When the 15-year-old Gerrit Dou went to study with Rembrandt when the mast was only a few years older than him, he must have wondered what he was getting into. Born April 7, 1613, Dou certainly knew Rembrandt’s reputation and believed he could learn from him, but probably couldn’t abide Rembrandt’s casual approach to life. I picture the two of them as Dutch painting’s version of The Odd Couple–the neat-freak Dou, who painted so meticulously that he made his own brushes and claimed to take five days just to paint a single hand, and the slovenly Rembrandt, whose thick impasto style of painting seemed to get thicker as quickly as his waistline expanded. Dou’s 1665 Self-Portrait (above) shows him at the height of his success, ruling over the Leiden art scene after Rembrandt had left for Amsterdam. Whereas Rembrandt’s self-portraits contain props disguising his identity as much as his fast painting technique obscured fine detail, Dou surrounds himself here in all the familiar trappings of a cultured artist at work in a crystal clear representation that actually threatens to reach out into space.
Dou gained great monetary success by catering to the Dutch merchant class’ desire for depictions of domesticity. The Young Mother (above, from 1655-1660) shows a typical scene of the ideal home. Dou never married, so he lacked first-hand knowledge of such scenes. You can almost sense a distaste for the messiness of everyday life in Dou’s paintings of the quotidian. In The Young Mother, we see a young mother preparing to nurse her child, but not the act itself. Everyone, including the baby, is too busy beaming to do that. The staginess of the painting is accentuated by the curtain that appears pulled to the upper right corner, as if this were a scene from a play rather than real life. Most of Dou’s works are tiny, like those of Johannes Vermeer, the product of such meticulous attention that Dou often painted using a magnifying glass to get the finest details just so.
Regardless of his personal fastidiousness, Dou could paint. The chiaroscuro in Astronomer by Candlelight (above, from 1665) stands up to anything by Caravaggio in terms of dark and light. Dou specialized in such dramatic interior scenes by candlelight. Until Impressionism took over the world of big-money collectors, Dou’s paintings commanded attention on a par with those of Vermeer and Rembrandt. The Met’s recent exhibition of great Dutch painting in their collection donated by those collectors included plenty of Dou’s work amidst his more famous countrymen. Walking through that exhibition, it dawned on me how Dou and Rembrandt once stood on equal footing in the eyes of the tastemakers. Today, however, Dou’s neat, polished surfaces, however beautiful, seem lacking next to the sloppy, layered, brilliant works of his former teacher.