Not on the market since the 1920s and its whereabouts unknown for generations, A lady at a clavichord by Gerrit Dou represents a thrilling rediscovery. Well-documented in the literature on Dou, this painting is an important example of the artist's late work. In the scene, an elegantly dressed woman in a fur-trimmed velvet jacket and satin skirt plays a clavichord. Her wide-set eyes, framed by soft curls and a pearl earring, are turned outward to meet the viewer's gaze. In the background, a group of three men and a woman sit around a table, making music and drinking. Enhancing the luxury of the scene is a finely appointed interior, which includes a handsomely tooled leather chair and delicately painted clavichord, sitting on a table covered by an Isfahan carpet -- a precious item in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. Nearby, a colorful tapestry hanging from the ceiling is pulled to one side, framing the scene. Dou's attractive young woman and her sumptuous setting entice the viewer, which in turn accentuates the artist's painterly skill.
The subject and appearance of this painting indicate that it dates from the 1660s. In this decade, Dou moved away from the scenes of middle-class life on which he built his reputation and focused instead on representing opulent interiors of the upper classes. In doing so, he aligned his work with peers who were also painting elegant domestic scenes, such as Gerard ter Borch, Johannes Vermeer, and Dou's pupil Frans van Mieris. Dou began to paint more freely at this time, constructing his images through a mix of broad and precise strokes rather than the fine painting technique for which he was well-known and celebrated, particularly by his biographer Joachim von Sandrart. In the present work, such contrast in handling can be seen between the delicately painted face of the young woman and looser appearance of the background figures. In this late period after 1660, Dou also adopted a brighter palette, evident in the vibrant colors of the tapestry and garments in the present work.
A lady at a clavichord shares elements with other key works from Dou's oeuvre from the 1660s. The subject closely resembles the painting in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from around 1665 (fig. 2). Although the young woman in the Dulwich picture is more modestly dressed, she too sits at a clavichord, her eyes turned to meet the viewer. In both instances, Dou included a tapestry to the right of the composition. This motif, combined with the direct gaze of the young women, draws viewers into the scenes and creates intimacy within the composition. With the curtains pulled aside, viewers are privy, and even welcomed, into private domestic spaces. Another related composition from the same period appears in Dou's A lady at her toilet in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, dated 1667. In this painting, a well-dressed woman stares out at the viewer through a mirror, creating the same seductive effect that exists in the present work: a blurred boundary between material value and beauty (Baer 2001, op. cit., p. 128).
In Dou's lifetime, scenes of making music such as A lady at a clavichord were often associated with harmony and love, and in seventeenth-century Dutch painting it was overwhelmingly women who were depicted in the role of clavichord player. Scholars have suggested that Dou's paintings of this subject may have influenced Vermeer's A lady seated at a virginal from around 1675 in The National Gallery, London (fig. 3), which shares many compositional elements with Dou's work and makes the connection between music and love all the more overt through the inclusion of Dirck van Baburen's Procuress hanging behind the sitter (A. Wheelock, Johannes Vermeer, New Haven and London, 1995, pp. 202-203, note 10). The expectant gaze of the young woman and drawn curtain relate closely to Dou's works and demonstrate the lasting success that he and his contemporaries found with this theme.
A lady at a clavichord belonged to several major collections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although its early provenance periodically has become tangled with that of the Dulwich picture, it can be confirmed that this work was owned by Dutch collector Jan Gildemeester, a wealthy merchant and Consul-General of Portugal. Upon seeing Gildemeester's collection in 1789, English visitor Samuel Ireland wrote that it 'is formed with more taste than any I have yet seen...his politeness and attention can only be equaled by the happy selection he had made' and goes on to mention Dou by name. In 1792, Gildemeester moved to a large house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam, which he filled with his important collection. In a painting now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam from 1794/95, Adriaan de Lelie depicted the collector and visitors in his gallery (fig. 1). In the scene, Gildemeester's home is filled from floor to ceiling with paintings, many of which can be identified today, including Ter Borch's The letter now in the Royal Collection, London, above the gentleman seated at left and, directly below, Dou's A lady at a clavichord. In the nineteenth century, the painting belonged to William Wells of Redleaf and, according the Hofstede de Groot, the Earl of Northbrook, before eventually purchased by the family of the present owners from Duveen Brothers in 1927.