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A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord

Gerrit Dou (Leiden 1613 – 1675 Leiden)
ca. 1665
oil on panel with arched top
33.5 x 25.3 cm
inventory number

Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord” (2022). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed April 16, 2024).

In this intimate interior space, a young woman enjoys the sweet pleasures of playing the clavichord. Interrupted from her music, she pauses and turns toward the viewer as her fingers linger over the keyboard, several of them still delicately gracing the top of its keys. Her confident pose and alert demeanor suggest this is a song she has played many times before, its melody reverberating in the air and inviting us to join in her private performance.

Gerrit Dou’s A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord recently resurfaced after more than two centuries in German royal collections descended from Frederick the Great (1712–86), the King of Prussia. An exciting rediscovery within the artist’s oeuvre, the painting typifies Dou’s refined genre scenes from the 1660s. During this period, like a number of his contemporaries, he expanded his subject matter to include figures in elegant domestic settings and, particularly, the activities of upper-class young women. In this work, Dou situated the woman close to the foreground and turned in a three-quarter pose, with a tapestry pulled open behind her, framing her form against the darkened interior. She is elegantly dressed in a fur-trimmed jacket, a pearl necklace, and earrings, with ribbons of red, blue, and yellow tied into her hair. Light enters the room through a window at the left and illuminates her round, flushed cheeks, button nose, and distinctive, heart-shaped mouth. It also strikes the soft folds of the oriental carpet on the table, highlighting the back of the clavichord and the thin, red-orange string used to hold the lid in its proper position.

Dou depicted a woman playing the same instrument in two other closely related works from around 1665, A Woman Playing a Clavichord in the Dulwich Picture Gallery () and Young Woman Playing a Clavichord () in a private collection.  In the spacious interior of the Dulwich painting, Dou included a number of motifs—among them a viola da gamba, flute, opened music book, and glass of wine—that symbolically relate to themes of love and harmony. In the background of Young Woman Playing a Clavichord, Dou included a secondary scene of figures enjoying the sensual pleasures of eating and drinking, which casts a different light on the woman’s music making by situating it in a moment of shared revelry. The absence of such symbolic and narrative motifs in the Leiden Collection painting shifts the focus of the composition to the woman’s direct and steady engagement with the viewer. This approach, in addition to her more distinctive facial features, distinguishes this painting from Dou’s other genre scenes. It suggests that he may have intended the painting as a genre-portrait of a lady playing the clavichord, a practice that was not uncommon among his contemporaries.

Dou had likely completed all three of these paintings by September 1665, when two of them appeared in an exhibition of the artist’s works held in Leiden, organized by the collector Johan de Bye (ca. 1625–70/72). It was one of the first exhibitions ever devoted to a single artist. Among the twenty-seven paintings by Dou in this exhibition were “a woman playing a ‘claversimbel’ with a tapestry, in daylight,” displayed in a case (kas), and “a girl playing a ‘claversingel.’” Although scholars have traditionally associated these paintings with A Woman Playing a Clavichord () and Young Woman Playing a Clavichord (), respectively, the simple descriptions do not preclude the possibility that the Leiden Collection painting may have been one of the works in De Bye’s exhibition.

The intimate character of Dou’s scene is closely tied to the nature of the clavichord itself. An early type of portable keyboard that required dexterity of hand, the clavichord was typically performed solo and produced a low, soft sound that made it ideal for playing in domestic spaces. It was almost exclusively the domain of women, whose mastery of the instrument was seen as a symbol of virtue and refinement. On a visit to Rotterdam in 1707, the English traveler Joseph Taylor remarked with wonder upon the experience of hearing a woman play the harpsichord (a larger keyboard instrument) in the innermost space of a house. Once he returned home, he became “melancholy at the thoughts of being so soon deprived of it.” A similar sentiment is found in the inscription on an eighteenth-century reproductive print by Cornelis-Henricus van Meurs (b. 1680) after A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord (): “To chase away sorrow and melancholy . . . I play the clavichord; it is how I pass a tranquil life, without fear and without worry about fate or destiny.”

Van Meurs’s print is significant not only for thematic reasons, but also for the insight it provides into the painting’s provenance. Van Meurs likely saw A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord in Brussels in 1739 at the sale of the collection of Joseph Sansot, who served as steward for Louis Gand de Mérode de Montmorency (1678–1767), Prince of Isenghien. The buyer from the Brussels sale is not named, but it was probably Isenghien—in 1754 Jean-Baptiste Descamps records having seen a painting by Dou of “a young woman playing a clavichord” at Isenghien’s home.

