting, and rendered the foreground still-life elements, such as the fur of the dead hare and the ironwork on the rifle, with great refinement. He used such differences in handling to create depth and to focus the viewer’s attention.
The same variation in brushwork can be found in other works from the mid-1650s, including A Cavalier Visiting a Blacksmith Shop.17 Metsu allowed the brownish ground to show through in both works and let it serve as a base tone for the landscape and the architecture. Likewise, he left the composition’s preparatory sketch visible in some areas, including the vegetation in the bottom left. He worked up only the foreground in greater detail, particularly the hunter, his clothes, and his dog. Another technique characteristic of this period of Metsu’s career is the manner in which he contoured forms in black to suggest shadows and to make objects stand out against their respective backgrounds.
Finally, it is worth noting that Metsu placed more emphasis on the landscape in Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing than he did in most of his other paintings. Aside from A Hunter Showing His Prey, only two other works, both dating to the early years of his career, have such a prominent landscape. These works represent Old Testament stories and are set in Italianate landscapes that call to mind works by Utrecht painters.18 Even though Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing depicts a Dutch landscape similar to what the artist could have seen near Leiden, the setting is probably not based on reality but rather is a creation of Metsu’s imagination.