Much of Dou’s early subject matter, such as his portraits and tronies (head studies), was borrowed directly from Rembrandt, as well as his use of light and dark to create dramatic effects. The subjects of old men, scholars and hermits are ones which Dou borrowed from Rembrandt at the beginning of his career and returned to again towards the end of his life; a similarly composed Hermit Praying, is in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. His earliest depictions of this subject date from 1635, and the latest dated examples to 1670, five years before his death. The figures vary between full length and half-length, and are sometimes portrayed before crucifixes or holding rosaries and bibles, or kneeling in landscapes or among ruins. In the present painting, Dou has placed the figure in a three-quarter pose and close to the picture frame, with only the faintest suggestion of an architectural setting in the right background. He has ably captured a range of materials and textures, and the wrinkles of the old man’s face are painted in small, regular strokes. Dou’s characteristically fine brushwork is both spirited and free, particularly in the hair, beard, and in the quill in his hand. A similarly early, unsigned version of this composition, dateable to circa 1635, is in the Hermitage, St. Petersberg (see W. Martin, Gerard Dou. Des Meisters Gemälde, Stuttgart and Berlin 1913, p. 61, reproduced). There are also versions of the same figure reading in profile in the Musée du Louvre, Paris and at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig.
Dou is considered the founder of the Dutch school of fijnschilders (literally translated to ‘fine painters’) and the present work reveals the meticulously detailed style of painting that he pioneered which has since become synonymous with the character of Leiden painting. He received his first artistic instruction in the art of glass engraving from his father, who owned a workshop for the production of church glass in Leiden, and who later sent him to study the craft of glass painting in the workshop of Pieter Couwenhorn, the most important and well connected glazier in the city. Dou was a member of the glaziers’ guild from 1625-27, and his early training as a glass painter undoubtedly influenced this work and his mature painting style. As Dr. Ronni Baer notes, “The technique of cutting glass with a diamond encouraged a steady hand…The meticulousness necessary to transfer designs on paper to glass may explain Dou’s predilection for small works, while the polish resulting from the firing of painted glass might have provided a model for the characteristic smooth finish of Dou’s paintings and governed his use of panel (rather than canvas) as a support better suited to obtaining this finish.1
We are grateful to Dr. Ronni Baer for supporting the attribution to Dou, based on photographs.
1. “The Life and Art of Gerrit Dou”, in Gerrit Dou 1613-1675, Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt, exhibition catalogue, Washington 2000, p. 29.
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