In this small panel, an old woman and a young boy, gesturing to a shallow tub of fish, stand framed in an arched stone opening. Although the exact nature of their exchange cannot be determined, they are apparently discussing the herring she holds in her right hand.1 The boy’s blue felt hat and brown pij (frock) worn over a red woolen hemtrock (waistcoat) and white shirt identify him as a fisherboy.2 Consequently, it appears that the boy has brought the fish for the old woman to sell; he’s the purveyor for rather than the customer of this herring seller.3 She sports a red jacket, blue apron, ruffled collar, and white headdress of the type worn by many of the elderly women of a certain class that appear in Gerrit Dou’s genre scenes.4 Her stern glance—is it dissatisfaction?—allies her to the common stereotype of fishwives as raw, coarse women.5 It is tempting, therefore, to interpret the action in the painting as an illustration of the contemporaneous expression “to give someone a bokking (a smoked or salted herring),” which meant to shame them with a sharp remark.6 Whatever the nature of the exchange between the boy and the woman, the disparity in their ages and their physical proximity allow Dou to contrast the wrinkled skin of the elderly with the smooth fresh face of youth.
The window surrounding the figures is a compositional device Dou developed to enhance the illusionistic character of his genre scenes. Here, it serves many functions. It not only frames the two protagonists, but also provides a view to the interior of the shop while simultaneously defining the picture plane. On the window’s deep ledge lies an assortment of still-life elements that display the artist’s astounding ability to render each texture, surface, reflective quality, and material with careful yet varied brushwork visible only by attentive looking. Among these objects are a large head of cabbage, the curled edges of its leaves echoing the ruff of the woman’s collar; a bunch of carrots, their greens rendered with bravura flicks of the brush; some spring onions; and a frayed piece of cloth. The items are positioned so that each one protrudes beyond the ledge into the viewer’s space, blurring the distinction between the painted and actual worlds. In addition to the illusionism and beautiful surfaces, the small dimensions of Dou’s works were a ploy to attract, engage, and seduce the viewer.
The illusionistic effect in Herring Seller and Boy is heightened by the strong illumination streaming in from the upper left—like a spotlight placed close to the front of the picture. The lighting causes the objects on the sill to throw shadows onto the wall below, thereby heightening their tactile quality. The distorted shadows of the scales hanging from a nail at right emphasize the strong, directional, and theatrical quality of the light. The “outside” wall below the scales is marked by carefully observed cracks in the stone. Dou’s prominent signature is rendered as though it were chiseled into the wall below the ledge.
The artist uses both light and handling to differentiate the foreground from the background elements. Whereas the figures in the foreground are carefully delineated—every wrinkle and ruffle described—the women in the back are more cursorily painted, their features barely indicated, and their unspecified transaction conveyed solely by the posture and proximity of their bodies. As X-radiographs indicate, in addition to other adjustments, Dou made small changes to the placement of these figures while he was working.7 A diffuse light envelops them from a second light source emanating from the two rows of leaded windows in the left-hand wall of the shop.8
The format Dou chose is fitting for a shop scene, as it recalls the arch-shaped window behind which several of the tradesmen are shown working in illustrations by Jost Amman (1539–91) for the Ständebuch of 1568 (fig 1).9 The parallel does not end there. Outside the craftsmen’s arch-shaped windows in these prints is often found a table pushed flush against the wall that functions as a ledge to display their wares. Dou’s deep sill provides a comparable ledge, one that, as noted, displays his painterly prowess and virtuosic craftsmanship.
The earliest dated genre painting in which Dou used an arched window is his Grocery Shop of 1647 in the Musée du Louvre (fig 2), the first seventeenth-century Dutch shop scene.10 Although separated by nearly twenty years, Grocery Shop and Herring Seller have many elements in common, including poppies, a ham hock and, beyond them, candles suspended from the rafters. Scales, a basket of eggs, a pewter tankard (hanging from a shelf behind the eggs in Herring Seller and Boy and carried by the young boy in Grocery Shop), and shelving holding covered jars and boxes appear in both paintings. In the Louvre picture, a cask similar to the one beneath the candles in Herring Seller has a wooden tub atop it. The strong illumination from the upper left is also comparable.