By 1763, Dou’s painting can be traced with certainty to Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s newly built summer palace in Potsdam. His Picture Gallery rivaled the greatest collections in Europe and showcased Frederick’s interest in the Leiden fijnschilders (fine painters), alongside the work of Italian, French, and Flemish artists. Dou’s painting soon thereafter hung in the Neues Palais, or New Palace, also in Potsdam, where it was exhibited in a small cabinet near the king’s day bedroom with works by Guido Reni (1575–1642), Godefridus Schalcken (1643–1706), and Nicholas Poussin (1594–1665). In 1773, Matthias Oesterreich, who authored the first catalogue of works in the Picture Gallery, described Dou’s panel as “very treasurable for connoisseurs.”

The painting maintained its esteemed status in the royal collections of the Hohenzollern family thereafter, and eventually formed part of the group of works that the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II (1859–1941), took with him into exile to the Netherlands in 1918, following the end of World War I and the dissolution of the German empire. Dou’s clavichord player hung in the smoking room of Huis Doorn, the emperor’s residence in Doorn, from 1920 until his death in 1941. It subsequently stayed within the private collection of the Hohenzollern family and was displayed at the palaces of Cecilienhof, Oels, and Burg Hohenzollern until its acquisition by The Leiden Collection in 2020.

The Leiden Collection’s A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord raises fascinating questions about Dou’s painting process. Technical examinations have revealed that the artist made substantial revisions to his initial concept for the composition. X-radiography indicates that Dou initially painted the woman within an arched stone window frame, a pictorial device he often used to give prominence to the central figure (). He also initially included, and then removed, a glass vase on the table beside the clavichord, and he at first placed the woman’s pearl necklace higher and further to the right. He made corresponding adjustments to the shape of the woman’s jacket, particularly the structure and folds of her left sleeve. These compositional changes demonstrate how Dou worked through his preliminary design over an extended period of time. Similar changes, for example, appear in Old Woman at a Window with a Candle and Portrait of a Lady, Seated with a Music Book on Her Lap, both in The Leiden Collection.

Also central to questions of Dou’s artistic process are the striking differences in the manner with which he rendered the woman’s face and costume. Dou painted the face with great subtlety, paying careful attention to the fall of light and shadow over her skin. He modeled her flesh tones in thin, translucent layers over a cool, gray imprimatura, and he applied creamy highlights around her eyes and along the bridge and tip of her nose. Her flushed cheeks imbue her with a warmth and liveliness. Dou depicted the wisps of hair around her face with loose, individual brushstrokes, which he then smoothly blended along her hairline.

Dou would have executed the woman’s face first, before turning to the rest of the composition. The slight difference in scale between her head and body supports this scenario, which is characteristic of the sequence that Dou and other Dutch artists customarily followed. Nevertheless, the modeling in the woman’s jacket, which is composed of undefined layers of green, yellow, and ochre, does not appear as refined as that of the face. This difference may be related, in part, to changes that have occurred to the paint used to model the jacket. Several of the pigments Dou used are known to degrade and discolor over time, including (yellow) orpiment and (blue) vivianite, the latter of which can turn from a rich blue to a muted yellow. It is likely that the jacket was originally a more vibrant greenish-blue color, not its current muted greenish-yellow.

Other elements in the woman’s costume are also likely related to changes in the character of the paint, which has degraded and become more transparent over time. For instance, the woman’s underlying white chemise and the area around her neckline are thinly painted, and they now appear unfinished or unresolved. The fur trim, which has been applied with small clusters of regular, parallel brushstrokes, appears to lack the nuance and liveliness typically associated with Dou’s rendering of fur. Whether this difference in the character of the brushstrokes may also indicate the involvement of a pupil is, for the moment, an unsolvable question.

A final issue concerning the condition of the painting is whether the panel was originally a rectangular shape and has been altered into one with rounded upper corners. Van Meurs’s reproductive etching depicts A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord as having a rectangular shape. Perhaps significantly, a near-contemporary painted copy after Dou’s composition also shows the scene as a rectangular painting (). The narrower space behind the musician’s chair in the Leiden Collection painting also suggests that the original panel may have been slightly trimmed along the right edge. If such changes to the panel were made, they would likely have occurred in the eighteenth century, not long after Van Meurs saw Dou’s painting in Brussels, and they may have been intended to focus the composition more tightly around the sitter and enhance the intimacy of the scene.

It is probable that A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord received its richly ornamented French Régence frame, with its rounded inner corners at the top, in the early eighteenth century (). The finely carved and gilded frame reflects Frederick the Great’s taste for the galleries at Sanssouci. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century inventories from the palace describe Dou’s painting as one of twenty-five hanging in “gilt frames” with rounded corners at the top. The painting’s splendid frame, which has been recently restored, is a fitting home for Dou’s rediscovered clavichord player.

