Three small paintings by Gerard Dou
Three small paintings by Gerard Dou, all painted on wooden panels just 0.6 cm thick, were acquired together for the Hermitage in 1768. They occupy a unique place in the artist’s oeuvre and indeed have no parallel in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Two depict female nudes, the third a male nude, in landscape settings. All have a somewhat voyeuristic quality but the purpose and meaning of the group remains unclear.
Were the three similar works conceived as a series or should each be read independently? In the Gaignat catalogue the three paintings were described with the commentary ‘we know of no works by Gerard Dou showing nude figures, these are of great rarity which makes these three lots all the more precious.’ All three were made for Dou’s patron Johan de Bye and were among 27 works at an exhibition the latter organised in Leiden in 1665. Ronni Baer (2011) devoted a separate article to the Hermitage series, noting that the pictures were split up after the Bye sale that same year. Two showing female figures remained together but the male bather rejoined them only in the 1740s in the collection of Willem Lormier. It was in the Paris collection of the Marquis d’Argenson that the three pictures were first described as a series. Marginal notes in copies of the Gaignat catalogue of 1768 inform us that the dealer Pierre Remy paid a very high sum for them, 13,205 livres, when he bought them for Catherine II. Each of the three compositions consists of a single naked figure seated beneath a withered tree by a pool. In the foreground is a still life of discarded clothing. Two paintings have a stone arcade through which a view opens up of a landscape. From the eighteenth century the paintings were described as showing ‘bathers’, although all three figures sit calmly by the waterside. It has often been noted that they recall the poses of academic models. In this picture the blonde young woman is framed by an ‘arch’ of dark clouds and the trunk of a dead tree. Unlike the sitters in the other two paintings, she looks directly out at the viewer.
If the three were indeed conceived as a set, such a device may indicate that this picture was intended as the central work. Certainly the poses of the man and woman in the other two are mirror images of each other, supporting the idea that they once hung to either side. Nonetheless, we cannot be certain that such was the intention. This jug and the scattered expensive, sparkling textiles are painted with phenomenal precision. Blue plays a key role in the cool grey-blue colouring: the finely-ground lazurite that was used as a pigment has retained its intensity over the years. Baer dated the work to between 1660 and 1665. Several old copies of Dou’s original are known.
Do you want to see the paintings by Dou? They are on display from 7 October in the Hermitage Amsterdam.