Gerrit Dou (7 April 1613 – 9 February 1675), also known as Gerard and Douw or Dow, was a Dutch Golden Age painter, whose small, highly-polished paintings are typical of the Leiden fijnschilders. He specialised in genre scenes and is noted for his trompe l'oeil "niche" paintings and candlelit night-scenes with strong chiaroscuro.
Dou was born in Leiden. His first instructor in drawing and design was Bartholomew Dolendo, an engraver; and he afterwards learned the art of glass-painting under Peter Kouwhoorn. At the age of 15 he became a pupil of Rembrandt, with whom he continued for three years. From the great master of the Dutch school he acquired his skill in coloring, and in the more subtle effects of chiaroscuro; and the style of Rembrandt is reflected in several of his earlier pictures, notably in a portrait of himself at the age of 22, in the Bridgewater Collection, and in the "Blind Tobit going to meet his Son", at Wardour Castle [locations may be outdated].
At a comparatively early point in his career, however, he had formed a manner of his own distinct from, and indeed in some respects antagonistic to, that of his master. Gifted with unusual clearness of vision and precision of manipulation, 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.
Notwithstanding the minuteness of his touch, however, the general effect was harmonious and free from stiffness, and his color was always admirably fresh and transparent. He 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. His practice as a portrait painter, which was at first considerable, gradually declined, sitters being unwilling to give him the time that he deemed necessary. His pictures were always small in size, and represented chiefly subjects in still life. Upwards of 200 are attributed to him, and specimens are to be found in most of the great public collections of Europe.
His chef-d'oeuvre is generally considered to be The dropsical woman (1663), and The Dutch Housewife (1650), both in the Louvre. The Evening School, in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, is the best example of the candlelight scenes in which he excelled. In the National Gallery, London, favorable specimens are to be seen in the Poulterer's Shop (1672), and a portrait of himself (see above). Dou's pictures brought high prices, and it is said that the art lover Van Spiering of The Hague paid him 1,000 florins a year simply for the right of pre-emption. Dou died in Leiden. His most celebrated pupil was Frans van Mieris the Elder. According to the RKD, his other pupils were Bartholomeus Maton, Carel de Moor, Matthijs Naiveu, Abraham de Pape, Godfried Schalcken, Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt, Domenicus van Tol, Gijsbert Andriesz Verbrugge, and Pieter Hermansz Verelst.
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 effects in his works. 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.[Sluijter, 1993]
The paragone debate is not only addressed in writings from that time, but its popularity can also be seen in the subject matter of several of Dou’s paintings. An example of this is the Old Painter at work, in which an old painter is working on a canvas behind a table displaying objects that show his capabilities of imitation. The aged painter refers to an argument in the paragone debate that a painter can achieve his best work at an old age, while a sculptor cannot because of the physical demands of sculpting. On the table, a sculptured head and a printed book are rendered in a lifelike fashion to show that painting can imitate both sculpture and printed paper, thereby reassuring the notion that painting beats sculpture. According to Sluijter, the “amazing true-to-life peacock and a beautiful Triton shell, next to a copper pot with the most refined reflections of light” shows that art beats nature. Sluijter argues that the peacock stands for the ability of painting to “preserve the transient works of nature thereby even surpassing it”. [Sluijter, 2000]
Many difficulties arise when one would want to consistently associate a certain meaning with a specific object. One of the most troublesome and thus one of the most instructive objects in Dou’s oeuvre is a relief by François Duquesnoy called Putti teasing a goat. This relief features in many of Dou’s pictures with a window-sill motif, and has been assigned various meanings. J. A. Emmens, for example, states that in The Trumpeter the relief represents: “the deceitfulness of human desires, because the goat, personifying lust, can time and again be deceived by appearance, by the deceptive imitation, which is the mask”. [Emmens, Opstellen, cit. (note 4), vol. 2, p 183 in Hecht, 2002] The shop displayed a whole array of glimmering fish, fur of hares, plants, vegetables, reflecting metal containers of different materials and several kind of fabric, from gilt leather to silk . Through his careful handling of lustre and reflection, the display of these objects in one painting can be interpreted as a contribution to the paragone debate.[Sluijter, 2000]
The Kitchen Maid with a Boy in a Window, features a maidservant, fishes and a little boy holding a hare, cramped together with a bunch of vegetables, a dead bird and copperware. Sluijter acknowledges that a contemporary viewer would have certainly approved of this scene as representing an approximation of life as the rendering of all the material is very realistic. On the overall series of maidservant-scenes, Sluijter remarks that the image of a maidservant was generally associated with a sexual undertone.According to de Jongh, this motif has erotic references. In his article on Erotica in 17th century genre pieces, de Jongh argues that dead hunted birds and animals most likely all refer back to the notion of eroticism and availability of the woman depicted because birding and hunting were synonyms for sexual encounters. All maidservants show dead birds or animals refer to hunting and vogelen (birding), which in Dutch means to copulate. The maidservants are thereby explicitly erotic. Certainly a cock as a bird refers to a cock as the male sex organ and this can been seen hanging from the wall in Kitchen Maid with a Boy in a Window. [de Jongh, 1968–1969] De Jongh´s erotic interpretations can be disputed to hold in the paintings by Gerard Dou because he depicts his dead chicks and fury hares not only with seductive maidservants, but also as props in motifs with old servants, or in domestic household scenes, such as the Young Mother.
