In the quiet of his atelier, a young artist gazes out at the viewer while seated before a large, stretched canvas on a wooden easel, his right arm raised as though he is about to apply paint to his composition. The horizontal shape and substantial scale of the canvas indicate that the young artist is composing a history scene, the most difficult and prestigious in the hierarchy of painting genres. At the same time, his direct gaze suggests that his scene incorporates some aspect of the real world, one that implicitly involves us.
The studio scene offers a fascinating glimpse into an artist’s workshop. One sees here that Dutch artists sat when they painted, and the way they stretched their canvases on a wooden frame. The young artist has also brought to his studio a number of props appropriate for a history painting. Some of these are in a large chest filled with costly vessels of silver and gold, exotic fabrics, and a heavy chain with a medallion, while on the floor are a cuirass, plumed helmet or cabasset, and various patterned textiles.1 The large tome and horn are attributes associated with the muse of history, Cleo. Also in the studio are wooden stretchers of different shapes leaning against the back wall. The grisaille tronies of an old man and woman tacked to the wall are the types of character studies artists often painted in Leiden during the late 1620s and early 1630s.
This intriguing work, which is unsigned and undated, is characteristic of paintings created in Leiden around 1630, but much debate has surrounded its attribution. It was once thought to have been executed by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), but that traditional assessment was challenged in 1911 when Wilhelm Martin gave the painting to Rembrandt’s pupil, Gerrit Dou. Martin dated it to the period of Dou’s apprenticeship with Rembrandt from 1628 to 1631.2 Subsequently, Kurt Bauch proposed that Rembrandt retouched the work in critical areas, specifically the face of the artist.3 Werner Sumowski, who initially accepted Bauch’s proposal, eventually concluded that Dou made the various compositional adjustments himself.4
An attribution of the painting to Dou, however, convinced neither Richard Hunnewell nor Ronni Baer. In 1983 Hunnewell suggested an alternative attribution to Rembrandt’s close circle, or possibly, Willem de Poorter (1608–48),5 while Baer, in 1990, characterized the still-life elements in the painting as “superficially Dou-like” but noted that their “formulaic highlights and . . . rough, broad handling . . . find no parallel in Dou’s autograph work.”6 Baer suggested that the painting was executed by the same unidentified hand or hands as Parable of the Hidden Treasure in the Szépművészeti Múzeum in Budapest (fig 1).7 She also noted that the painting is closely related to The Rest on the Flight into Egypt formerly in Downton Castle. Both paintings have been considered collaborative works in which Dou participated, but their attributions are uncertain.8
In an unpublished essay from 2003, Bob van den Boogert defended the attribution of the painting to Dou. He argued that the painting is closely associated in style and compositional organization with a painting in Budapest: An Officer of the Leiden Civic Guard with an Arms Still Life (fig 2).9 Although the Budapest painting is unsigned and undated and the attribution is debated, Van den Boogert believed that the young Dou executed both paintings. Both panels have the same dimensions, include comparable still-life elements, and share a similar layering of objects that creates a consistent approach to spatial recession. A recent examination of the two works side by side revealed striking similarities in palette and compositional approach, increasing the likelihood that the same artist executed both works.10 Whether or not that artist is Dou, however, is another question.
The ongoing discussions regarding the attribution of this painting to Dou relate to larger unresolved questions about the character of Dou’s early paintings. Very little is known about Dou’s apprenticeship with Rembrandt, and experts do not agree on the paintings he produced during this time.11 The problem of defining the nature of Dou’s early style is exacerbated by the fact that there are no dated paintings by Dou before 1637.
One of the central issues in assessing Dou’s early works is the nature of his painting technique. Baer, for example, believes that the young master painted in a relatively smooth style, as is evident in Artist at His Easel (fig 3).12 Jørgen Wadum, on the other hand, believes that from the beginning of his career, even before he entered Rembrandt’s workshop, Dou executed his works with fine, parallel hatchings.13 Ernst van de Wetering has discussed the didactic importance of imitation in studio practice and argues that it is to be expected that Dou’s early painting style would closely resemble Rembrandt’s own.14 The question then remains as to whether the character of Dou’s early brushwork is identifiable as a consistent, idiosyncratic feature, or whether Dou expanded his technique and experimented with brushwork during these years in Rembrandt’s studio. The application of paint in the Leiden Collection painting is relatively loose and thick, but until a clearer resolution of these divergent views of Dou’s early manner of painting is achieved, it seems appropriate to designate this work as “attributed to Gerrit Dou.”
Even though no firm attribution of this work can be made at the present time, the pictorial influences that shaped the subject matter and composition of the Leiden Collection painting are readily evident and point to an origin within Rembrandt’s close circle in Leiden. The cuirass and plumed helmet, for example, are similar to objects in the military still life in the foreground of Rembrandt’s History Painting of 1626 in the Lakenhal.15 The oval grisaille sketches on the back wall of the studio recall tronies and turbaned figures in drawings and prints by Rembrandt and his fellow Leiden artist, Jan Lievens (1607–74).16 The most striking pictorial source for the Leiden Collection painting, however, is Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio, ca. 1628–29, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig 4).17 Like Rembrandt’s work, the composition is organized around a large painting on an easel turned away from the viewer, with a doorway on the right and a light source on the left. Similar, as well, are the rustic wooden floorboards, crumbling plaster and orthogonally oblique wall in the middle of the room, which leave little doubt that the Boston painting served as this painting’s direct prototype.
The identity of the artist sitting before the easel has been frequently discussed, with scholars variously identifying the figure as either Rembrandt or Dou.18 Martin first cited the figure as an anonymous, generic artist, but later identified it as a portrait of Dou.19 Indeed, the artist’s features—rounded cheeks, a mouth with a full upper lip at the center, cleft chin, and slightly upturned nose—are remarkably similar to Dou’s Self-Portrait from ca. 1635 in the Cheltenham Art Gallery or another self-portrait from 1645 in the Kremer Collection (fig 5). Dou would have been around seventeen years old in 1630, when the Leiden Collection painting was executed, which seems consistent with the age of the man in this work.
The dating of the painting to ca. 1630 is also supported by dendrochronological data, which indicates that the wood panel was ready for priming by the middle of the 1620s.20 The analysis provides further evidence that the painting was executed within Rembrandt’s close circle: the panel comes from the same tree as Rembrandt’s Head of an Old Man in a Cap from ca. 1630, now in the Bader Collection.21 This match suggests that the two wooden supports were obtained from the same panel maker in Leiden, possibly acquired as part of a mutual workshop consignment.22
Based on the aforementioned evidence, it seems most reasonable to conclude that the present painting originated within Rembrandt’s immediate circle in Leiden, most likely by Gerrit Dou, although there were undoubtedly other artists in Leiden whose names have not been recorded who worked in a similar style. Also supporting the notion of Dou’s authorship is the characterization of the artist as a pictor doctus surrounded by the objects of his profession. Here, the young but erudite painter presents himself as a skilled and ambitious artist, which is consistent with the presentation of Dou’s artistic persona in his later self-portraiture.23 Although the complexities surrounding Dou’s early artistic personality are such that a firm attribution of this work to the young master cannot yet be made, ongoing research about the artist’s early career may eventually determine that this painting holds an important place within his artistic evolution.