Minutely painting small scenes of everyday life with a surface of almost enamelled smoothness, often represented in arched stone openings and contain visual references to well-known contemporary proverbs or emblems, the Dutch Golden Age painter, Gerrit Dou, also called Gerard Dou, is revered as one of the most famous of all Dutch painters until the beginning of the 19th century.
Considered the founder of the Dutch school of Fijnschilderij, or fine painting, Gerrit Dou was born in Leiden on April 7, 1613. The son of a glazier and glass engraver, Dou was first trained by his father. For a year and a half, he was apprenticed to the copper engraver Bartholomeus Dolendo in 1622. Afterward, he trained with the glass painter Pieter Kouwenhoven for two years.
From 1628 to 1631, Dou studied with Rembrandt, adopting the master’s choice of subject matter and his use of impasto, careful draftsmanship, and dramatic treatment of light and shadow- e.g., “Rembrandt’s Mother” (c. 1630). After Rembrandt left Leiden in 1631, his influence on Dou gradually weakened. Dou started to produce ever more finely wrought, highly finished compositions with increasingly smooth, enamel-like surfaces. He also began to employ a range of cooler, paler colors in preference to the warm, darkish browns of his earlier works.
Dou painted a wide range of subjects, including genre scenes, history paintings, still lifes, portraits, and- unusual for a seventeenth-century Dutch painter- nudes. He also began painting candlelit scenes during the 1650s. His fame quite rightly rests, however, on the meticulously painted, small genre scenes that make up a large portion of his oeuvre. His most characteristic device is the painted “frame within the frame”, pictures where the viewer looks through a grayish stone window into a domestic interior- e.g., “A Poulterer’s Shop” (c. 1670).
From his own life time until late in the nineteenth century, his work was considered one of the crowning achievements of Dutch art, and his pictures consistently fetched higher prices than those of Rembrandt. By 1648, when he is recorded as one of the founder members of the Leiden Saint Luke’s Guild, his pictures commanded some of the highest prices of their day, and he had already gained a remarkable international reputation.
Dou’s enduring fame rests on the fascination for the products of extremely painstaking and skillful labor. He is said to have spent five days on the underpainting of a single hand in a portrait. Since he charged six guilders an hour for his services as a portrait painter, it is hardly surprising that these do not constitute a large proportion of his oeuvre.
Gerrit Dou was buried in the Pieterskerk at Leiden on February 9, 1675. His pupils included Godefridus Schalcken and Frans van Mieris, as well as a number of less well-known painters, such as his nephew Dominicus van Tol, Abraham de Pape, Karel de Moor, and Matthijs Nalveu.