The pose and the direction of the artist’s gaze, as well as the abundance of objects lying about, make the work under discussion here somewhat more anecdotal. Still, one cannot help but feel that whoever painted it must have been inspired by Rembrandt’s version of the theme. Some of the weapons and other items at the lower right confirm the Rembrandt link, as they appear to have been among the master’s belongings. The chased shield, for example, appears in Rembrandt’s history piece of 1626.5 The globe and the violin recur regularly in Dou’s work, among others in a self-portrait of 1647.6
Dou’s earliest dated work originated in 1637.7 Our knowledge of his production in the years before this, however, is rather fragmentary. A number of attributions and proposed dates are uncertain. Moreover, there are such variations in quality that it hardly seems possible all the works assigned to him could be by the same hand. Even Ronni Baer’s suggested reconstruction of the painter’s early oeuvre for the recent Dou exhibition seems to have been based on questionable assumptions.8 Presupposing that from the beginning Dou was preoccupied with the exact rendering of materials and that he was also quite capable of achieving this, it is certainly not the wonderfully painted objects at the lower right in A painter in his studio that lead me to question its attribution. In terms of execution, they very much resemble similar articles found in several of Dou’s works.9 It is instead the somewhat clumsy depiction of space and the rather wooden poses of the two figures that in my opinion make it suspicious. The perspective of the open door is incorrect, while the man entering appears as stiff as a wooden doll. The painter’s facial features, in the past occasionally identified as those of Rembrandt or even Dou himself,10 are equally unconvincing. Comparison with a Dou self-portrait painted around the same time or somewhat later (fig. 2) demonstrates that even at this early stage the artist was more than able to give character to his likenesses.
Now that we have established that the thematic link with either the work of Rembrandt or his circle is undeniable but the attribution to Dou uncertain, the question arises as to who the maker of the painting actually was. The name Jacob van Spreeuwen (1609/1610-after 1650) has been mentioned several times in this context.11 He is cited in the literature as a pupil of either Dou or Rembrandt, but there is no evidence for either of these assumptions. Only a small number of his works are dated, making it extremely difficult to create a trustworthy picture of his rather small oeuvre, which consists of portraits, genre scenes and a single history painting. Several of the aforementioned ‘clumsinesses’, like the depiction of space, can indeed, be found in Van Spreeuwen’s work.12 On the other hand, his technique is generally rather rough and quite different from what we see here.
Ernst van de Wetering has recently attributed the painting to an unnamed Rembrandt pupil.13 This prudent verdict is probably the best we can do, given the current state of Rembrandt research, in which the working methods and production of the master’s studio play an ever-increasing role in the judgment of pictures by both Rembrandt himself and his students. Technical examination using infrared reflectography in the workshop of the Mauritshuis has revealed several changes to the composition, the most important of which was a quarter turning of the easel in the direction of the viewer. In the future, this information, in combination with other facts revealed through technical examination of works of the Rembrandt circle, could lead to a more certain attribution.