Skip to main content
Scholarly Essay

Gerrit Dou and His Collectors in the Golden Age


Bakker, Piet. “Gerrit Dou and His Collectors in the Golden Age” (2017). 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 24, 2024).

Gerrit Dou (1613–75) apprenticed with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) between 1628–31, when he likely executed this early Self-Portrait (?) at an Easel ().  A mere eighteen years old, Dou established himself as an independent artist shortly after Rembrandt’s departure, electing to stay in his native Leiden, where he resided continuously until his death in 1675. Painting in Leiden entered a critical period beginning in 1631 when several of the city’s leading artists, including Rembrandt and Jan Lievens (1607–74) both departed. This loss of talent hugely depleted Leiden’s artistic milieu. Nonetheless, coinciding with this drain was the dawn of Dou’s remarkable career. His fame would soon spread not only throughout Leiden, but also far beyond the borders of the Netherlands.

Dou was the cornerstone of a local school of painting that lasted deep into the eighteenth century. This school was characterized by a highly precise and extremely detailed manner of painting in a small format. The painters in Leiden working in this style became known as “the Leiden fijnschilders” in the nineteenth century. Among them was Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635–81), the only pupil of Dou to equal, if not surpass, his master. They were without a doubt the two most important Leiden fijnschilders, although there were also other highly deserving painters who are the subject of the essay Leiden Fijnschilders and the Local Art Market in the Golden Age in this catalogue.

Dou’s First Accolades

The first author to praise Dou and his exquisite painting style was the Leiden burgomaster Jan Orlers (1570–1646). In his 1641 Beschryvinge van de Stad Leyden, Orlers commends Dou as “an excellent master, especially in small, subtle, and intricate things.” A year later, the Leiden painter Philips Angel (1618–64) published his Lof der Schilder-Konst, in which Dou again assumes a leading role. This slender volume was the printed version of a lecture Angel gave on the Feast of Saint Luke the previous year to an assembly of colleagues and art lovers. Dou, “Die noyt ghenoegh ghepresen” (who can never be praised enough), is mentioned twice in this treatise. In a passage regarding the ideal manner of painting, Angel urges his confrères to follow Dou’s example. Illustrating the integrity of the painter’s métier with several specific examples, he notes “that fine, outstanding Gerrit Dou, who, because he has granted the Honorable Gentleman Spierings the right of first refusal, annually receives 500 guilders for this privilege.” While “Heer Spierings” (discussed below) was not a patron in the true sense of the word, the annual 500-guilder stipend provided Dou with a guaranteed income. In a time when skilled laborers earned one guilder per day, this would have made Dou the envy of his colleagues.

The Dissemination of Dou’s Work

Orlers’s and Angel’s publications suggest that around 1640, Dou was the most successful painter in Leiden. Although Angel mentions Spiering’s generous right of first refusal foremost as evidence of Dou’s merits, the artist’s economic success certainly was a key factor in Angel’s endorsement of him as a role model.

Of Dou’s important status, there is surprisingly scant evidence to be found in Leiden’s archives. He occupies a modest twelfth place among the most frequently cited artists in seventeenth-century estate inventories. When one considers the number of paintings mentioned, he drops off the list entirely. Dou’s paintings are listed in only thirteen estate inventories, placing him thirty-second among Leiden painters. Remarkably, Dou’s name does not occur once in Leiden inventories dating before 1650.

This meager presence is less meaningful than would appear at first glance. Notaries did not really begin to include attributions of paintings in documents until the 1650s. Equally important, the artist’s laborious and time-consuming manner of painting helps account for his low output—one, moreover, that may have been monopolized over a long period of time by a single patron, Pieter Spiering (1595–1652). Dou charged a steep hourly fee, which means that his paintings were so expensive that they were only within reach of an extremely wealthy—and therefore small and exclusive—circle of buyers. In fact, it would have been surprising if Dou’s name did occur frequently in estate inventories, both before and after 1650.

The earliest attribution of a painting to Dou in Leiden is found in a 1656 inventory of one of his pupils, Abraham de Pape (ca. 1620–66). Along with numerous copies that De Pape made of Dou’s work, he owned two originals, namely his portrait and “een oud mans tronie” (tronie of an old man). In that same year, “een stuk van Dou” (a painting by Dou) is recorded among the many pictures owned by Johan Francois Tortarolis (ca. 1600–53), a fabulously wealthy banker. An additional eleven Leiden deeds, drawn up between 1661 and 1697, all concern the holdings of Leiden’s elite, including Johan de Bye (1621/22–70/72) and Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius (1614–72), who are each discussed in depth below.

