Woman in a Red Dress
attributed to Gabriel Metsu (Leyden 1629 – Amsterdam 1667)
Oil painting on canvas and panel, Woman in a Red Dress, attributed to Gabriel Metsu (Leyden 1629 – Amsterdam 1667), signed [signature of Metsu added later], lower right, c. 1660-69. A half-length portrait of a young woman of African descent, head turned over her right shoulder, wearing a red bodice and white headdress, framed in an arched window with a curtain behind and a bas-relief of putti and goat below.
The identity of this young woman is unknown. She wears a luxurious red dress; her head is covered by a full headcloth, yet she wears no covering on her neck and shoulders. A pearl earring is visible in her right ear. She appears in an arched window decorated with a stone frieze of putti carousing with a goat. It is unclear how this Bacchic subject, redolent of drunken revelry, relates to the figure. Both the frieze and the niche setting feature in works by artists in Gabriel Metsu’s circle, the artist to whom this work is attributed. Gabriel Metsu was a Dutch painter, based from 1657 in Amsterdam. Also in the National Trust's collections is Metsu's The Duet ('Le corset bleu') of c.1660 at Upton House, Warwickshire (NT 446725). The mystery of this picture’s subject is compounded by its unusual physical make-up. The woman is painted on a canvas that was subsequently attached to the wooden panel onto which the stone surround was painted. This may have been a patched-up solution by a later hand, designed to rescue a fragment of a damaged canvas. However, Dutch artists of this era are known to have extended and adapted their works in this way as their ideas developed. In 17th-century Dutch art, people of African descent most often appear as secondary figures, typically as unnamed, attendant figures in portraits or in minor biblical roles.  However, portraits of black Africans as subjects in their own right do exist, with examples by Rembrandt, Gerrit Dou, Jasper Beckx and Hendrik Heerschop.  Depictions of black men outnumber depictions of black women, and portraits of black women as subjects in their own right, like this example, are rare.  An African Diaspora in the Netherlands is evident from the last decades of the 16th century, with the population comprised of soldiers, musicians, dancers, as well as servants.  During the 17th century, the forced migration of enslaved Africans to the Netherlands increased as a result of the Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade (although some enslaved Africans arrived as part of the households of wealthy merchants from elsewhere in Europe). Notes  The earliest depictions of black Africans in Netherlandish art dates to the late 14th and 15th centuries in the iconography of the Epiphany and in the depiction of St. Maurice.  Rembrandt van Rijn, Bust of a Woman, 1630 (The Rembrandt House Museum) and Two African Men, 1661 (Inv. No. 685, on long-term loan to the Mauritshuis); Gerrit Dou, Tronie of a Young Man in a Turban, c. 1635 (Landesmuseum, Hannover); Jasper Beckx, Portrait of Don Miguel de Castro, 1643 (Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst); Hendrick Heerschop, King Caspar, 1654 or 1659 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen Preussischen Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie).  An early example, albeit by a German artist, is Albrecht Dürer's silverpoint drawing of a young black woman named Katharina in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Dürer made the drawing in Antwerp in 1521, during one of several trips through the Netherlands.  For more on the black presence in 17th-century Amterdam, see Dienke Hondius, ‘Black Africans in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam’, Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, Spring, 2008, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 87-105.
In Casa Bartolotti sale, Bologna, 12 December 1828, lot 97; W.D. Clark sale, Sotheby's 19 July 1922, lot 98, repd; bought Tancred Borenius and acquired by Mrs Greville in the same year. The bequest of Margaret (Anderson) McEwan, The Hon. Mrs Ronald - later Dame Margaret - Henry Fulke Greville, DBE (1863-1942) from probate records linked with the donation of the property to the National Trust in 1943.
Polesden Lacey, The McEwan Collection (National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
Lower right: Metsu (added later)
Makers and roles
attributed to Gabriel Metsu (Leyden 1629 – Amsterdam 1667), artist Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingland (Leyden 1640 - Leyden 1691), artist
Woman in the Window, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 2022