The Quietude of the Painter Dou

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THIS winter the largest-ever collection of the paintings of Gerrit Dou, consummate in all their tiny magic, travelled to Washington, Dulwich and The Hague from as far afield as Stockholm and St Petersburg. Dou's pictures have wandered much further than their painter ever did. There is no evidence that Dou ever ventured far from the fogs and Calvinism of his native Leiden. Enrolled in the Leiden Guild of Glassworkers in 1625 at the age of twelve, he started life as a glass-engraver and an actual installer of windows, but his recklessness in climbing the steep Dutch frontages in order to reglaze them worried his father so much that he yielded to Gerrit's wish to follow his bent as a painter. Painting was a craft financially less stable but physically safer; although in fact Gerrit was destined to earn large sums for his pictures, and died a rich man.

It happened that Rembrandt van Ryn lived nearby, so Gerrit, then fifteen years old, was sent to learn painting from Rembrandt. He was with Rembrandt for three years, during which he sketched Rembrandt's elderly models (believed by some critics to be Rembrandt's parents); also his studio properties, some of which he acquired for himself when Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam. It is hard to say what, beyond the rudiments of painting, Dou derived from his time with Rembrandt. Although endowed with perception and sensitivity, he had nothing of Rembrandt's passion. Rembrandt hurled himself at his canvases in a swingeing whirl of impasto and lavish concepts. Dou was a smooth and meticulous artist whose minute deftness and slow accretion of paint on his oak panels wearied the sitters (less patient than himself) for his portraits to such exasperation that, always truthful, he was obliged to depict them with sulky looks. Sometimes they took the expedient of having everything but their faces put in by a second artist, such as Adriaen van Ostade. The laughably vexed expressions of a man and his wife wholly painted by Dou are seen in the pair of portraits lent to the exhibition by the Aurora Art Fund.

As may be deduced from his unfinished version of The Grocer's Shop (borrowed from the Royal Collection), Dou's pictures went through four stages: monochrome underpainting, flat colour, half-tints and highlights. The story is often told of how he spent five days just on the underpainting of a hand. He soon gave up painting portraits except of his own painstaking person, as seen in the self-portraits lent by the Cheltenham Art Gallery and the Kansas City Museum.

His light is clear and incisive: he insisted on painting in full sunlight even when at work on his well-known night-pieces, from which his pupil Schalcken learned so much, in which he simulated the blaze of flaring tallow candles and the dimmer diffusions of horn-windowed lanterns. Two of these are Dou's Night School, lent by the Rijksmuseum, and his Astronomer, lent by the Getty Museum; a rudimentary astronomer who works by candlelight at an open window, with a candle in his hand and an astolabe and a guide to the stars on the sill. Dou's Hermit in the Wallace Collection writes by the white brilliance of a stout-wicked candle which glosses his already bright eyes and the sparse waft of his beard.

Dou's early training as an enameller of glass paintings in sharp hues of lilac and rose, gold and green, divorced him from his master's predilection for amorphous shades of grey and brown. The diarist John Evelyn wrote of his works sent to Charles II as 'painted by Dowe so finely as hardly to be distinguish'd from enamail'. Dou disliked blurs. His shadows are distinct and demarcated (as in his picture, The Doctor, lent by the Statens Museum in Copenhagen) except in deliberately mysterious corners and recessions in such panels as the Dulwich Gallery's own Lady at a Clavichord. In the Man writing by an Easel he exploits the unbroken black of the bitumen underpaint to stress the penetrating light thrown on the focal subject. …