The near absence of paintings by Dou in Leiden documents typifies the situation in other Dutch towns as well. The very earliest mention of one of his paintings actually occurs in a Delft deed of conveyance of the linen merchant Justus de la Grange (1623–64), who in 1655 settled a debt with several paintings, including one by Dou. De la Grange frequented Delft regularly, but was more often to be found at Offem, his country estate near Leiden, where he hung the paintings mentioned in his inventory. The merchant owed his great prosperity primarily to affluent Leiden relatives, whose estates he had inherited. Thus, whether he actually bought Dou’s painting cannot be determined with certainty.

Dating from 1655 is an invitation, written in French, from notary Willem de Langue (1599–1656) in Delft to purchase “en tout, ou en part” (in full, or in part) his collection. Assembled between 1625 and 1655, it comprised eighty-nine paintings by various Dutch masters, including “six pièces de Gerrard Dou” (six paintings by Gerrit Dou). Regrettably, these works are not described, which may be why De Langue is rarely mentioned as a patron of Dou in the literature. Nothing is known about the relationship between Dou and De Langue, but it should be remembered that De Langue was a reputed collector and connoisseur. His invitation was aimed at an international audience, perhaps the foreign diplomats residing nearby in The Hague. The possibility that De Langue was acquainted with his fellow townsman Pieter Spiering cannot be excluded.

In addition to the Leiden and Delft deeds, a Middelburg estate inventory from 1676 lists “een principael van Gerrit Douw” (a principal [work] by Gerrit Dou). Works by Dou are also featured in the stock inventories of the Amsterdam art dealers Johannes de Renialme (1657) and Gerrit Uylenburgh (1674). De Renialme’s estate even contains five pictures by the artist, one of which is by both Dou and Rembrandt. The inventory of the Amsterdam art dealer Laurens Maurits Douci (1669) owned an unspecified painting that, according to the appraisers Ferdinand Bol and Gerrit Uylenburgh, was jointly painted by Dou and Govaert Flinck.

There was an audience for Dou’s work in Rotterdam and The Hague as well. For example, the 1680 inventory of collector and amateur painter Jacob Loys (ca. 1620–78) lists “een vroutge met lampge van Gerrit Douw” (a woman with a lamp by Gerrit Dou). Loys must have previously owned other work by Dou, because the description of the painting just mentioned does not match up with the work that French envoy Balthasar de Monconys (1611–65) described in his journal upon visiting the dealer in 1663 as “une femme qui tire du vin de Dau” (a woman tapping wine by Dou). Thanks to De Monconys’s writings, we know the name of another Rotterdam owner of Dou’s work. Among the possessions of the merchant “Mr. Guèras” (perhaps Mr. Gerards?), the Frenchman encountered a painting by Van Mieris, “qui vont du pair avec celles de son maître Dou” (which goes hand in hand with those by his master Dou). When De Monconys later visited The Hague, he saw “une femme Dau” (a woman [by] Dou) at the home of the Lord of Noordwijk—presumably Wigbold van der Does (1611–69)—which he praised as being “parfaitement beaux” (perfectly beautiful).

The Prices for Dou’s Work

The fact that Leiden’s preeminent painter appears in only a handful of Leiden inventories can easily be explained as a function of his pricing. Dou’s exorbitant prices stemmed, in part, from his meticulous and time-consuming manner of painting. The artist lived to paint and was a stickler for perfection. He could spend days elaborating the tiniest of details, and would work on a single painting for weeks on end. This meticulous style is evident in several works in The Leiden Collection, such as his delicate Portrait of a Lady, Seated with a Music Book on her Lap (). He charged a steep fee of six guilders per hour, and according to his biographer Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88), a painting of Dou’s could cost up to 1,000 guilders. When Sandrart visited Dou around 1640 and complimented him on his extreme patience in painting a broomstick “der ein schlechtes gröszer als ein Fingers Nagel ware” (which was hardly larger than a fingernail), Dou responded that he would require at least three more days to complete it. Soon thereafter, when Sandrart was in The Hague to portray Pieter Spiering, the latter’s wife, Jeanne Doré, related another story about Dou’s perfectionism: for a small portrait of Spiering and his family that Dou had just recently completed, he had had Jeanne pose in an armchair in his studio for five consecutive days in order to paint just her hand! One can only imagine how many weeks it took the artist to paint the entire portrait.

