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.1 An exciting rediscovery within the artist’s oeuvre,2 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.3 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.4 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.5
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 (fig 1) and Young Woman Playing a Clavichord (fig 2) in a private collection.6 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.7 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.8 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.9
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.10 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.’”11 Although scholars have traditionally associated these paintings with A Woman Playing a Clavichord (fig 1) and Young Woman Playing a Clavichord (fig 2), 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.12
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.13 It was almost exclusively the domain of women, whose mastery of the instrument was seen as a symbol of virtue and refinement.14 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.”15 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 (fig 3): “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.”16
Van Meurs’s print is significant not only for thematic reasons, but also for the insight it provides into the painting’s provenance.17 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.18 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.19
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.20 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).21 In 1773, Matthias Oesterreich, who authored the first catalogue of works in the Picture Gallery, described Dou’s panel as “very treasurable for connoisseurs.”22
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 1941.23 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 2020.24
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.25 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 (fig 4).26 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.27 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.28 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.29
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.30 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.31 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.32 It is likely that the jacket was originally a more vibrant greenish-blue color, not its current muted greenish-yellow.33
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.34 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.35 Whether this difference in the character of the brushstrokes may also indicate the involvement of a pupil is, for the moment, an unsolvable question.36
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.37 Van Meurs’s reproductive etching depicts A Young Woman Playing a Clavichord as having a rectangular shape.38 Perhaps significantly, a near-contemporary painted copy after Dou’s composition also shows the scene as a rectangular painting (fig 5).39 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.40 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.41
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 (fig 6).42 The finely carved and gilded frame reflects Frederick the Great’s taste for the galleries at Sanssouci.43 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.44 The painting’s splendid frame, which has been recently restored, is a fitting home for Dou’s rediscovered clavichord player.45
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 (fig 7). 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.