In 1665 the distinguished Leiden collector Johan de Bye held an exhibition of twenty-seven paintings by Gerrit Dou, including two works currently in The Leiden Collection: Goat in a Landscape (GD-114) and this delightful genre scene, described in De Bye’s inventory as: “meysge in een venster mit 1 papegaey en koy” (a young girl in a window with one parrot and cage).1 In this scene, a young woman leans out from behind a simple arched stone niche while holding her pet bird she has taken out of an elaborate metal cage. The girl gazes to our right with an expression of sweet anticipation enlivening her face, as though in the act of showing this rarified beauty to a companion outside of the frame. Obscuring our view into the darkened interior in which she stands is a gathered red curtain hanging from the inner edge of the niche.
The composition is known from a number of versions and copies, of which at least eleven have been recorded. This example, which resurfaced only in 1955, was unknown to early twentieth-century scholars, including Wilhelm Martin and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, who tentatively identified other versions as Dou’s original. Martin considered a now-lost painting formerly in the Gagarin Collection in St. Petersburg2 and another version in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva to be autograph. The attribution of the latter work, which was also cautiously accepted by Hofstede de Groot, was later rejected by Ronni Baer, who noted that the signature was false and deemed the work to be a copy after Dou.3
Martin and Hofstede de Groot were correct when they questioned whether the versions they knew were the work described in De Bye’s exhibition.4 Stylistically and technically, however, the present work is characteristic of Dou’s manner from the first half of the 1660s.5 The master’s versatility and boldness are evident in the overall variety of the brushwork. The modeling of the face is smooth and blended, yet distinct parallel hatching can be seen below the figure’s proper right eye. The folds of the dark red curtain are modeled with short parallel lines that evoke the pattern of twill and the texture of wool (fig 1). This distinctive hatching is found often in Dou’s work from the 1660s and is seen, for example, on the back of the clasping hands in Old Man Praying (GD-108) (fig 2).6 In both works, the ground shows through in areas around the figures’ hairline and face, and is here particularly visible along the strand of pearls around the lady’s neck.
The manner in which Dou built the paint layers from the ground up, from distant elements to foreground objects, is characteristic of his painting technique. For example, Dou painted the lower portion of the red curtain and the woman’s apron before depicting the birdcage so that the reds would show between the cage’s wires; subsequently he painted the parrot.7 Similarly, the range of tonalities with which Dou depicted the woman’s hair at her hairline is comparable to techniques observed in his other paintings (see Portrait of a Woman in Profile, GD-110).
A final argument in favor of the painting’s status as the prime version is the anatomically accurate depiction of the parrot perched on the young woman’s index finger. The species is a South American bird known as the blue-fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva), indigenous to parts of Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.8 Its features include a blue and yellow (or white) face with distinctive red feathers at the bend and tip of the wings, while its overall plumage is green (fig 3). Dou’s parrot probably appears blue rather than green because of pigment change or the loss of a yellow glaze covering the underlying blue paint through an overly aggressive restoration of the painting.9 Dou must have based his image on an actual bird in captivity: parrots were often imported to the Netherlands during this period on ships belonging to the Dutch West India Company.10 Though Dou accurately rendered the parrot’s features, in later versions of this work the bird’s distinctive markings, particularly the red on the feathers at the bend and tip of the wing, are often lacking.
In the seventeenth century, parrots were expensive status symbols, particularly those that survived the long journey from the New World.11 Associated with luxury, wealth and prestige, they were especially favored pets because of their beautiful songs, exotic shapes, and colorful plumage. Their ability to emulate speech further enhanced their appeal and gave them a reputation for being excellent learners. In his Sinne-en minnebeelden of 1627, Jacob Cats pointed to this virtue in an emblem depicting a parrot in a hanging cage (fig 4), with a subtext that reads: “Dwanck, leert sanck” (Discipline teaches speech).12 The accompanying text describes the bird in captivity as a symbol for the discipline and education that are necessary for an adult to lead an honorable and refined life.
Parrots became popular motifs in high-style Dutch genre painting, particularly beginning in the 1660s.13 One well-known example is Frans van Mieris’s Young Woman Feeding a Parrot (FM-112) from about 1663 in the present collection, in which a young woman is shown feeding her pet bird while pausing from her sewing. Here the parrot has been interpreted as a symbol for the eagerness to learn, while the woman’s needlework refers to her domestic virtues of diligence and industry.14
The symbolism of birds and birdcages in genre scenes often had amorous and/or erotic connotations, sometimes subtle and sometimes not.15 For example, Cats’s emblem cited above offers an additional reading where the encaged bird is seen as a metaphor for love’s sweet entrapment: “Bly, door slaverny” (Joy through captivity).16 This same symbolism is found in Daniel Heinsius’s emblem, which makes use of the Petrarchian motto “Perch’io stesso mi strinsi” (For I have bound myself) and illustrates a recumbent cupid observing the sight of birds willingly flying into a cage (fig 5).17 Another closely related tradition is the symbolism of a bird freed from its cage, often represented by an amorous couple who entice a bird out of its cage with a bite of food, or by a female whose bird has just escaped captivity. In both cases, this emblematic image was understood to refer to lost virginity and the loss of innocence.18
In light of the varied symbolic meanings associated with a bird and its cage, this work would undoubtedly have amused viewers with its ambiguity. Situated at the threshold of her domestic realm, the young woman has freed her parrot from its cage and, smilingly, presents it to the outside world. She appears unconcerned that in one fleeting instant her beloved bird could fly away, forever lost from her safekeeping. By depicting the very manifestation of the woman’s youthful innocence in this seemingly carefree moment, Dou invites the viewer to complete the story. Caspar Netscher captured this same idea a few years later in his Woman Feeding a Parrot of 1666 (National Gallery of Art, Washington), in which he staged a comparable scene at an arched window (fig 6). As opposed to Dou’s young woman, Netscher’s girl has a beguiling glance and a coquettish smile, suggesting that a loss of innocence may have already transpired.