The excessive prices Dou received for his work are both confirmed and contradicted by documentary evidence. One confirmation is the extraordinary amount of 4,000 guilders the States of Holland paid Dou for his painting of The Young Mother in 1660, now in the Mauritshuis (). Another example is “een keuckenmeyt” (a kitchen maid) listed in the inventory of Johannes de Renialme, mentioned above, that was appraised at 600 guilders. To De Monconys’s astonishment, in 1663 Dou asked the same amount for a picture of a girl at a window.

Most of the prices of Dou’s paintings cited in seventeenth-century archival documents, however, are lower. In 1678 the painters Dirck Dircksz Santvoort (1609–80) and Melchior Hondecoeter (1636–95) appraised “een vrouwtie dat gekapt wordt met openslaende deuren daerop een suygende vrouwtie bij de lamp” (a woman being coiffed, with a door opening outward on which is [painted] a woman nursing by candlelight) in the estate of the Amsterdam merchant Jan Rouyer, heir of the Leiden Dou aficionado Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, at 450 guilders, possibly Lady at Her Toilet in the Boijmans Museum (). This is not inexpensive, but three other paintings were valued at 200, 150, and 100 guilders, respectively. In 1675 “een St. Franciscus” (a Saint Francis) by Dou in the stock of Gerrit Uylenburgh (1626–79) was estimated at 250 guilders. This amount is close to the 230 guilders that the Delft art dealer Abraham de Cooge (before 1606–after 1680) paid the Utrecht merchant Dirck Scade in 1665 “voor een stukje van Dou, voorstellend een kluizenaar” (for a small painting by Dou, representing a hermit), which may be one in the same, or a similar work as Old Man Praying in The Leiden Collection (). When the Danish scholar Ole Borch  (1626–90) visited the studio of Jacob Toorenvliet (1640–1719) in 1662, he saw a portrait by Dou of his brother Jan Dou that, according to Toorenvliet, was worth 200 guilders.

Although most of these prices and valuations are lower than what Sandrart quoted, they are still very high compared to what Dou’s colleagues charged. Nevertheless, some archival records assign much lower prices to Dou’s work. For example, the painting owned by Justus de la Grange was worth a mere 10 guilders, and De Renialme had two relatively inexpensive paintings worth 30 and 40 guilders. Given Dou’s working method and generally high prices, however, it is likely that these were copies or works by followers. A lack of expertise on the part of the appraisers may also have played a role here. A fascinating case study in this respect is the estate of Jan Rouyer. The appraisal of his paintings by Santvoort and Hondecoeter had been preceded by another one, done by two second-hand goods dealers. Whereas Santvoort and Hondecoeter assigned values of 450, 200, 150, and 100 guilders to the four works by Dou, the earlier estimates had been only 40, 35, 25, and 18 guilders, respectively—a discrepancy of 782 guilders! The unduly low appraisal by the second-hand goods dealers is undoubtedly related to the small format of Dou’s works, as the size of a painting was an important, though by no means the only, factor in determining its value.

Pieter Spiering, “The Incomparable Connoisseur”

Dou’s paintings were the preserve of a prosperous elite, among whom only a true art lover would have been able and willing to pay the master’s prices. The only connoisseur to be documented as a patron of Dou in the first phase of his career is Pieter Spiering who, as noted, appears in Angel’s Lof der Schilder-Konst. Aside from his role as an art patron, Spiering was an agent in the service of the Swedish crown in The Hague, a post he held almost continuously from 1634 to his death in 1652.

Pieter Spiering was the son of François Spiering (1550–1630), an Antwerp tapestry weaver who established himself in Delft in 1591. Spiering’s workshop quickly grew into a successful enterprise with clients all over Europe. In 1619 the workshop received its largest commission, a series of twenty-seven tapestries in honor of the marriage of the Swedish king Gustav Adolf (1594–1632). Pieter Spiering coordinated the project and accompanied the shipment to Stockholm, where he forged his first contacts with the Swedish court. He did not officially enter into the king’s service until 1626, after which he held various very lucrative posts in the Swedish territories around the Baltic Sea. He amassed most of his vast fortune in these years.

