This exquisite painting of a hermit reading in a cave is unusual, though not unprecedended, in its fabrication: a small panel of just the hermit's head and torso is inset into a larger, thicker panel. This configuration has intrigued some of the earliest observers of the painting. Smith, Hofstede de Groot and Martin believed that the smaller painting was made first and that Dou later enlarged it, perhaps to accomodate changing tastes or a specific patron's wishes. The 1910 Yerkes catalogue hypothosizes that Dou had always intended to make a large painting but that the initial panel was damaged and Dou cut out the center and inserted it in the present panel (fig 2). Whatever Dou's reasons for creating a painting out of two panels, the composition is completely harmonious and virtually seamless. While an uncommon technique in Dou's oeuvre, the enlargement of paintings by adding panels was practiced more often by his most successful student and contemporary, Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81) who could have inspired his master with this method (see Q. Buvelot and O. Naumann, 'Format changes in the paintings by Frans van Mieris the Elder', The Burlington Magazine, CL, February 2008, pp. 102-104).
The subject of a hermit reading or praying is one that Dou returned to throughout his career, from the mid-1630s through 1670. These images combine a balance of details - books, vanitas symbols, rosaries and crucifixes - though without such specific attributes to identify the saints. This was done perhaps to broaden the appeal of the images to the widest possible audience. In the present painting the inclusion of a leafless tree is perhaps a symbol of the hermit's triumph over death through the reading of the Scriptures and prayer, while the prominence of the book suggests the importance of the written word in Protestant theology (see Washington, National Gallery of Art; Gerrit Dou (1613-1675): Master painter in the Age of Rembrandt, Washington, exhibition catalogue, 2000, pp. 35-36, 130-132).
These hermit paintings vary in size and complexity of composition. For example, an undated panel of A bearded old man depicts a bust-length figure, hands clasped against a dark background with just a beam of light illuminating his face and hands (Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 26 January 2006, lot 15, $1,248,000). A much more elaborate and larger (18 1/8 x 13 5/8 inches) painting dated 1670 shows a hermit kneeling in front of a crucifix resting against a tree with vanitas symbols strewn about the foreground (Washington, exhibition catalogue, op. cit., pp. 132-133, no. 34). Hermit praying also dated 1670 and in the Minneapolis Institute of Art depicts a bearded figure in front of a series of brick archways and is painted in a freer style (op. cit., no. 33).
In the present painting the hermit is situated in a setting slightly more specific than the spartan dark background of the painting offered at Sotheby's though less elaborate than the Washington and Minneapolis pictures. A gnarled tree in the background and a cloth-covered table in the foreground, both loosely painted in rich, dark colors, as well as an archway summarily indicated with a broad sweep of the brush are all the indications of a setting that Dou included. This broader application of paint is juxtaposed with the exquisitely detailed fijnschilder technique of the hermit and his book. Every strand of hair is deliniated with the finest brush stroke, the pair of spectacles in his left hand are delicately depicted and the wrinkled, papery texture of the hermit's hands and forehead is created with Dou's typical application of fine parallel lines of alternating colors.
The open tome is so precisely painted that it has been possible to identify it as an edition of the Deux-Aes Bijbel, the Dutch Protestant Bible that was printed for the first time in 1562 (fig 1). The text is a warning from the publisher that the apocryphal books were not part of the 'Canon' and therefore not necessarily the authoritive text. The illustration at the bottom of the page that is partly visible in the painting is a publisher's mark. This deliberately added detail shows that Dou made this painting for a Protestant patron.