I have been meaning to expand my coverage of painters, particularly Flemish painters from the Dutch “Golden Age” and I have decided to begin with another of my favorites, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675). He created exquisite small, often dark paintings that often remind us of his contemporaries. These posts will cover paintings from multiple museums, rather than focusing on a single collection. After learning to paint from his father, a glass engraver, Gerrit Dou was apprenticed to a distinguished printmaker and glass painter, receiving additional formal artistic training from the Leiden glaziers' guild. At 15, he was appointed to the enviable position of apprentice in Rembrandt's studio, where he studied for six years. After Rembrandt left Leiden in 1631, his influence on Dou waned. Dou continued to paint on wood in a small scale but adopted cooler colors and a more highly refined technique characteristic of the fijnschilders (fine painters), a group of Leiden artists who painted small, highly finished pictures. Portraits in impasto gave way to domestic genre subjects (everyday scenes), enamel-smooth and rich in accessory details. These paintings are small, remember that you can click on any image in this website to enlarge them.
Like Vermeer's Astronomer, Dou's painting shows a man with a globe close at hand, who is seated before an open book, probably a treatise on geography or astronomy. Armed with a compass and guided by the volume before him, Dou's astronomer is a personification of the pursuit of knowledge. This painting features artificial light from a single candle, a scenario in which Dou excelled.
A considerable amount was written about Dou in his own time, e.g., Philips Angels' Lof der Schilderkunst. Angels praises Dou, because of his imitation of nature and his visual illusions. This is evident from the extremely small detailing and the common occurrence of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) effects in his works as you can see in the “Book and Purse” painting above. Angels also stresses how Dou’s paintings expressed the paragone debate around that time. The paragone debate was an ongoing competition between painting, sculpture, and poetry as to which was the best representation of nature. The paragone debate was especially popular in Leiden, because the painters wanted to obtain the rights of a guild from the town council, in order to have laws for their economic protection. The two paintings shown above are from the Getty and nicely illustrate the chiaroscuro of his early influence from Rembrandt (top) while the bottom painting illustrates his later style. Note the purse is identical to the one portrayed in “The Golden Scales” from 1664.
This is a copy of a signed original by Dou in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. The picture was thought to be by Schlacken when acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1849. It now resides in the Wallace Collection in London. It is a dark painting so I enlarged it. Dou was fond of representing subjects in lantern or candle light, the effects of which he reproduced with a fidelity and skill which no other master has equaled. He frequently painted by the aid of a concave mirror, and to obtain exactness looked at his subject through a frame crossed with squares of silk thread. He cultivated a minute and elaborate style of treatment; and probably few painters ever spent more time and pains on all the details of their pictures down to the most trivial. He is said to have spent five days in painting a hand; and his work was so fine that he found it necessary to manufacture his own brushes, some with only three hairs. In fact his portrait work suffered because his subjects refused to sit for the extraordinary time he took to paint them.
A hermit in monkish garb in a vaulted interior sits surrounded by Vanitas symbols, reminders of the transience of worldly possessions and the inevitability of death. A skull acts as a memento mori, while the hourglass and candle recall the brevity and fragility of human life. In contrast, the hermit seeks spiritual solace in the everlasting truths of the Bible open before him. The picture’s meticulous finish is typical of Dou’s mature style which inspired the formation of the school of Leiden fijnschilders (‘fine painters’) who continued to paint in a similarly polished manner well into the eighteenth century. Again note the light from a single candle and this time an unlit lantern on the wall. Some scholars have identified the candle lights with the light of understanding and the unlit lantern on the left wall with ignorance.
An old hermit dressed in a Franciscan habit, his clasped hands resting on a well-thumbed page of the open Bible, kneels before a crucifix and contemplates the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection. Gerrit Dou was fascinated by the subject of the contemplative life and its virtue, and he produced at least eleven hermit scenes over the course of his career. Here Dou has reinforced his message with reminders of the brevity of human life: the skull, the hourglass, and the extinguished light of the lantern. The thistle stands for the hermit’s constancy, while the live branches growing from a dead tree symbolize life after death. A Hermit at Prayer is one of a number of copies of an original by Dou, signed and dated 1646, now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. The Wallace Collection’s picture lacks the finesse of the original, and appears to be a good studio replica. The Day Book of the picture dealer John Smith for March 11, 1820 records the cleaning and repairing of a frame for the present picture, which was provided with an ‘artist’s trophy’, or label, which identified the artist.