In 1634 Spiering returned to the Dutch Republic as a Swedish agent in The Hague. He acquitted himself so well that two years later he was appointed the highest representative of the Swedish crown. In this position he also oversaw Michel le Blon (1587–1658), the famous engraver and art dealer. Le Blon had been a Swedish agent since 1618 and, just like Spiering, was charged with providing his employer with all possible information of political interest. In addition to being diplomats, both men were renowned art collectors. Back in the Dutch Republic, Spiering could once again devote all of his attention to his collection, a passion that he acquired growing up in the home of his father, who also had a superb art collection. When the latter died in 1630, Pieter “inherited all of his father’s art, both drawings and prints,” including “the prints by Albrecht Dürer, wood and copper engraver, the prints by Lucas van Leyden, still many other prints and books of prints, as well as drawings by many old and modern art and reproductive engravers.” The holdings were valued at around 2,000 guilders.

Whatever else Pieter Spiering owned can only be approximated, for no catalogue of his collection has been preserved. It is known, however, that in 1641 Spiering bought two volumes with drawings by Raphael (1483–1520), Giulio Romano (1499–1546), the Carracci, and Titian (1490–1576) from Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) for the exorbitant amount of close to 3,500 guilders. When the French theologian and writer Francois Ogier (1597–1670) visited Spiering in The Hague in 1644, he showed him these works, along with “sundry books with prints by Albrecht Durer, Lucas van Leyden, and others, drawings by Raphael,” as well as “a number of paintings and a cabinet replete with medals, reliefs of gold, silver, ivory, copper, wax.” Spiering’s appetite for collecting thus was not limited to paintings.

Spiering clearly appreciated the work of fijnschilders. For instance, in 1635 Le Blon tried to sell him a painting by Johannes Torrentius (1589–1644), “as you desire and delight in uncommon, fine, and detailed things.” If Spiering was persuaded to acquire Torrentius’s painting, it would not have been his first purchase of the artist’s work, for Le Blon stated that he knew of no one “who has work by him, except for the King of England and you.”

Spiering owned at least thirteen pictures by Dou, and probably more. Writing about Dou in 1675, Sandrart recalled that he had seen “the best of his labor” at the home of “the most famous envoy Mr. Spiering in The Hague and elsewhere,” and went on to describe four works precisely. Two of them, An Interior with Young Violinist () in Edinburgh and the lost Young Lacemaker, are probably identical to two of the ten pictures that Spiering consigned to Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–89). Among these works was also one in The Leiden Collection, Scholar Interrupted at His Writing (). Although these works were listed as being in Christina’s collection, they were probably  sent to her only for approval, but were actually owned by Spiering, who had them conveyed to Sweden in one or more shipments. Christina does not appear to have been particularly taken with any of Dou’s pictures, for when her collection was inventoried in 1652, two years before her voluntary abdication, it was noted that they should be returned to Spiering.

All we know about the relationship between Spiering and Dou is that Spiering paid the artist for the right of first refusal, a right that—judging from the pictures in the envoy’s possession—he regularly exercised. How long this arrangement lasted is not known. Neither Angel nor Sandrart mentions when this annual stipend began or ended. The starting date would have to be after 1634, when Spiering returned to the Dutch Republic; the final date would be 1652 when Spiering died while on a mission in London. If Sandrart indeed saw Dou’s An Interior with Young Violinist () while visiting Spiering, their contact existed by 1637, the date of the painting.

In theory, their agreement could therefore have lasted from 1634 to 1652. Given that Spiering paid the painter 500 guilders a year for his right, he could have disbursed 9,000 guilders to Dou over the years without receiving even a single painting. If Sandrart’s observation that Dou asked prices ranging from 600 to 1,000 guilders is correct, then, on top of his annual stipend, Spiering might have paid Dou up to 8,000–10,000 guilders for the thirteen works mentioned as being in his collection. Such an impressive sum would not have been a problem for the wealthy Spiering.

In addition to buying art for his own pleasure, Spiering also dealt in art. Like Le Blon, he was a gentleman dealer, a side of him already evident from the shipments of art he sent to Queen Christina. In addition to paintings, Spiering also provided her with twenty-four ivory and forty-eight marble sculptures. And in 1635, just one year after his appointment as the Swedish agent in The Hague, the court instructed him to buy thirty-five paintings. He generally left the actual buying up to Le Blon, serving himself as mediator. The Swedish court also called directly on Le Blon—more often, it would appear, than on Spiering—to acquire art. Le Blon may even have provided the court with a picture by Dou. As a rule, however, people in the circles around the Swedish court continued to rely on Spiering for their art purchasing.

