The importance of context: two paintings and what went into them

The importance of context: two paintings and what went into them

Last week’s blog was concerned with two paintings having letters as their subjects and which had connections with one of the so-called ‘Randlords’, the men who amassed great fortunes through exploiting diamonds and gold in South Africa and the financial jiggery-pokery that for many of them went with this. This connection was with Alfred Beit, who Rhodes called ‘little Alfred’. He was the Randlord who above all others possessed a kind of financial genius that enabled him to amass great fortune not only for himself but for others of his associates and in particular Cecil Rhodes. And in Beit’s case this included family members, including his brother Otto and then later Otto’s son, also an Alfred Beit.

This week, the discussion turns to these two paintings themselves, by the Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu. They were owned and donated by ‘little Alfred’s’ nephew, Alfred Beit the second, who inherited his father’s baronetcy title and family money, and it was he and his wife who eventually donated the pictures to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Gabriel Metsu ‘Man writing a letter’, 1663, National Gallery of Ireland

‘Man writing a letter’ is a thoroughly domestic painting on one level, with a man in a room sat writing at a table covered with a cloth. But on another level the world is brought into its frame. There is a shadowy sphere or globe reflected in the window just to the left of his head, while the painting to his right shows an open stormy scene, symbolising both the microcosmic relationship between the domestic interior and the open exterior, and also between the circumstances of the writer and the distance his letter will eventually travel. The painting also depicts concentrated action, for the man is immersed in writing a letter, having taken off his hat but not his coat and sat down to pen this missive. No writing can be discerned even at high magnification, but he is writing on a folded sheet of paper.

Gabriel Metsu ‘Woman reading a letter’, 1663, National Gallery of Ireland

‘Woman reading a letter’ also shows a domestic interior, with a woman shielding her reading of a letter from the standing figure of a servant, and an inquisitive dog at her feet. In her left hand the servant holds a pail and also an envelope, presumptively from which the letter had been taken, with the shadowy form of writing discernible on it. Her right hand pulls back a curtain, revealing a dangerously stormy seascape with lashing waves, symbolically indicating that the letter had come across oceans from where the letter-writer was still present.

In addition to the many symbolic references, what is clearly being conveyed to the viewer in Metsu’s two paintings is that the letter-writing and the letter-reading are personal, or rather inter-personal, matters and not public ones. It is a man writing to someone, and a woman reading what someone has written, two people in a relational engagement facilitated by the medium of epistolarity. The writing man is immersed and concentrated on his missive. The reading woman is both immersed and also aware of potential intrusions and shields herself and her reading from them. This is symbolically resonant. But it is also unlike what would have been the circumstances of the vast majority of letter-writing and -reading of the time, which was contributed to perhaps by numbers of people, and intended to be shared by a collective readership. This is the representation of a symbolic force, rather than of the practical reality.

Last updated:  7 March 2019