Century Magazine/Volume 47/Issue 5/Old Dutch Masters. Gerard Dou

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Century Magazine by Timothy Cole
Volume 47, Issue 5 (March, 1894)Old Dutch Masters. Gerard Dou
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t was the practice of the Dutch painters, in depicting candle-light effects, to arrange what they wished to represent in a room artificially illuminated, and, retiring to an adjoining room, in daylight, to view their subject through a small aperture cut in the door for that purpose, thus painting the candle-light from nature. Seen, however, in this way, the effect of candle-light would undoubtedly appear darker and redder from contrast with the daylight than otherwise. Nevertheless, Gerard Dou’s candle-lights, though showing the influence of this method, are by no means as dark or as red as one might suppose from the foregoing. He evidently modified the ill effect of the sensation received from peering through the aperture, by the impression natural to one when in and surrounded by candle-light at night. His pictures of such effects, though darkened by

time, are yet very delightful things to look at. Their effect of light is remarkable. I well re-member, on seeing for the first time "The Night School" at the Ryks Museum, Amsterdam, how I put up my hand to shut out the light of the candles of the foreground, that I might the better discern the objects in the background, forgetting for the moment that they were not real, but painted, lights. There are five lights in this picture, the furthermost being only dimly perceived in the extreme distance, as though held by some one ascending a staircase. The picture measures twenty and one half inches high, by a trifle less than sixteen inches wide, which is a large-sized one for the artist, whose works are usually much smaller. It cost the museum 17,500 francs ($3500).

"The Night School," by Gerard Dou.
(For a full color image, see below.)

Dou was born, in 1613, at Leyden, the same town that has the honor of claiming Rembrandt as a citizen. He was Rembrandt's first pupil, and entered that master’s studio in 1628. This was when he had attained the age of fifteen years, and had already studied drawing for six years under two other masters. Such was his rapid progress under Rembrandt that three years sufficed to make of him an independent artist. Distinct from his great master in his individuality, he followed the bent of his genius. He began by painting portraits, but his manner of procedure was too slow to suit the patience of his sitters, and he chose the path of genre painting—that of representing familiar scenes of everyday life. He had an instrument made in which a diminishing-glass was placed, which enabled him to see what he was copying on the same scale as the picture on which he was at work. He made his own brushes, ground his own colors, prepared his varnishes, panels, and canvas with his own hands. He was an enemy to dust, and took every precaution to prevent it from settling upon his brushes or canvas, and with a view to this end he chose a studio opening upon a ditch of water, which in Holland, the land of canals, was doubtless an easy matter to do. He resided principally at his native city, Leyden, where the novelty of his style soon gained him fame and wealth. He received high prices for his works, as all men seem to have fallen in love with them. It is recorded that when Charles II. returned to England, the States-General could think of no more precious gift to present to his Majesty than one of Dou’s works, the price of which is said to have been 4000 florins. Such was the demand for his paintings that a wealthy connoisseur named Van Spiring gave him an annual donation of 1000 florins merely for the privilege of the first choice of the pictures that he completed at the close of every year, at the same time paying him the price of the picture he chose like any other purchaser. Such were the pains he bestowed on his subjects that he would spend as much as three days on so minor an accessory as a broomstick. It is said that he greatly impaired his eyesight by the minute finish of his painting, and was consequently obliged to wear spectacles when only thirty years old. Indeed, the perfection of finish and beauty of workmanship displayed in all his pictures is such that it is a pleasure and an advantage to use a magnifying-glass in the examination of them, for then one can mark the breathless touch and exquisite delicacy of handling.

I certainly cannot agree with Sir Joshua Reynolds in saying of his paintings that "one looks at them with admiration on the lips, but indifference in the heart." To have before our minds continually the stupendous creations of Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, etc., is to debar ourselves of much of the delight which comes from contemplating the works of humbler, though not less faithful, artists. In Dou we see an innocent simplicity that imitates what is, yet makes what is imitated charming. He bathes his forms in a refined and subtle mellowness of light and shade that gives a warmth of sentiment to his creations. Then, too, one feels in his tenderness for the true, and his cordiality for the real, a certain loftiness and goodness of soul that place him far above the rank of the mere "near-sighted copyist." His charming interior, "The Young Housewife," at The Hague is a poem, and must touch the heart and live in the memory of all who have seen it, and realized its pure and homely sentiment. His famous "Dropsical Woman" of the Louvre is not so well preserved, though a marvelously fine thing. Dou is said to have been an incessant worker, beginning at the age of fifteen, and ending only with death in 1675, at the age of sixty-two. There are only two hundred of his pictures known in the various public and private galleries of Europe, thus making an average of four or five paintings for each year of his life; yet, considering their microscopic execution, it is remarkable that he should have finished so many. He was buried at Leyden, in Saint Peter’s Church, four years before his famous contemporary Jan Steen, who rests in the same place. Of his pupils, Metsu and Miens are of high renown in Dutch art.

The Night School