Gerrit Dou was born in Leiden on 7 April 1613. He was the youngest son of the glazier Douwe Jansz de Vries van Arentsvelt of Harlingen (ca. 1584–ca. 1656) and Marritge Jansdr van Rosenburg (d. 1657). According to Dou’s first biographer, Jan Orlers (1570–1646) (burgomaster of Leiden and author of a city chronicle in 1641), Gerrit evinced “a pleasure and desire toward painting” at a young age.1 In 1622, his father sent him to study for a year and a half with the engraver Bartholomeus Dolendo (ca. 1570–1626), and subsequently, for two and a half years, “to the skillful glass-painter Master Pieter Couwenhorn (ca. 1599–1654), so that he could learn the same art.”2 Thereafter, Gerrit and his brother Jan worked in their father’s shop.3 Gerrit, still relatively young, seems to have been so reckless in his treatment of the glass that, fearing he would have an accident, his father reluctantly decided “to send [his son] to learn the art of painting.”4 On 14 February 1628, the fourteen-year-old Dou was apprenticed to Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), a neighbor living in the Weddesteeg, just a mere 100 meters from Dou’s family home on the Kort Rapenburg. Dou stayed with Rembrandt until the latter moved to Amsterdam in 1631. During the last two years of his training, Dou was joined by Isaac de Jouderville (1612/13–45/48), who lived across the street.5 In Rembrandt’s workshop, Dou ultimately developed into “an excellent master, especially in small, subtle, and intricate things.”6 According to Houbraken, whoever was surprised “that such noble painterly ability had sprouted from the school of Rembrandt” had forgotten that Rembrandt, too, in his early years “had painted meticulously.”7
Dou probably established himself as an independent artist shortly after Rembrandt’s departure, despite the fact that in 1631 he was just eighteen years old. Because of this, his first workshop was in his parents’ house.8 Dou must have been successful almost from the start. This emerges not only from Orlers’s biography, but also from a lecture given by Dou’s colleague Philips Angel (ca. 1618–64) to an assembly of Leiden artists.9 The most concrete expression of Dou’s early fame may well be the right of first refusal that the newly appointed Swedish ambassador to the Dutch Republic Pieter Spiering (ca. 1594–1652) acquired for an annual stipend of 500 guilders in 1635.10 When Joachim von Sandrart visited Dou’s workshop around 1640, he saw a portrait of Spiering depicted with his wife and mother-in-law and surrounded by his art collection. At the time of this visit, Dou’s workshop was no longer on the Kort Rapenburg. In 1640, Dou had bought a house for 2,000 guilders on the Korte Oude Vest (now the Galgewater), where he would work and live until his death.11 Dou never married; his house was run for some time by his niece Anthonia van Tol, the sister of the painter Dominicus van Tol (ca. 1635–76). Anthonia was living with her uncle certainly as of 1669, but probably already much earlier. Dou named her his universal heir in the final will he executed in 1674.12
Several of the Dous that Spiering bought found their way to the court of Queen Christina in Stockholm.13 Dou also received royal recognition in London, as two works by him were part of the famous Dutch Gift that the Dutch Republic presented to King Charles II upon his restoration to the throne of England in 1660.14 Just how many pictures by Dou entered royal collections during his lifetime cannot be determined precisely. We do know that Archduke Leopold William of Austria, in Vienna, owned two paintings by Dou in 1661.15 Cosimo III de’ Medici, too, admired Dou’s work. According to his travel journal, he visited the artist’s workshop in Leiden on 23 June 1669, and in 1676, the year in which Cosimo became Grand Duke of Tuscany, he instructed his Amsterdam agent to secure work by Dou.16
Given Dou’s international reputation, it seems peculiar that Dou would have preferred Leiden over cosmopolitan Amsterdam, especially considering the high prices he could command for his work. They were so high, in fact, that in 1669 the Leiden town council was deterred from ordering a painting from him.17 According to Sandrart, a work by Dou no larger than a hand easily commanded 600, 800, 1,000, or more guilders. These prices reflected not only the artist’s reputation and the artistic quality of his work, but also his exorbitant hourly fee of six guilders. Given the painstaking, labor-intensive manner in which Dou worked—according to Sandrart, Dou spent five days alone on the hand of Spiering’s wife in the couple’s portrait—this hourly rate could increase the price of a painting significantly. Nevertheless, there were art lovers in Leiden willing and able to pay such steep amounts for Dou’s work. Johan de Bye (ca. 1621/22–ca. 1670/72) stands out within this exclusive circle of Leiden clients. He owned no fewer than twenty-seven pictures by Dou, which he exhibited in the home of the Leiden still-life painter Johannes Hanoth on the Breestraat in 1665.18 Another major client was the famous physician Franciscus de le Boe Sylvius (1614–72), who owned ten pictures by the artist that hung in his stately house on the elegant Rapenburg.19 Ten more seventeenth-century Leiden owners of original work by Dou are known, all belonging to the city’s elite circles.20
Naturally, Dou’s fame and success attracted many pupils, the most important of whom, Frans van Mieris (1635–81), would eventually rival his master. In addition to Dou’s relatives Dominicus van Tol and Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719), other pupils were Matthijs Naiveu (1647–1726), Bartholomeus Maton (ca. 1643–after 1682), the unknown Gerrit Maes, Pieter van Slingelandt (1640–91), Carel de Moor (1655–1738), and Godefridus Schalcken (1643–1706) from Dordrecht. Moreover, the works of Adriaen van Gaesbeeck (1621–50), Jan Adriaensz van Staveren (1613/14–69), Peeter Leermans (1655–1706), Abraham de Pape (ca. 1620–66), and Isaac Koedyck (1616/17–68) display Dou’s influence so strongly that these artists may likewise have studied under him, or at least spent some time in his workshop. This seems particularly likely in the case of Jacob van Spreeuwen (1610–after 1650).21
Dou died in early 1675, and on 9 February, “Mr Gerrit Douw, schilder” (Master Gerrit Dou, painter) was buried in the Pieterskerk. He left his heirs an estate worth approximately 20,000 guilders, an indication of his commercial success.22 Dou’s art had an enormous impact. He founded a school of painting that flourished well into the eighteenth century. For a long time, he was the most highly acclaimed Dutch painter of the Golden Age, both at home and abroad, even more so than his teacher Rembrandt. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, however, with the rise of Impressionism and the rediscovery of painters such as Frans Hals (1582/83–1666) and Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), appreciation for Dou’s work began to wane and his style came to be branded as insipid and fussy.23 Even the author of the first in-depth study of Dou’s life and work, Wilhelm Martin, confessed in his dissertation of 1901 to having little affinity for the artist’s manner of painting and concurred with Joshua Reynolds’s assessment that one viewed Dou’s pictures “with admiration on the lips, but indifference in the heart.”24 In the past few decades, Dou’s work has once again been garnering attention and appreciation; notably, he was the subject of a survey exhibition held in The Hague and Washington in 2000.