This little oval painting barely measures the size of a human hand, yet its powerful, bust-length representation of an old man with piercing eyes operates like a magnetic force: it commands our attention and pulls us closer, imploring us to return the man’s gaze with equal intensity. Illuminated by a strong light coming from the upper left, the man’s face is turned toward us, the shimmering highlights of his short, silver hair, long moustache, and modest beard in contrast with the dark background. His rather unassuming attire consists of a nondescript brown coat over a blue shirt and a simple pleated white collar, the strings of which are carelessly resting on his clothing rather than tucked away. The informality of this little painting indicates that this is not a commissioned portrait, but a tronie, a study of a facial type or expression. Indeed, the old man’s exceptionally stern look and furrowed brow betray an individual with a strong character.
With impeccable mastery, this tronie appears to have been executed quickly. The artist merely indicated the contours of the sitter’s proper left ear, which is entirely in the dark, and used a single brushstroke to suggest the presence of his right one. Instead, he focused on the intricate reflections of light on the man’s aged skin. With swift strokes of a relatively broad brush he built up the cheeks by alternating brown and creamy pink hues. He used a slightly thinner brush for the single dark brown line above the man’s proper right eye. For the man’s impressive furrows between his eyes, the artist applied broad strokes of flesh tones and slightly thinner strokes of darker paint for the shadows in between the wrinkles. He executed the forehead in a rich impasto of pinks and creams, culminating in the protruding white highlights just below the hairline (fig 1). Unlike these intact paint layers, the dark areas of the painting have suffered from abrasion due to over-cleaning, particularly in the man’s clothing, the pupils of his eyes, and along the peripheries of the background.1 The abrasion in the mantle reveals the sketchy brushwork of an earlier paint stage, probably the undermodeling.
This unpublished work was unknown until it appeared on the art market in 2003 as attributed to Jan van Staveren (1613/14–69), a presumed student of Gerrit Dou (1613–75).2 It is, however, highly unlikely that Van Staveren, with his smooth brushwork and somewhat wooden figures, is the artist who made this loosely painted, vivacious bust.3 The appearance of the old man certainly differs from Van Staveren’s generally fantastical tronies, in which the sitters’ features and expressions are more generic.4 The sitter instead resembles Gerrit Dou’s small, oval Bust of a Bearded Man, dated ca. 1642–45, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (formerly at the Corcoran Gallery of Art) (fig 2).5 The man in the latter painting in fact has the same strong nose, bushy grey beard, long mustache, deep-set eyes, and pronounced brow, leaving no doubt that the two paintings are of the same sitter.
The Washington, D.C. tronie is one of Dou’s most informal, freely executed paintings, but it is still more refined than the Leiden Collection painting. Unlike the latter work, with its thick, patchy strokes, Dou modeled the Washington painting using his characteristic short, individual brushstrokes. The hair and beard of the man depicted in that painting were also rendered more carefully, and one can distinguish individual strands of grey curls.6 There are, however, also some important similarities between these works. The handling of the shaded sides of the two faces and the indication of the proper left ears are almost identical in both paintings; moreover, alternating brown and cream hues were used to model the wrinkles in between the eyes. These correlations, together with the high quality of the present painting and the immediacy of the portrait, make it plausible that Dou also painted this work. If so, Dou here appears to have captured the sitter in a quick, initial sketch, before executing the more thought out Washington painting, which would explain the slight differences in painting technique.7
The sitter depicted in both tronies can also be recognized in Dou’s Schoolmaster, 1645, in which an old teacher, surrounded by the children he is helping to read, looks directly at the viewer (fig 3).8 The stern expression and position of the man’s head are identical to those in the Leiden Collection panel. Dou may well have referred to the latter painting when executing Schoolmaster, using it as a reference point for the teacher’s facial expression.
Traditionally, the model in the Washington painting has been identified as Dou’s father, the glass painter Douwe Jansz (ca. 1584–1656).9 The appearance of his father is known from Dou’s Self-Portrait, ca. 1649, in Braunschweig, in which the artist holds a small portrait of his parents and brother (fig 4) (fig 5).10 Although scholars have expressed some doubt as to whether the sitter in the Washington painting is identical to that in the family portrait, the two men have similar facial features, including the pronounced, straight nose, deep-set eyes, beard, and moustache.11 The similarities are even more pronounced between the sitters in the Leiden Collection tronie and the Braunschweig painting, since both men face the viewer and wear similar collars. In the early 1640s, when the Leiden Collection and Washington paintings were executed, Douwe Jansz would have been in his late fifties or early sixties, an age that corresponds with the age of the sitter in each work.12 It seems appropriate to reconsider the traditional identification of this sitter as Dou’s father, an identification that would help to explain the intimate character of the work. Dou may well have been able to render this figure so expressively because he knew the sitter so well.13
At least two nearly identical versions of the painting exist. The first was offered for sale at a 1900 auction in Florence, with a mistaken attribution to Ferdinand Bol (1616–80).14 The second was in the Sir Charles Turner Collection as by Thomas de Keyser (1596–1667) until 1908, after which Abraham Bredius attributed it to Dou.15 A third painting, formerly in the Baron van der Felz Collection, is a free copy after the Washington painting, in which the sitter is facing left and directed at the viewer, with an expression strikingly similar to the Leiden Collection panel.16 Unfortunately, the locations of these paintings are unknown, making any kind of stylistic comparison impossible. Judging from old photographs, however, these works appear to be flatter in execution and more generic than the present work, which suggests that the Leiden Collection panel is, indeed, the original.