Alongside its fascinating history, A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord owes its distinctive place within Dou’s oeuvre to the painting’s clarity of subject and portrait-like depiction of its sitter. The sensitive treatment of the musician, poised before the keyboard and gazing directly at the viewer, would have appealed to the sensibilities of a sophisticated patron. Dou’s approach to this subject matter also provided inspiration for works by fellow artists such as Johannes Vermeer, including, most notably, his Young Woman Seated at a Virginal in The Leiden Collection (). At the same time, the puzzling aspects of Dou’s painting leave unanswered questions about the artist’s working methods, his studio practices in Leiden, and the involvement of his pupils more broadly. Whatever the circumstances of its early history and production, the painting will continue to enchant us in myriad ways.

- Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 2022
  • Possibly Johan de Bye, Leiden, by 1665.
  • Possibly Joseph Sansot, Lille (his sale, Brussels, 20 July 1739, no. 46, for 11.15 guilders).
  • Possibly Louis de Gand de Mérode de Montmorency (1678–1767), Prince of Isenghien, by 1754.
  • Frederick the Great (1712­–86), Picture Gallery and Neues Palais, Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam, by 1763; and by descent (private sale, Christie’s, New York, 2020).
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2020.
  • Possibly Leiden, front room in the house of Johannes Hannot on the Breestraat, September 1665 [lent by Johan de Bye].
  • Utrecht, Centraal Museum Utrecht, “Tentoonstelling van oude kunst uit particulier bezit in stad en provincie,” 2 July–15 September 1938, no. 116 [lent by Emperor Wilhelm II].
  • Possibly Descamps, Jean Baptiste. La vie des peintres flamands, allemands, et hollandais: Avec des portraits gravés en taille-douce, une indication de leurs principaux ouvrages et des réflexions sur leurs différentes manières. Paris, 1754, 2: 225.
  • Oesterreich, Matthias. Inspektors der groβen Königlichen Bilder-Gallerie zu Sans-Souci, Beschreibung alle Gemählde, Antiquitäten, und anderer kostbarer und merkwürdiger Sachen, so in denen beyden Schlöβern von Sans-Souci, wie auch in dem Schloβe zu Potsdam und Charlottenburg enthalten sind. Berlin, 1773, 26, no. 73.
  • Oesterreich, Matthias. Description de tout l’intérieur des deux palais de Sans-Souci, de ceux de Potsdam, et de Charlottenbourg; contenant l’explication de tous les tableaux comme aussi des antiquités et d’autres choses précieuses et remarquables. Potsdam, 1773, 32, no. 73.
  • Smith, John. Supplement to the Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. London, 1842, 17, no. 50.
  • Martin, Wilhelm. “Leven en werken van Gerrit Dou beschouwd in verband met het schildersleven van zijn tijd.” PhD diss., Leiden University, 1901, 218, no. 236.
  • Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith. Edited and translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907, 1: 390, no. 133b.
  • Martin, Wilhelm. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben. Vol. 24, Gerard Dou: Des Meisters Gemälde in 247 Abbildungen. Stuttgart, 1913, 97.
  • Centraal Museum Utrecht. Tentoonstelling van oude kunst uit particulier bezit in stad en provincie. Utrecht, 1938, 21, no. 116.
  • Bartoschek, Gerd. Die Gemälde im Neuen Palais. Postdam, 1976, 41, no. 73.
  • Van Dijck, Lucas, and Ton Koopman. Het Klavecimbel in de Nederlandse Kunst tot 1800 / The Hapsichord in Dutch Art before 1800. Zutphen, 1987, no. 130.
  • Lunsigh Scheurleer, Theodoor Hermann, Cornelia Willemijn Fock, and A.J. van Dissel, eds. Het Rapenburg: Geschiedenis van een Leidse Gracht. Leiden, 1988, 3b: 486, no. 23.
  • Baer, Ronni. “The Paintings of Gerrit Dou (1613–1675).” PhD diss., New York University, 1990, 3: 3, no. C67.
  • Wuestman, Gerdien. “C.H. van Meurs and His Fijnschilder Prints: A Mysterious Printmaker with a Forgotten Oeuvre.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 37, no. 2 (2013–14): 125n29, 127, 135, no. 14.
  • Jonker, Michiel, and Ellinoor Bergvelt. Dutch and Flemish Paintings: Dulwich Picture Gallery. London, 2016, 73n4, 73n14 (as by a pupil of Gerrit Dou).
  • Jonker, Michiel, and Ellinoor Bergvelt. Dulwich Picture Gallery: Catalogue of the Dutch, Flemish and German Schools, with Addenda to the British Schools. Vol. 1, A–N. RKD Studies. The Hague, 2021, under no. DPG56. (accessed December 7, 2021).

