Augustus Meyers, Forest Lodge, Ashtead, Surrey;
His posthumous sale et al., London, Christie's, 13 May 1949, lot 78, for £546 to Speelman;
With Edward Speelman, London;
By whom sold in 1950 to Sir Robert Bland Bird (1876–1960) for £1,100;
Possibly by inheritance to Pamela Stephanie Helen Bird, Viscountess de Maudit (1910–2006);
Possibly Dr Sydney Wood Bradley (1896–1967), Ottawa, by 1967;
Possibly Helen M. Bradley Langstaff (1912–1986);
Helen Langstaff, Toronto, Canada;
Thence by inheritance to the present owner in 1986.
W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schuler, Landau/Pfalz 1983, vol. I, pp. 527, 548, no. 251, reproduced.
Aside from the present panel, the small extant group of paintings of the Magdalene by Dou include those in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe; the Hamburg Kunsthalle; and the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (fig. 1).2 All four paintings are painted on small oak panels of similar size.3 In each picture the saint is depicted in a rocky grotto beside a dying tree, whose branches curve over and above her in a form of natural arch, while Mary sits or kneels before an open book, presumably a bible. In each painting the saint has one breast exposed – undoubtedly as a reference to her former life as a prostitute – which she modestly covers with her hand in the Karlsruhe version. Her eyes are uniformly cast heavenwards in contemplation, and in the present painting and that in Karlsruhe, the saint additionally holds a crucifix and a scourge respectively. The rocky ledge before which she prays is in each case adorned with various objects symbolic of the theme of vanitas, which alludes to the transitoriness of life on earth: here a skull and a snuffed-out candle, in Karlsruhe an hour glass and skull, in Hamburg an extinguished lamp, and lastly a skull in the Stockholm version. All of these, as well as the wonderful old gnarled bark of the dead tree, are rendered by Dou with the utmost care and attention to detail and the play of light. Although in reverse, the present painting is closest in design to that in Stockholm, in which Mary wears a very similar white chemise and prays before a crucifix rather than clasping it. The present work appears to be unique in that it shows the distant night sky through the arch of the grotto.
Although Dou signed a great many of his works, relatively few are also dated, and this makes dating his works problematic. Dou’s brushwork and the consistently smooth, and at times almost enamelled finish which concealed it – no doubt a legacy of his earliest training in glass painting,4 – shows little sign of development until his latest years, and thus offers few clues. The first compiler of a catalogue of his paintings, Wilhelm Martin, was unaware of this panel, but he dated all three of the other Magdalene paintings to around 1635–40.5 More recently, however, Dr Ronni Baer has argued for a much later dating, probably around 1660–65, for both the Hamburg and Karlsruhe Magdalenes, drawing attention to the creamy whites of the chemise as more typical of the second half of Dou’s career. Thematically, she also suggests that the subject of the Magdalene is as closely related, if not more so, to the beautiful young girls at windows that Dou had begun to paint in the mid-1650s than to the ascetic hermits in meditation.6 Nevertheless, the general composition of this panel can certainly be compared with his later depictions of hermits from this period, such as the Hermit of 1664 at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.7 Another possible pointer to a dating would be Dou’s use of what seems to be the same model for the nude figure in his Bather, today at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (fig. 2), and for the figure of Mary Magdalene in the present picture. The physiognomy and even the arrangement of the hair seems extremely close in both paintings (fig. 3). The St Petersburg panel forms part of a remarkable group of three studies of nudes that were owned by Dou’s most important patron in the second half of his career, Johan de Bye (c. 1621–before 1672), a prominent citizen of Leiden and a pious Remonstrant. If we are looking at the same model then a possible dating around or before 1665 for our panel is provided by the fact that the Bather (and the other two nudes) formed part of an exhibition of no less than twenty-seven of Dou’s paintings displayed by de Bye in the house of the painter Johannes Hannot (1635–1685) in Leiden in September 1665.8 On stylistic grounds Baer dates all three of these nudes to the same period as the Hamburg and Karlsruhe Magdalenes, and the many parallels between the present panel and these other works would strongly suggest that it too was painted in the same period at the beginning of the 1660s.9 Most recently Irena Sokolova has also suggested a dating around 1660–65 for the group.10
Dou’s depictions of both Mary Magdalene and the hermit saints were no doubt intended as paradigms of the contemplative life but whereas the iconography of the hermit pictures stressed the constancy of their devotions and their ultimate triumph over death through prayer, those of the penitent Magdalene present not only a personification of piety, but additionally hold out the hope of redemption through prayer and repentance. As an inscription on the Hamburg panel declaims (to both saint and spectator): Vive ut vivas (‘Live so that you may live’). In the present panel this redemption is symbolised by the detail of the new branches springing from the withered bark of the old tree, representing the possibility of new life. The contemporary viewer was thus offered a simple moral warning, that of the choice between good and evil, as symbolised by the two trees, one living and one dead. As Baer and others have pointed out, this imagery was based upon an emblem from Roemer Visscher’s contemporary Sinepoppen, which carried the motto Keur baert angst (‘Choice brings anxiety’).11
Dou’s Mary certainly seems to be a suitable model for contemplation. In complete contrast to the often naked and tousle-haired beauties painted by Italian artists such as Titian or Reni, the Magdalene is here portrayed by Dou, not as a fallen wanton, but as a moral exemplar. Her golden tresses are carefully pulled back into a neat bun, and her steadfast demeanour suggests that she is instead a symbol of redemption and renewal. Her exposed breast hints at her sensual past, but the painting is never overtly erotic, and its redemptive message is never undermined. As Naumann has observed, the popularity of the subject of the penitent Magdalene in Dutch painting of this period must be seen against the background of contemporary Calvinist doctrines of repentance and piety.12 The poem Mary Magdalene dedicated to the saint by the staunch Calvinist preacher Jacobus Revius (1586–1658) gives us an indication of a contemporary viewer’s response to such a painting:
‘Woman, thy love has been a passion strong and ardent,
And God forgave thy many sins by act of grace.
