Gerrit Dou is the first and most famous member of the group of artists referred to as the Leiden 'fine' painters (Leidse Fijnschilders). He specialized in small-format paintings, the details and surfaces of which are carefully observed and meticulously rendered. He was greatly praised as a painter of artificial light by Samuel van Hoogstraten in 1678, and he was responsible for popularizing both the night scene and the 'niche' format, pictorial devices ultimately derived from the art of his famous master, Rembrandt, whose Leiden studio he entered at the age of thirteen, when the great master himself was still a teenager. Dou used them in images of ordinary people ostensibly engaged in mundane activities.
Dou worked on oak panels, usually of small dimensions and often prepared with a warm, reddish-brown ground. The palette in his earliest works consists of aqua, lilac, rose and green, with the gradual introduction of gold. These colors, applied in thin glazes, and the enveloping chiaroscuro echo those in Rembrandt's Leiden paintings. By the mid-1640s Dou had changed to saturated golds, reds and blues, although he still frequently retained the warm chiaroscuro he learned in Rembrandt's studio. His last paintings are marked by a strong local color and by a more roughly painted surface, particularly in the skin and clothing.
Dou's ability as a painter was recognized early in his career. In Angel's address to the artists of Leiden in 1641, published the following year, Dou's painting style was held up as a paradigm to his fellow painters. He was also lauded as a contemporary artist who, like the great masters of antiquity, had a patron (Pieter Spiering) willing to pay handsomely for the right of first refusal to his paintings. Spiering (d. 1652) was the son of the most important tapestry manufacturer in Delft and was Swedish minister to the Hague from the mid-1630s to his death. He ostensibly bought Dou's paintings for Queen Christina, but the works were clearly more to Spiering's taste for the finished than to Christina's taste for the Italianate. Dou charged for his paintings at the rate of one Flemish pound per hour. According to Sandrart, his small paintings sold for the then substantial price of 600 - 1,000 Dutch guilders.
Dou's fame was international by 1660. When the Dutch States General decided to make a gift to Charles II on his accession to the English throne, Dou was appointed an appraiser for the States and, in addition, the States acquired three paintings from him for the new monarch. When the paintings given by the Dutch were exhibited at Whitehall, London, Charles singled out Dou, Titian and Elsheimer for praise. Dou's painting skills impressed Charles so much that he invited the artist to his court; Dou, however, chose to remain in Leiden. Visits to Dou's studio by such foreign scholars and aristocrats as the Dane Ole Borch (1662), the Frenchman Balthasar de Monconys (1663) and Cosimo III de' Medici (1669) are further indications of his popularity. In addition, a painting by Dou appeared in the inventory of 1662 of the Archduke Leopold William of Austria, who had been Governor of the Netherlands from 1646 to 1656.
Dou was no less highly regarded at home. In July 1669 the Burgomasters of Leiden commissioned a painting by Dou, 'whose art was famous and held in great esteem', however, the commission was later withdrawn. Eleven paintings by Dou appeared in the collection of François de la Boë Sylvius, professor of chemistry and medical science at Leiden University, on his death in 1672. Dou's greatest patron in the second half of his career was Johan de Bye, a prominent Leiden citizen and pious Remonstrant. De Monconys, who visited de Bye during his Leiden sojourn, saw there 'a large quantity of paintings by Dou'. On 18 September 1665 de Bye exhibited twenty-seven of his paintings by Dou, representing all types of subject-matter from every phase of Dou's career.
By the age of twenty-eight, Dou was being hailed by contemporary historians and art theorists as someone whose style all artists should emulate. Dou's students and followers varied in talent and in what they took from their master. Frans van Mieris the Elder, whom Dou considered 'the prince of his pupils', derived his style from Dou and even amplified Dou's polished surface finish. The popularity of Dou's pictures, reflected in market prices, the demand of collectors and the influence of his style, pictorial devices and subject-matter continued to grow well into the nineteenth century. In recent years, scholars, connoisseurs and lovers of art have thoroughly reassessed Dou's artistic achievements, once again placing him, as he rightly deserves, amongst the greatest and most innovative of all the Dutch seventeenth-century masters.
