We know of a total of 12 painted self-portraits by Gerrit Dou,1 clearly a faithful follower of his teacher, Rembrandt. The latter depicted himself at least 80 times, in paintings, drawings and prints – more than any other artist of the seventeenth century.2 In both cases, the likenesses span most of their careers, from the painter’s early youth to shortly before his death, thereby forming a unique personal document. This, however, marks the end of the resemblance. Whereas Rembrandt created his self-portraits in order to explore his persona, leaving aside most references to the outside world, Dou increasingly used his images – with their wealth of attributes – as a means of demonstrating his status as a successful painter. And while Rembrandt’s brushstroke became ever more visible, Dou developed into a meticulous ‘fine painter’.
Most of our information on Gerrit Dou’s youth and training derives from Jan Jansz Orlers’s Beschrijvinge der Stadt Leyden of 1641.3 He notes that the painter was born in the town on 7 April 1613. His father, the glassblower and engraver Douwe Jansz, apprenticed the young Gerrit first to the engraver Bartholomeus Dolendo, who was to teach him to draw, and then to the glass-etcher Pieter Couwenhorn before taking him under his own wing. In the years 1625-27 Gerrit was a member of the Leiden glassmakers’ guild. On 24 February 1628, aged just 14, Dou became the then 21-year-old Rembrandt’s first pupil. He remained in Rembrandt’s studio until the latter left for Amsterdam at the end of 1631.
These four years left a deep impression on the young Dou. In subject matter, palette and use of chiaroscuro, many of the paintings he executed in the 1630s strongly recall those of his master.4 It was probably due in part to his experience as an etcher and painter on glass – which requires an extremely steady hand – that in the course of this decade Dou increasingly refined his painting style. The polished end result and deep colours so characteristic of glass painting are also increasingly found in his works of this period.5
In our self-portrait – the smallest of the 12 – Dou wears a rather serious expression and is dressed in the latest fashion. Both the pose, with the right arm raised to chest level, and the gloved hand give the portrait a certain elegance. The artist’s bearing and details such as the hat with its raised brim and his long hair may have been inspired by Rembrandt’s etched self-portrait of 1631 (fig. 1).6 The painting is not dated. Comparison with the self-portrait in Dresden (fig. 2), dated 1647, in which Dou’s features appear somewhat fuller, indicate it was probably executed around 1645. It may seem strange that in 1645, some 13 years after he had left Rembrandt’s studio, Dou should still be reflecting on the work of his former master, but even much later, in the 1660s, he appears to have been aware of the latest developments in Rembrandt’s oeuvre.7
The details in the background clearly refer to the artist’s profession. The painting on the easel depicts the Rest on the flight into Egypt.8 This is striking, as Dou never painted historical scenes. Ronni Baer has suggested that the choice may relate to the high esteem in which history painting was held in seventeenth-century Dutch art criticism, where it was considered the most noble of the genres.9 The globe and lute on the table and the objects on the ground to the right of the easel – a stool and a shield – are typical studio props: we encounter them in many of Dou’s own works.10 The parasol attached to the easel was designed to prevent dust particles from settling on the panel. Dou’s meticulous execution was already admired in the seventeenth century. Joachim von Sandrart, who visited the artist in 1639, recorded that Dou kept his palette, brushes and pigments in a locked cabinet and that the painter, once having taken his seat at the easel, waited ‘for the dust to settle’ before beginning to work.11 Recent technical examination has revealed that many areas in his paintings are built up in layers, sometimes as many as 12. The bottommost is generally opaque; over this he then applied numerous more or less transparent, glaze-like coatings.12 The result of this laborious and time-consuming technique was an astonishingly true-to-life depiction of materials.
That Dou here so explicitly points to his profession is undoubtedly connected to his growing fame. By the mid-1640s he was a celebrated master. He had developed an extremely smooth painting technique, in which the brushstrokes had become practically invisible. His incomparable depiction of all kinds of materials garnered much admiration. His studio drew the talented pupils seeking to master his techniques and who would go down in history as the so-called ‘school of Leiden fijnschilders’. Collectors at home and abroad were prepared to pay large sums for his pictures. This latter also probably explains his relatively large number of self-portraits. As Ernst van de Wetering has recently suggested in relation to Rembrandt, it seems possible that collectors who had acquired one or more works by a famous master also wished to add a self-portrait to their collections. Particularly if they admired the artist’s distinctive technique, the purchase of a self-portrait was a ‘double’ acquisition: a portrait of the man himself, executed in his own, highly personal style.13 This can be said of the more expressive Rembrandt, but certainly also of the fijnschilder Dou.