By His undeserved love our many faults are pardoned,
That we may serve Him, ay, each in his humble place.’13
Dou’s home city of Leiden was also the seat of a famous university, and such themes such as the Magdalene and the concomitant vanitas elements would have been equally appreciated intellectually by Calvinists and Catholics alike.
Dou’s paintings such as this were greatly admired from his own lifetime until late in the nineteenth century. According to his earliest biographer Joachim Sandrart (1606–1688), Dou’s small pictures sold for between 600 and 1,000 Dutch guilders, then a substantial price. He further claimed that Dou had needed eyeglasses by the age of thirty, and commented on his very slow working method, apparently taking days to paint the smallest details.14 While the more colourful details of Sandrart’s account may not be entirely trustworthy, there is no doubt of the reputation Dou held among his contemporaries. By 1648, when he is recorded among the founder-members of the Guild of Saint Luke in Leiden, Dou's works already fetched some of the highest prices of their day. Queen Christina of Sweden owned at least eleven of his works, and other royal patrons included the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria and probably the Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany. By 1660 Dou was sufficiently famous for the Dutch States General to acquire three paintings from him as a gift to the newly crowned Charles II of England. Dou’s skills so favourably impressed Charles that he singled out his works for praise and invited him to his court. Dou declined the offer and remained in Leiden where he died a wealthy man.
We are grateful to Dr Ronni Baer for endorsing the attribution to Gerrit Dou following first-hand inspection of the painting, and for suggesting a likely date of execution of around 1660–65.
1 Cited by Ronni Baer in ‘The Life and Art of Gerrit Dou’, in Gerrit Dou 1613–1675. Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; and Mauritshuis, The Hague 2000–01, p. 32, n. 68.
2 Another closely related variant, in which the saint sits by candlelight in her grotto was sold New York, Sotheby’s, 29 January 2009, lot 117 (as attributed to Dou).
3 The Karlsruhe panel measures 25.5 x 19 cm., the Hamburg panel 25 x 19 cm., and the Stockholm Magdalene 26 x 19 cm.
4 Dou trained with his father, a glazier, and the glass painter Pieter Couwenhorn for two years, and was a member of the Glaziers’ Guild from 1625–27, before leaving to join Rembrandt’s workshop in February 1628.
5 W. Martin, Gerard Dou. Des Meisters Gemälde, Stuttgart and Berlin 1913, nos 3, 4 and 5, all reproduced.
6 Baer 1990, under no. 101.2.
7 Baer 1990, no. 91.
8 All three paintings are now at the Hermitage in St Petersburg and were jointly exhibited Amsterdam, Hermitage Museum, Dutch Masters from the Hermitage, 2018, nos 12–14; see R. Baer, ‘Dou's Nudes’, in Aemulatio: Imitation, Emulation and Invention in Netherlandish Art from 1500–1800, Essays in honor of Eric Jan Sluijter, Zwolle 2011, pp. 371–81. For a discussion of de Bye’s exhibition see Baer in Washington–London–The Hague 2000–01, p. 30, n. 43.
9 Baer 2011, pp. 371–81.
10 I. Sokolova, in Dutch Masters from the Hermitage, exh. cat., Amsterdam 2018, pp. 96–105.
11 R. Visscher, Sinepoppen, Amsterdam 1614, no. 11.
12 O. Naumann, Frans van Mieris the Elder, Doornspijk 1981, vol. I, p. 90.
13 Cited in Naumann 1981, vol. I, p. 90.
14 J. von Sandrart, Teutsche Academie, 1675–79, A.R. Peltzer (ed.), Munich 1925, pp. 195–96.
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