The wooden support is a singular piece of oak that is arched along the top with the grain oriented vertically. Examining the reverse of the picture reveals that all four edges are beveled. The bevel along the curved edge is burnished and patinaed, indicating that the panel has retained this particular format for some time; however, it is possible that the panel was cut down at some point.

Based on the characterization of cross sections collected from other pictures by Dou and his circle, the ground is likely composed primarily of chalk bound in glue. Infrared (IR) photography reveals traces of fluid brown-black strokes beneath the white chemise and fur trim along the bodice, as well as additional strokes beneath the sitter’s right arm; these strokes may correspond to a section of the underdrawing that was never fully covered with paint but was instead allowed to remain during the final stages of the composition.

Both the IR photograph and the X-radiograph demonstrate that the panel has undergone a rather complex progression in terms of compositional development. Throughout the lower paint layers, several fine diagonal scratches extend from just above the sitter’s head through the face and torso and continue all the way to the bottom edge of the picture. As these markings appear white, or more radio-opaque, in the X-radiograph, it is possible that an earlier composition was scraped down and the resulting scratches and grooves covered with a thin application of an imprimatura.

Other notable changes include a repositioning of the pearl necklace, the folds of the sitter’s dress, and the red cloth. Perhaps the most dramatic alteration to the composition was the overpainting of an arched niche or window that originally framed the sitter, along with additional objects (what may be a bird, a lantern, and glassware). Finally, there are two puzzling, small, circular marks in the X-radiograph located near the radio-opaque “halo” of paint surrounding the sitter’s head; these artifacts, combined with the presence of the diagonal markings, further support the notion that this picture was heavily reworked over an extended period of time.

Macrophotographs obtained from thinly painted areas, such as the sitter’s face, indicate that the underpainting / initial toning layer likely contains a mixture of lead white, chalk, earth pigments, and/or carbon black. These pigments were admixed in order to create a slightly cooler tone characteristic of the latter part of Dou’s career, which supports the proposed date of the picture.

The palette and paint handling observed throughout the picture are consistent with those encountered in other works by Dou. The depiction of the white fur trim is realized with hatched strokes of thick paint, while a more pointillistic technique has been used on the red carpet at bottom left. The hair has been painted with carefully delineated strokes of paint that echo the color of the mid-tones used in the flesh. The strings of the clavichord have also been executed with extreme care, using lightly pigmented strokes containing carbon black, a technique similar to that used in other works to emulate fine text and imagery on the opened pages of books and manuscripts. Nondestructive pigment analysis identified lead white, vermillion, earth colors, lead-tin yellow, chalk, vivianite, azurite, and orpiment. Degradation of vivianite as well as orpiment may account for the confused appearance of portions of the sitter’s blue-green coat.

Overall, the wooden support, ground, and paint layers appear stable and are in good condition. Some areas of the composition, most noticeably in the background of the upper-right quadrant, exhibit pronounced craquelure that is readily visible when the picture is viewed in partial raking light. In addition, slight ridges in the paint can also be seen in raking light beneath the sitter’s left arm and in an area directly above her right arm, suggesting extensive repainting or reworking in these areas. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals only minor, scattered losses; however, there is also evidence that portions of the painting were left partially or minimally cleaned. It is possible that this is a result of previous restoration campaigns combined with Dou’s occasional tendency to overpaint elements of his own work. While some of the varnish layer(s) may not be intact, the overall sheen of the surface is fairly even.

– Kristin deGhetaldi, 2022

Painted Versions

  1. After Gerrit Dou, Girl Playing a Virginal, 1665–99, 33 x 27.5 cm, oil on panel, Essex County Council, Chelmsford Shire Hall, England, inv. no. 10.
  2. After Gerrit Dou, A Young Lady Playing at a Harpsichord, oil on panel, 33.3 x 26.8 cm, previous sale, Phillips, London, 2 July 1991, no. 299.
  3. Gerrit Dou, A Young Woman Playing a Virginal, oil on panel, 35 x 28.5 cm, previously Hochschild Collection.


  1. Cornelis-Henricus van Meurs (b. 1680), after Gerrit Dou, A Young Woman Playing the Clavichord, etching and engraving on paper, 317 x 269 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. RP-P-1908-292.
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