The agreement between Spiering and Dou thus extended beyond assuring Spiering access to the artist’s best work. For both Spiering and Le Blon, who were continually gathering information for their Swedish employer, love of art was not the sole motivation for their collecting passions. In buying art they reinforced their own positions in the networks within which they gathered information. For a diplomat of Spiering’s level, the realms of politics and art were indelibly linked, and his reputation as a connoisseur was key to the development of his diplomatic career. His high position in service to Sweden guaranteed him access to the leading European courts and thus to a broad potential market of influential art buyers. Conversely, Spiering’s “unvergleichbare” (incomparable) love of art brought him into contact with wealthy art lovers throughout Europe who, after seeking his advice or buying art from him, subsequently turned to him as their political correspondent. This dual function meant that the 500 guilders Spiering paid Dou annually can also be understood as a business investment by a gentleman dealer, and probably a lucrative one at that.

In addition to dealing in Dou’s work, Spiering may have served as an intermediary in portrait commissions extended to the artist, even if the “proof” is limited to him having a family relation with a single patron, the lawyer Dirck van Beresteyn (1627–53).  His jewel-like portrait in The Leiden Collection () seems to have been commissioned in the early 1650s and may have been intended as a gift for his betrothal. It is conceivable that Spiering may have introduced Van Beresteyn to Dou as Spiering was related to the Van Beresteyn family through his sister Catharina, who was married to a full cousin of Dirck’s. Another similar instance is The Young Mother in the Mauritshuis in The Hague (). It is not known who commissioned the painting, but the coat-of-arms of the Delft Van Adrichem family in the upper left—Dirck van Beresteyn was married to Magdalena van Adrichem (1639–84)—reinforces the suspicion that Spiering was somehow involved in the inception of this important painting, which the States of Holland acquired in 1660 for an astonishing 4,000 guilders.

Although no other patrons of Dou are noted in archival records from Leiden or any other Dutch cities, there was a small number of other affluent Leiden art enthusiasts in the first half of the seventeenth century who could afford pictures by Dou. For example, Dou painted a portrait of the Leiden lawyer Johan Wittert van der Aa (1604–70) in 1646, as well as a double portrait of him with his wife. Not surprisingly, Wittert van der Aa was astonishingly wealthy. Spiering’s unexpected death in 1652 could have had serious financial implications for Dou were it not for the fact that his reputation had become so great—in some measure thanks to Spiering and his important early support—that new benefactors soon presented themselves.

After the Death of Pieter Spiering

There is nothing to indicate that Spiering’s death was problematic for Dou. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has two pictures that can be related to transactions in the 1650s. These are Dou’s famous The Doctor of 1653, and Girl Lighting a Lantern, circa 1655. Both were probably acquired by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–62) when he was in Brussels as governor of the Southern Netherlands between 1647 and 1656. Given the dates of the two paintings, they must have entered this collection between 1653 and 1656, the year in which Leopold’s art treasures were transferred to Vienna. Perhaps Leopold personally commissioned the paintings from Dou, but it is possible that they were bought by the Flemish painter David Teniers the Younger (1601–90), who was Leopold’s court painter and keeper of his collection. Teniers’s work was in great demand in the Dutch Republic, and perhaps on one of his trips he visited Leiden to buy works by Dou for his employer.

An exceptional honor fell to Dou in 1660. In that year the States of Holland decided to give several expensive gifts, including paintings, to the English King Charles II on the occasion of his accession to the throne. Initially only twenty-eight paintings by Italian masters were bought, but it was later decided to include work by Dutch masters. Dou was asked to appraise a picture by Pieter Saenredam (1597–1665) for this gift. The esteem Dou enjoyed is clear from this request alone, and more evident from the fact that he was also invited to contribute to the gift. Dou provided three pictures, two of which he painted himself: one of them was The Young Mother () of 1658 discussed above.

A signal compliment to Dou was paid by the Englishman John Evelyn who, following a visit to the London court, noted in his book that on that day “were presented to his Majestie those two rare pieces of Drolerie, or rather a Dutch Kitchin, painted by Douce, so finely as hardly to be at all distinguished from Enamail. The king himself had only praise; the pieces that pleased him the most were, along with the Titian, “die van Douw en Elshamer” (those by Dou and Elsheimer). Charles II was so impressed that he even invited Dou to the court, an honor the artist declined. He was certainly not in need of work; the 1660s marked the beginning of the most fruitful period of his career. Of the 126 paintings attributed to Dou, he painted 42 between 1660 and 1670.