Additionally to objects possibly having a deeper meaning via emblem books, also complete scenes in Dou’s oeuvre have been related to scenes depicted in emblem books or prints. The Girl Pouring Water is a variation of the theme Educatio prima bona sit from Boissards Vesuntini emblemata. The moral that this emblem depicts is that ‘children absorb knowledge like a pot absorbs water’. The gaining of knowledge is achieved by a little boy in the background, while the water is poured in the foreground. [Hollander, 2002]
One painting that is strongly associated with an emblem is the Night school. This particular painting is rather anecdotal in character and Baer disagrees with Hecht who refers to this painting as being merely a demonstration of Dou’s abilities to work with artificial light. Baer identifies the candle lights with the light of understanding and she relates the unlit lantern on the left wall with ignorance, which is combated by teaching embodied in the lit lantern in the middle of the floor. Additionally Baer suggests that the girl at the left is a representation of Cognitione, because she strikes the same pose as in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia. Like Ripa’s emblem, the girl in Dou’s painting holds a candle while pointing towards a line of text. The essence of Ripa’s emblem is that “like our eyes, which need light to see, so our reason needs our senses, especially that of sight, to achieve true understanding”. [Baer, 2001]
Dou's work commanded high prices long after his death, until the 1860s. Soon after, he fell into near complete obscurity. For example, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art held in an exhibit to introduce Dutch art, it featured 37 by Rembrandt, 20 by Hals, but none by Dou. His obscurity continued until the 1970s when his reputation was reestablished and has continued since.
- 1623-65: The Night School (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- 1628: Astronomer (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- 1630s: Old Woman Reading a Lectionary (Rembrandt's Mother) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- 1630s: Portrait of a Girl (Manchester Art Gallery, UK)
- 1631: Prince Rupert, (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
- 1635-36: Still Life with a Boy Blowing Soap-Bubbles (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)
- 1635-1640: Portrait of a Man (National Gallery, London)
- 1637: An Interior with a Young Violinist (National Galleries of Scotland)
- 1640s: Portrait of a Young Woman (National Gallery, London)
- 1640-1645: Portrait of a Man (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- 1642-1647: St. Jerome in the Desert (Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York)
- 1645: The Schoolmaster (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
- 1646: Girl Chopping Onions (Royal Collection, London)
- 1647: Still Life With Book and Purse(J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
- 1650: The Dutch Housewife (Louvre, Paris)
- 1650s: The Young Mother (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)
- 1650s: Self Portrait (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- 1650s: Self-portrait at the Window (Residenzgalerie, Salzburg)
- 1652: The Quack (Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
- 1653:The Physician (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch, New Zealand)
- 1653: The Violin Player (Liechtenstein Palace, Vienna)
- 1655: Old Woman Cutting Bread (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
- 1655: Astronomer by Candlelight (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)
- 1658: The Young Mother (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
- 1660-1665: Old Woman Unreeling Threads (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- 1660-1665: Soldier Bather (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- 1660-1665: Woman Bather (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- 1660-1665: Selfportrait (Louvre, Paris)
- 1663: The Dropsical Woman (Louvre, Paris)
- 1663: Woman at a Window with a Copper Bowl of Apples and a Cock Pheasant (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
- 1665: A Lady playing a Clavichord (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)
- 1670: A Hermit Praying (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota)
- 1670: The Hermit (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
- 1670s: A Poulterer's Shop (National Gallery, London)
- 1670-75: The Herring Seller (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)
- Self Portrait (National Gallery, London)
- Portrait of a Young Man (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
- Evening Light (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- Young Man (The Hague)
- The Cook (Louvre, Paris)
- The Spinner (Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation)
- The Spinning Reel (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
- The Reader (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
- Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman (Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Montana, Missoula)
- Dog at Rest (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
References in fiction
In Honoré de Balzac's 1831 novel La Peau de chagrin, the curiosity shop Raphaël de Valentin enters in the opening sequence contains, among other paintings, "a Gerald Dow which resembled a page of Sterne," and the old shopkeeper is compared to "Gerald Dow's Money-Changer."
Dou (as "Gerard Douw") is a character in J. Sheridan Le Fanu's short story "Schalken the Painter".
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- Works at WGA
- Works and literature
- Vermeer and The Delft School, a full text exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has material on Gerrit Dou
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Gerrit Dou (1613-1675): Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt at the National Gallery of Art