The Louvre has more paintings by Gerrit Dou than any other institution I have found. Here the “Hermit Theme” has been reduced to a a simple hermit reading, without all of the symbolic background of the previous paintings.
Between 1628 and 1675, Gerrit Dou painted about three hundred pictures: six of these portrayed dentists at work, sort of an odd subject. Most artists of those days depicted dentists as plying their trade in theatrical, circus-like environments, as in crowded county fairs. However, Dou's dentists interact with their patients in a realistic, professional manner as seen above. There is actually a scholarly article on this subject which you can find in the references. The patient, who is having a tooth pulled in the manner of the day, seems to be a peasant. His basket of eggs on the floor in the foreground suggests that he is planning to visit the local market. He is clenching his fists in pain and bracing himself by sticking a leg out. This true-to-life work by Dou is simultaneously a piece of medical and social history. However, we cannot discount the possibility that this image is an allegory of pain (or, even, of touch), a genre popular among artists of the era.
In Dutch literature and paintings of Dou's time, maids were often depicted as subjects of male desire, dangerous women threatening the honor and security of the home, the center of Dutch life, although some Dou contemporaries, such as Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer, had started to represent them in a more neutral way, as did Michael Sweerts. Vermeer's painting is one of the rare examples of a maid treated in an empathetic and dignified way, although amorous symbols in this work still exemplify the tradition. Gerrit Dou, depicted attractive maids with symbolic objects such as jugs and various forms of game and produce. In almost all the works of this tradition there is an erotic element, which is conveyed through gestures ranging from jamming chickens onto spits to gently offering, or so the direction of view suggests, an intimate glimpse of some vaguely uterine object. In Dou's 1646 painting, Girl Chopping Onions (now in the British Royal Collection), a pewter tankard may refer to both male and female anatomy, and the picture contains other contemporary symbols of lust, such as onions (said to have aphrodisical properties), and a dangling bird. Milk also had lewd connotations, from the slang term melken, defined as “to sexually attract or lure”. Note the difference in expression of the maids of the two paintings by Dou, who are staring at the viewer in a bold aggressive way and the painting by Vermeer where the maid is looking demurely downward.
Here in “Dutch Housewife”, we see all the erotic (or cautionary moralistic) elements of the theme we have just discussed, although the maid (or housewife) is looking away. The hidden meanings in secular genre paintings were discovered mainly through analogy between paintings and popular prints dealing with the same subjects, and popular and well-known rhymes by contemporary poets. Dutch literature too abounds with allegories, in which metaphors and various forms of double entendre are common. This more iconographic approach to 17th century Dutch painting was illustrated in a series of essays by Eddy de Jongh in the 1970's following Erwin Panofsky's iconographic interpretations. So what we have here, in one of Dou's masterpieces, is a beautiful domestic scene of a woman in a window, depicting a possibly working class woman holding a recently killed chicken upside down as she leans out of a stone-arched window. Her elbow rests on a milkpail that appears to be made of brightly polished bronze. It seems as though she might be a servant in a wealthy household. However, she is identified as a housewife. The colors and harmony of composition have made this image perhaps the most popular, well known and most beloved painting of Gerrit Dou.
Dou’s model, a girl who is seen not only in his earliest dated Magdalen (1638), but in the Girl cutting Onions (1646), at Buckingham Palace, in the Woman with a Fowl (1650), in the Louvre and in the well known picture at Waddesdon Manor (1657), formerly in the Six Collection. We still see her in the Young Mother at the Hague (1658), and in many other pictures. It is always the same girl, always equally young. This makes it quite clear that Dou cannot always have painted the face from life, however evident it may seem that other parts of his work were studied from nature. It would seem that he constantly painted this girl from sketches or from memory, possibly because of the problem of getting models who would sit for him.
