A housewife holds an apple, which in this context more likely refers to the New Eve (the Virgin Mary) than the old one. The birdcage and hearth imply happy domesticity, while the grapevine alludes to the woman as "a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house" (Psalm 128). The original buyer of such a painting, if he had opinions about art as well as women, would probably have described it as a nisstuck, meaning "niche-piece" or "window-niche," an illusionistic format popularized by Gerrit Dou.
The framing device used here, called a nisstuk or vensternis (niche-piece or window-niche) in the seventeenth century, was popularized in Leiden by Gerrit Dou. He and his followers often rendered their signatures or the date as if they were carved in stone, as Metsu does here.
It has been maintained that this painting and Metsu's panel A Huntsman (Mauritshuis, The Hague), dated 1661, were probably painted as pendants. The pictures are virtually identical in size and appear to be complementary in composition and subject matter. The male portrait was one of the forty-one paintings in the collection of Govert van Slingelandt, chief tax collector at The Hague, that were bought en bloc by Willem V in 1768. The MMA painting cannot be traced before 1842, when Smith recorded that it had been brought to England from Copenhagen. Van Slingelandt is known to have methodically restricted the size of his collection and to have steadily improved its quality. It is possible that he sold this work, or that it was separated from its supposed pendant at an earlier date.
It is also possible that the two panels are not pendants at all, as argued by Adriaan Waiboer in a letter of 2003. At least eight other genre paintings by Metsu have dimensions nearly identical to the MMA work, suggesting that he may have purchased panels of a standard size. Furthermore, the compositions of the two paintings are not as complementary as they might at first seem. The man is presented in a significantly smaller scale and placed deeper in the space, while the two stone windows are inconsistent in shape, coloring, cropping, and the point of view from which they are seen.
Considered on its own, the MMA panel may be appreciated as a tribute to feminine virtue. In her dress and demeanor, the woman seems a model of middle-class respectability. The closed birdcage and the hearth convey the notion of contented domesticity. Among other iconographic embellishments (see Liedtke 2007), Metsu's contemporaries would have recognized the grapevine as a symbol of fidelity and marriage.
[2010; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Signed (bottom center): G. Metsu
Mr. Chaplin, Copenhagen, later England; Edmund Higginson, Saltmarsh Castle, Herefordshire (by 1842–46; his sale, Christie's, London, June 4, 1846, no. 95, for £46); Madame Duval (until 1904; her estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, November 28, 1904, no. 9, for Fr 27,000 to Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, Paris, from 1904]; Marcus Kappel, Berlin (by 1906–30; cat., 1914, no. 16; his sale, Cassirer & Helbing, Berlin, November 25, 1930, no. 11); Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (until his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, New York (1980–82)
Berlin. Ehemalig Gräflich Redern'schen Palais. "Ausstellung von Werken Alter Kunst," January 27–March 4, 1906, no. 83 (lent by Marcus Kappel).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Vermeer's Masterpiece 'The Milkmaid'," September 9–November 29, 2009, no. 4.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
John Smith. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. Vol. 9, Supplement. London, 1842, p. 528, no. 41, as in the collection of Edmund Higginson, and as imported to England from Copenhagen by a Mr. Chaplin.
C[ornelis]. Hofstede de Groot. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Edward G. Hawke. Vol. 1, London, 1907, p. 324, no. 213, as in the collection of M. Kappel, Berlin; gives provenance information.
Wilhelm von Bode. Die Gemäldesammlung Marcus Kappel in Berlin. Berlin, 1914, p. 16, no. 16, ill.
Franklin W. Robinson. Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667): A Study of His Place in Dutch Genre Painting of the Golden Age. New York, 1974, pp. 28–29, 78 n. 48, fig. 30, as present whereabouts unknown; tentatively suggests that "Hunter in a Niche" (Mauritshuis, The Hague), dated 1661, may be a pendant.
Walter Liedtke inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1983–1984. New York, 1984, p. 57, ill.
Walter Liedtke inThe Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. John Pope-Hennessy and Olga Raggio. New York, 1984, pp. 92–94, no. 32, ill. (color), adds supporting evidence to Robinson's [see Ref. 1974] suggestion that this picture and the "Hunter in a Niche" in the Mauritshuis are pendants.
Eric Jan Sluijter inIn Helder Licht: Abraham en Jacob van Strij, Hollandse Meesters van Landschap en Interieur omstreeks 1800. Exh. cat., Dordrechts Museum. Dordrecht, 2000, p. 122, fig. 179, erroneously states that its present location is unknown.
Adriaan Waiboer. Letter to Walter Liedtke. [Fall 2003], does not believe that this work and "A Hunstman" (Mauritshuis, The Hague) are pendants.
Wayne Franits. Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution. New Haven, 2004, pp. 182–83, 290 n. 41, fig. 168 (color).
Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 62, 66, fig. 75 (color, MMA Linsky gallery photograph).
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 153, 438, 460–62, no. 117, colorpl. 117.
Walter Liedtke. "The Milkmaid" by Johannes Vermeer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2009, pp. 27–28, no. 4, colorpl. 4.
Karen Rosenberg. "A Humble Domestic Crosses the Sea." New York Times (September 11, 2009), p. C29.