gerrit dou self portrait

Gerrit Dou, Golden Age Master of Detail

A personal student of Rembrandt, Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) would become a leading Golden Age painter. He was famous for his painstaking attention to detail. At the age of fourteen, Dou entered the studio of grandmaster Rembrandt van Rijn, who was then a young man himself.

Few painters have ever matched Dou’s obsessive attention to detail, and his mastery of the minute would remain an object of fascination for fellow artists. One contemporary writer touted a Dou's painting as having such technical virtuosity that it 'could scarcely be distinguished from life'. Other young Dutch painters strove to emulate Dou’s style, and he was viewed as the leader of the emerging Leiden school of ‘fijnschilders’ (fine painters).

Like Rembrandt Dou displayed a higher than average tendency to indulge in selfportraiture. In Dou’s case, self-portraits might have been the one way he could secure an adequately patient sitter. However spectacular his talent, few sitters were willing or able to stay still long enough to accommodate Dou’s painstaking pace of labor, which could entail the painter spending several full workdays on rendering a single body part - he once spent five days painting a single hand.

The artist died on February 9th, 1675. At the time of his death, Dou’s corpus of work was held in very high regard. But, as with many artists, this esteem would gradually subside. By the 1800s, he was admired by virtually no one. His meticulous execution of detail came to be regarded as ‘soulless’ and lacking in creative spontaneity. Well into the 20th century, it was unusual to find a Dou painting in exhibitions of Dutch art. However, the second half of the 20th century brought somewhat of a revival of Dou’s legacy, and the year 2000 saw a successful international exhibition of Dou’s works. This new examination of Dou is revealing the extent to which this man approached and mastered the details.

For a more detailed exploration of Gerrit Dou and his work, read Issue 17 of Dutch the magazine.

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Original article by: Ray Cavanaugh