This picture is a high point of “fine painting” or fijnschilders. It was painted so evocatively that it seems real. The painted, arched window framing the depiction and the relief underneath it seem to be made of stone and this illusion is strengthened by the tip of the rug which hangs over the relief. Moreover, the curtain hanging in the niche has been pushed to the side as though to unveil the scene. These are tricks that Gerrit Dou used to give the illusion of three-dimensionality. Gerrit Dou’s prosperous-looking physician examines what is thought to be a urine sample, apparently testing for pregnancy. The motif of a physician examining the contents of a flask often appears in Dutch genre painting of the 17th century. “Genre” painting is where people and everyday activities are shown in a natural setting.
This celebrated picture, Dou's masterpiece, which, after passing through various hands, now forms one of the treasures of the Louvre in Paris is a marvelous example of delicate and minute painting. The scene is a drama in everyday life enacted in a spacious and lofty room where the persons represented, the sick woman in the armchair, her daughter kneeling at her side, the nurse who stands behind the patient, and the physician in his robe of purple silk form the group that is full of a more tender human sentiment than generally characterizes Dou's works. Note that the physician is again examining the contents of a glass flask. In addition to the touching interest of the subject, the exquisite finish of all of the details and the harmony of the colors combined to render this one of the greatest of the artist's achievements. The panel on which the picture is painted measures 33 inches high by 26 inches wide, and was originally enclosed in an ebony case with the double door, a form of protection for his pictures not unusual with Dou. This door, on which are painted an ewer and silver bowl, are also in the Louvre but separated from the picture (see below).
Here we see the beautiful doors to the cabinet that once contained “La Femme Hydropique”. What a treat to buy one painting, only to have a second masterpiece protecting the first.
As I have noted above, the purse in this painting is the same as the painting “Book with Purse” from 1647 at the Getty Center. Note the increasingly bright colors in the clothes and draperies as Dou became older.
In this superb example of “Fine Painting” we see vibrant colors, rich tapestries, the same silver ewer and bowl seen above and a vibrant scene of a trumpeter. Just as before, the relief underneath it seems to be made of stone and this illusion is strengthened by the tip of the rug which hangs over the relief. Moreover, the curtain hanging in the niche has been pushed to the side as though to unveil the scene. Everything emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the scene and the style of Dou in later life.
In the seventeenth century, the Golden Age of Dutch painting, Dou was bigger than Hals, more famous than Vermeer, massively richer than Rembrandt. The smallest of his pictures – and they are very small – could cost as much as a house. Cosimo de Medici traipsed across Europe to buy one, the Queen of Sweden was an avid collector. If Dou hadn't been such a prudent burgher, he could have become, like Van Dyke, a star at the English court. Instead he died a millionaire without once leaving his native Leiden. Dou has been favorably compared to Vermeer but as you can clearly see they have a different color palate. The “genre” or paintings of everyday life do not at first have the deeply spiritual and mystical impact of paintings by Rembrandt. But on deeper reflection, the accurate depiction of everyday life, embellished with iconography may achieve the same destination, just along a different path. Rembrandt became master of a plain, unembellished, and seemingly unfinished style that emulated Titian and demanded to be viewed uyter handt (from a distance). Dou led the Leiden fijnschilders with a traditionally Netherlandish, highly finished and copious naturalism – a miniaturized facture – that was best viewed up close and lent itself quite naturally to a private Kuntskammer cabinet. As museums became public, larger paintings became more fashionable and these small paintings languished. However, beginning in the 1970's, partly due to a new appreciation of genre painting, Dou has made a dramatic comeback. Despite the differences in viewing distance, both Dou and Rembrandt were exceptional painters from the Golden Age of Dutch Painting.
Gerrit Dou: 17th century Dutch artist portraying dentists at work: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12125693
Meaning in Art History: http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_zev001200801_01/_zev001200801_01_0014.php
Eddy de Jongh: http://www.hnanews.org/archive/2001/11/jongh01.html
Totally History: http://totallyhistory.com/gerrit-dou/
First Museums, Kunstkammer: /the-first-museums-kunst-und-wunderkammer/