The superb quality of the Stark Foundation's Dou was realized as early as 1834, when the great chronicler of Dutch seventeenth-century painting, John Smith, said of it that 'it is impossible for painting to be carried to higher perfection than that displayed in this exquisite little picture'. The painting was in the highly praised Baron van Brienen van der Grootelindt collection, and when it was sold on his behalf in 1865, it realized the enormous sum of 22,000 francs. The 1865 van Brienen sale in which the Dou was included also had paintings by or attributed to Rembrandt (now Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris), Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch (now Wallace Collection, London, Inv. no. P27), Sir Peter Paul Rubens (now Wallace Collection, London, Inv. no. P522), Jan Steen (now Koninlijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels), David Teniers the Younger, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Aert van der Neer (formerly Lord Samuel, now Mansion House, London), Paulus Potter (now Wallace Collection, London, Inv. no. P189), Willem van de Velde the Younger (now Wallace Collection, London, Inv. no. P77), Meindert Hobbema (now Wallace Collection, London, Inv. no. P95), and Jan van der Heyden (now Wallace Collection, London, Inv. no. P230). Since 1865 the whereabouts of the painting has been unknown and it has not been publicly exhibited.
The subject matter and format of the Stark Foundation's Dou is also unique within his oeuvre (only one other pure animal still life by the artist is known - see W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt Schüler, Landau and Pfalz, 1983, I, p. 603, fig. 306). In the present work, a wire-haired spotted dog lies asleep on a table. On the sill to the right is a large earthenware pot, with a straw basket behind it, a stack of bound kindling wood on the extreme right and a wooden clog, behind which lies its pair in shadow. Dou has depicted the dog, something of a mutt, asleep, yet one eye remains slightly open, as if it is dreaming. Dou was a virtuoso in describing surfaces, a skill he likely learned in Rembrandt's studio, and he has painstakingly described every aspect of the dog, from its fur, to the red on the inside corners of its eyes, to its wet nose with a slightly raw patch on the end, to the leathery texture of the pads of its paws. The same dog and terracotta jug appear in the right hand corner of Dou's The Spinner's Prayer, circa 1645-50, now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich (fig. 1).
In particular, the Stark Foundation Dou is clearly inspired by a Rembrandt drawing and etching of a Sleeping watchdog and Sleeping puppy, datable to circa 1637-40 and 1639-50 respectively (figs. 2 and 3; see C.S. Ackley, et. al., in the catalogue of the exhibition, Rembrandt's Journey: Printer, Draftsman, Etcher, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts and Chicago, Art Institute, October 2003 - May 2004, p. 123, figs. 54 and 55). As in the Rembrandt drawing and etching, Dou focuses entirely on the animal itself and its immediate surroundings. The artist seems to have drawn greatest inspiration from Rembrandt's etching, and in both cases the emphasis is on the play of light across the texture of the dog's coat and its cozy environment (notwithstanding that the plate in Rembrandt's etching was initially larger at the left and lower edge and subsequently cut down). In the print, the body of the dog is etched with lines that are literally hair-fine, and Dou has replicated this technique with equal success in oil paint, the small size of the composition contributing to the feeling of an intimate glimpse into the animal's life. Ackley (op. cit.) writes, 'Rembrandt's pictorial isolation of the dog and his evocative description of it is comparable to his careful depiction of a single exotic shell in the small etching of 1650' (ibid., no. 145). The latter is the same date as the present painting, but Dou's A sleeping dog is unique within his oeuvre in its concentrated and tender depiction of such a humble subject.
Dou's paintings depict the everyday life of the Dutch bourgeoisie, without the obvious picturesque trappings of a rustic or theatrical nature. Many of the popular images that he created and developed, however, contain veiled symbolism, usually derived from traditional moralizing or didactic themes, which allow them to be read on more than one level. It is likely that this superb little painting of a sleeping dog has overtones of a so-called vanitas still life, which emphasizes the transitoriness of earthly life, in keeping with the strong tradition for such themes in Leiden. However, its exact meaning must remain unclear, and the visual richness of Dou's imagery and the possibility of multi-layered interpretation must have played a large part in the appeal of his paintings to contemporary audiences, just as they do today.
We are grateful to Dr. Ronni Baer for her assistance in preparing the above entry. The painting will be included in her forthcoming catalogue raisonné on the artist.