Few Americans know Gerrit Dou as a contemporary of Rembrandt and other Dutch masters, but his reputation will benefit from a retrospective of his underrated work.
If you don't recognize Gerrit Dou's name, you're not alone. When American tycoons at the end of the 19th century were using their new fortunes to buy Dutch paintings and bring them to this country, Dou's reputation was at an all-time low. Instead, magnates such as Henry Clay Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan bought Rembrandts by the dozens, along with works by Frans Hals and many others. Today, hardly a major museum is without important works from the Golden Age of Dutch painting. But the Dous got left behind in Holland.
Dou's reputation had once been grander. Born in 1613 in Leiden, he'd been Rembrandt's first pupil and quickly earned respect as a painter of enormous skill and promise. His works fetched high prices, and his paintings hung in the collections of both the king of England and the queen of Sweden.
Dou's canvases continued to sell well and were admired widely up through the middle of the 19th century, when suddenly the art world began to disparage Dou (pronounced Dow) for the very traits that had made his success: His meticulousness as a painter led his critics to complain of his lack of mystery and grand themes.
An exhibition of 35 of Dou's works, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, should help dispel American ignorance of this master. It also should convince viewers that Dou belongs among the great 17th-century Dutch painters, an extraordinary group of artists.
Dou's obsession with precision seems to have emerged from his early training as a painter on glass, a skill that demands meticulousness. …