Dou’s share in the “Dutch Gift” enhanced his growing celebrity and definitively established his standing abroad. When Cornelis de Bie (1627–ca. 1715), from Antwerp, commented in his Het gulden cabinet that Dou’s paintings “bear our spirits higher than the stars,” this accolade also touches on his reputation: Dou’s star continued to rise with no end in sight. For instance, after visiting Dou in 1662, the Danish scholar Ole Borch (1620–90) called the artist “the excellent painter of Leiden,” with no equal as a limner of miniatures in the world. Borch waxed lyrical about the painting known as The Dropsical Woman, now in the Louvre (). Dou put the finishing touches to this picture shortly after Borch’s visit, and it soon found its way to the famous picture cabinet of Johan de Bye.

Until now it has remained unnoticed that Borch actually spoke about Dou the previous year. When he visited the workshop of Jacob Toorenvliet on 28 May 1661, perhaps to collect his portrait, he saw in addition to paintings by Toorenvliet, work by Dou, whom he described as “an exceptionally talented painter […] of small pictures.” Borch was startled—as noted previously—by the value of a little portrait of Jan Dou: 200 guilders, “even though it was rather small.” De Monconys was also surprised by the price, though his admiration for Dou prevailed when he noted that the artist “is incomparable for the delicacy of his brush.”

Dou likewise received commendations from his fellow townsmen. In Leiden deeds, he was introduced as “Monsieur,” a term of address generally reserved for people of noble birth. He was even the subject of an occasional poem. In 1662, for example, the Leiden notary Dirck Traudenius (ca. 1606–68) praised Dou as “den Hollandschen Parrhasius,” the Dutch Parrhasius, the renowned artist of antiquity who fooled the great Zeuxis with his convincing depiction of a curtain. Such praise acknowledged the artist’s mastery of illusion and pointed to Dou’s particular brand of architectural niche scene, in which curtains figure prominently along one side. A fine example of this format dates from 1659, Cat Crouching on the Ledge of An Artist’s Studio in The Leiden Collection (). Its popularity would continue throughout Dou’s lifetime and is exemplified in three other works in The Leiden Collection, Young Woman in a Niche with a Parrot and a Cage (), Herring Seller and Boy (), and Old Woman at a Window with a Candle ().

Foreigners and compatriots alike flocked to Dou’s workshop. When Pieter Teding van Berkhout (1643–1713), later the burgomaster of Delft, stayed with relatives in Leiden in December 1669, he called on “the famous painter Dou, who showed us three or four beautiful examples of art by his hand. Given Dou’s fame, it is striking that Simon van Leeuwen (1625–82), in his 1672 city chronicle, limits himself to expressing his great admiration for the art of “the outstanding painter of fine detail” and appreciates the fact that Dou “does not withhold [his talent] from any of his apprentices who show promise.” Van Leeuwen devotes not a single word to royal and other owners of Dou’s work, to whom the artist largely owed his great renown.

Dou’s Most Important Patron, Johan de Bye

Dou never lacked for praise, but he received the most from Johan de Bye who, after the death of Spiering, became the artist’s most important patron. It is unclear when exactly “zyn grooten Mecenas” (his great Maecenas) appeared on the stage, but considering De Bye’s age, it was probably not before 1652. He bought Dou’s work regularly, and no one owned more paintings by the artist than did De Bye; in 1665 he owned twenty-seven, perhaps even twenty-nine paintings. In September of that year, De Bye had his pictures by Dou taken from his house on the Hoogelandsekerkgracht to a rented room in the house of the still-life painter Johannes Hannot (1633–84) in the Breestraat, where for a modest fee (to be donated to the poor), art lovers and potential buyers could view Dou’s works. Remarkably, this show included two of Dou’s masterpieces now in The Leiden Collection: Young Woman in a Niche with a Parrot and a Cage () and Goat in a Landscape ().

According to a seventeenth-century manuscript, De Bye came from one of the “oldest and highly distinguished families of Leiden; his predecessors have in said city already held the most exalted offices in the magistrate for more than 300 years, garnering great praise and repute, and leading upright and irreproachable lives.” This pedigree finds support in a few early seventeenth-century archival records. For instance, Johan’s great uncle, Jan Pieters de Bye, served several times as burgomaster, and his brother as alderman. After the “wetsverzetting,” or “changing of the legislatives,” of 1618, when Remonstrants were prohibited from holding public office, the De Bye family vanished from the town council.

