Gabriel Metsu was one of the leading painters of the Leiden school. Only 38 years old when he died, the chronology of his oeuvre is often difficult to establish with certainty, but Waiboer (op. cit.) dates the present picture to circa 1653, painted before he moved to Amsterdam in 1657. It was in the years 1653-54 that Metsu began to distance himself from the influence of Nicolaus Knupfer (c. 1603-1655/60), the Utrecht painter who specialised in biblical and mythological subjects, and began to seek inspiration from a wider variety of artists. This panel, thematically unrelated to and much smaller than the Knupferian paintings he had executed in the early 1650s, is evidence of the artist’s change of direction. The tone is meditative, rather than didactic or narrative, and there is a new emphasis on the rendering of everyday objects – the large folios, documents, seals and inkstand – which suggests Metsu’s imagination may have been captured by the book still lifes of Leiden artists, such as Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606-1683/4) or Jan Lievens (1607-1674).
Metsu was most strongly influenced by the work of Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), the pre-eminent painter of genre scenes in Leiden and founder of the fijnschilderij tradition for which the city’s artists are so renowned. A Notary with a Book (private collection; op. cit., p. 168, no. A-8) is perhaps the first painting in which Metsu makes a conscious reference to the work of Dou, specifically in the niche-format of the open window and the figure who leans out with an open folio, just as in Dou’s Painter with Pipe and Book (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). The present picture is so closely related to A Notary with a Book stylistically, thematically, and in dimensions, that it seems beyond doubt that Metsu painted both works at around the same time, or even simultaneously, though the original black oval frame that surrounds this picture precludes the notion that they may have been intended as pendants. Although Dou painted the subject of a man mending a quill, Metsu’s picture is formally closer to An old man sharpening his pen by Dou’s student Frans van Mieris (1635-1681).
The creamy brushwork and colouring in this panel is characteristic of Metsu’s earlier work, but although the facial type of the bearded man is identical to that of the central Pharisee in his Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, similarly dated 1653 (Paris, Musée du Louvre), the emphasis on the physiognomy of the notary is a departure from the figures that populate his biblical scenes. Metsu’s greatest contribution to the genre and work of the Leiden artists was perhaps his ability to infuse works with psychological understanding, a quiet dignified introspection which is as much the subject of this picture as the figure of the notary himself.
This picture reveals Metsu as an artist combining the influence of his contemporaries with his own innovation. Nor is it impossible to detect the inspiration he may have derived from artists of the past working in his native city. Indeed, the man’s lined face and contemplative expression, coupled with the stress on learning and knowledge in the forms of his papers and quill, render him almost Jerome-like, as if Metsu were harking back to the work of his civic forebear, Lucas van Leyden (c. 1494-1533).