The construction of space in the two works is fundamentally different, however, showing the strides Dou made in rendering spatial recession as he matured as a painter. The form of Grocery Shop corresponds roughly to the window depicted. Inside, a table is placed perpendicular to the window ledge, allowing the figures to be positioned on either side of it. Despite the depth of the room, a young boy seems awkwardly squeezed into an indeterminate space behind the servant girl. By contrast, in the later Herring Seller and Boy Dou uses the soft light, smaller scale, and monochromatic color of the background figures to suggest the depth of the space. The mise-en-scène, with the principal figures now placed close to the picture plane and the subsidiary figures convincingly engaged at the back of the room, announces a more experienced painter.11
The carefully described scene in the Leiden Collection painting does not, in fact, correspond to what we know about the nature of seventeenth-century Dutch shops. These stores tended to carry specific kinds of goods rather than offer the wide variety of wares on display in Herring Seller and Boy. The vettewariër would have carried butter, ham and candles; the comenij sold dairy, eggs and meat products; and the apoteker would have used poppies to make syrup with narcotic properties.12 Fresh vegetables and fish were available at the market and from street peddlers.13 At market, some vendors sold their wares from a window; unlike the hawkers and peddlers, these merchants were required to become members of the shopkeepers’ guild.14 Shopkeeping, indeed, was a common way for a seventeenth-century woman, especially one from the middle class, to make a living: owning a shop required no technical skills; women were tolerated in the shopkeepers’ guilds; and the trade required only some initial financial capital.15 Dou’s painting may allude to or conflate both the older practice of selling wares from a window and the newer type of shop that specialized in carrying particular goods.
The earliest description of this painting appears in a manuscript catalogue by E. Munich (1773–85) of works in the galleries and cabinets of the Imperial Palace in St. Petersburg:
N.° 534. La Marchande hollandaise.
Elle est vue à demi corps dans sa boutique garnie d’oignons, de carottes, d’une tête de chou rouge et d’un bacquet avec des harangs, dont elle en montre un à un garçon qui semble en avoir grande envie. À la muraille du côté gauche en pendent des balances et tout auprès un panier rempli d’oeufs; au plancher sont suspendus des jambons et un trousseau de tête de pavots; derrière la marchande, dans la demi-teinte, se distinguent deux femmes et contre le mur du fond des planchettes chargées de flacons. Il est peint en 1664.
Cette pièce, que le Comte de Bruhl avait eu de l’Electeur de Bavière et que l’on peut nommer à juste titre un Chef-d’oeuvre, a été gravé par Pierre Etienne Moitte à Paris sous le nom indiqué.
Sur bois. haut 11. V. Large 7 ½. V.
This source notes that Count Brühl acquired the painting from the Elector of Bavaria; that it is rightly called a masterpiece; that it was engraved by Pierre Etienne Moitte in Paris; and that it was painted in 1664.16 Although no date now appears on the painting, the composition and execution are most directly comparable to Dou’s Poulterer’s Shop in the National Gallery, London, dating to around 1665–70 (fig 3).17 A date of around 1664 for the Herring Seller and Boy, which is mentioned in Munich’s catalogue, is therefore most likely.
The Leiden Collection painting is not the sole representation of the subject of a herring seller in Dou’s art, though it is the most elaborate and the only one that shows the shopkeeper buying rather than selling fish. The Herring Seller in the Pushkin from about 1650–55 (fig 4) depicts only two figures.18 They are placed close to the picture plane, standing next to each other in a window. The young boy in a broad-brimmed hat grasps the fish tub and points into it while looking at the old woman. She, in turn, displays a herring with one hand and holds the other palm outward, as though expecting payment. Onions, herring’s traditional accompaniment, are the only still-life elements on the window sill. Dou’s other rendition of the theme, now in the Hermitage (fig 5), is a late work, dating about 1670–75.19 Here, an old woman and a beret-wearing boy, placed much farther back in space, are joined by a snarling dog splayed on the window ledge. This painting, which also includes the basket of eggs, scales, tattered cloth, and tub of herring found in the Leiden Collection picture, actually depicts the boy paying the woman for the herring she holds. Although not conceived as a series, these three compositions featuring a transaction between an old woman and a boy around a herring show three distinct episodes—delivering, choosing, and paying for herring—three pictorial solutions, and three moments in the artist’s career.
Dou’s Herring Seller and Boy appears to have been a very popular composition, much more so than the other two related images.20 Some twenty-three versions and copies of the work are known. Moitte’s mid-eighteenth-century engraving of the painting, made when it was in the collection of Count Brühl, was evidently used as the model for those copies of the painting that reproduce the subject in reverse.21