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The Dutch loved him in his day and the French did, too. But it's taken 400 years for paintings by Gabriel Metsu to get much attention in this country. As NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells us, the first Metsu retrospective in the U.S. has now opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Rembrandt - sure, we all know him. Vermeer too. But Gabriel Metsu - that's M-E-T-S-U - was right up there with them in the 17th century -the Golden Age of Dutch painting - and for long afterward.

Mr. DAVID JAFFE (National Gallery, London): Metsu was still the top boy in the 19th century. Vermeer is a very early 20th-century discovery.

STAMBERG: Vermeer and Metsu were contemporaries, but Metsu was the star, says David Jaffe of the National Gallery in London, a lender to the D.C. show.

In 1664, Metsu painted his crowd pleaser,�"A Man Writing a Letter."�The scribe is young, handsome, in black velvet, with long blonde curls.

Mr. JAFFE: He's in his sumptuous study, a very expensive Persian carpet on a table.

STAMBERG: Hung right next to him, bathed in Vermeerish light from a side window, Metsu's�"A Woman Reading a Letter"� the one the blond cutie was writing, no doubt. She has kicked off one shoe a sexy little gold-encrusted mule. And her yellow top is trimmed with ermine.

Mr. JAFFE: The most expensive cloth you can wear, which used to be a royal cloth. You can see the black flecks on her fur. She's accessorized to the hilt.

STAMBERG: Expensive clothes, gorgeously painted, fabulous technique - rustic or Biblical scenes in early works made in his small hometown of Leiden. Bustling market scenes and fancier folks and fripperies - the gold, the ermine - once he moved to Amsterdam in the 1650s, with its booming, sophisticated art market.

Whatever the subject, on all his canvases Metsu is telling a story, although the narrative is not always clear.

Mr. ARTHUR WHEELOCK (Curator): What is going on?

STAMBERG: Arthur Wheelock is curator of this Metsu exhibition.

Mr. WHEELOCK: Why are these people coming in the door? What are they seeing? What's going to happen?

STAMBERG: Metsu was a storyteller, Arthur Wheelock says. But it's not always clear what the story is. He worked to paint real emotions, real interactions between people. A weeping woman borrows money. Others eat, cuddle a pale, sick child.

Mr. WHEELOCK: But giving us a beginning, middle and end to the story was not what he was after.

STAMBERG: So you think about it later and you talk about it later.

Mr. WHEELOCK: Absolutely. And I think these paintings were huge points of discussion in drawing rooms all through the Netherlands in the 17th century.

Mr. JAFFE: Left wondering - he's a narrative painter, but he's not going to tell you the end of the movie.

STAMBERG: Neither did Metsu's contemporary, Vermeer. But Vermeer was even more mysterious. His exquisite�"Girl with a Pearl Earring"�and his other women - all caught in moments between moments. In Vermeer, their lives are on pause. Metsu's people are coming from somewhere, going to somewhere, but darned if you can tell how it will turn out.

(Soundbite of crowd)

STAMBERG: Metsu's painterly star faded in the 20th century, and Vermeer became top Dutch boy. Vermeer, with his flattened backgrounds, muted colors and his distant gazers, looked more abstract to modern eyes. But the�National Gallery show, here until late July, suggests that Gabriel Metsu's time may have come once again.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

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