De Bye’s grandfather was a brewer in de Roscam, along the Rhine River, opposite the Houtmarkt. Johan de Bye grew up in this brewery. His parents, Pieter Fransz de Bye (1595–1633) and Aeltje Hasius († before 1639), died when he and his sister Anna were still children. They found a new home with Willem Fransz de Bye, their uncle and guardian, who took over de Roscam around 1638. Johan de Bye probably was registered at the Leiden Academy in 1637 at the age of twelve. The enrollment of a child was usually related to the tax benefits this conferred, including exemption from beer taxes, a privilege that would certainly have appealed to De Bye’s guardians. He enrolled at the Academy yet again in 1648, this time as a law student. As for his professional activities, all we know is that he was appointed regent of the St. Elisabethgasthuis in 1663 and 1664, and that he invested in other people’s businesses.

Although no business agreement between De Bye and Dou has been preserved, there is one involving De Bye and another “artist,” the Leiden watchmaker Willem Meester. In May 1664 the two entered into an “acte van compagnie” (deed of partnership). De Bye would invest 7,200 guilders in Meester’s business, and the watchmaker would repay him half after six years and the remainder after twelve years. In exchange De Bye stipulated: “that he, Meester, will not accept any work without previous communication with and the express consent of Mister Johan de Bye,” and furthermore that weekly he “will give [to De Bye] the legal half of all the profit that I in any way come to receive or enjoy from my art of handiwork.” Whether De Bye profited from his investment is doubtful. Meester does not seem to have enjoyed much success. In 1674 he and his wife, Margareta Hannot, a sister of Johannes Hannot, were each taxed separately for a capital of 1,000 guilders.

De Bye was a devout Remonstrant who was highly regarded by his Leiden fellow believers. Remonstrants in Leiden faced fierce opposition to their religious beliefs from the local authorities. The petition for permission to build their own church, which was submitted various times after 1662, was granted only in 1672. Until then, De Bye made his house available for religious services. The town council wanted none of this individual initiative, and De Bye ultimately paid a steep price for his religious zeal. In 1664 he was forced to step down as regent of the St. Elisabethgasthuis, and was frequently penalized with high fines. Tensions mounted, and at times threatened to escalate. On at least two occasions, in 1662 and 1664, an angry crowd gathered before De Bye’s house. The second time, the bailiff was barely able to prevent the plundering of De Bye’s house, a few windows having already been smashed. The unrest persisted, and in the summer of 1665, by the order of the court, the pulpit and other church furniture in De Bye’s home were dismantled. It takes little effort to imagine the fate that De Bye’s collection would have faced had an angry crowd forced its way into his house. De Bye surely realized this, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he moved his paintings by Dou to the Breestraat in 1665 in order to safeguard the most valuable part of his collection.

The Collection of Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius

Another art lover with an above-average number of pictures by Dou—no fewer than eleven—also lived in Leiden, namely the famous professor Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius. In the literature, Sylvius is known chiefly as the patron of Dou’s pupil Frans van Mieris the Elder, but if the number of pictures in his possession is the criterion, then his fondness for Dou was even greater: he owned seven works by Van Mieris, four fewer than by Dou.

Sylvius was a renowned scholar and a medical doctor with a clientele extending far beyond the Republic, and he lived in Leiden in circumstances commensurate with his rank. When he died in 1672, he left behind a sizeable collection of pictures, 172 works in total, in his splendid home at 31 Rapenburg. Unfortunately, the descriptions of the paintings are too summary to identify them. The only Dou painting about which there is some consensus is Lady at Her Toilet, now in Rotterdam (), which is probably the work described as: “een stuck waerin een Jufr [ouw] voor de Spiegel” (a picture with a young lady before a mirror).

That Sylvius without a doubt possessed eleven costly pieces by such a famous painter as Dou is remarkable, and thus it is surprising that the generally well-informed Houbraken makes no mention of Sylvius. Whether Sylvius acquired all of the paintings directly from Dou remains to be seen. It is entirely possible that he bought a few pictures from De Bye when the latter housed his Dou collection at Johannes Hannot’s in the Breestraat. Sylvius could also have obtained a few of De Bye’s pictures after the latter’s death. Some of the cursory descriptions in their inventories could refer to one and the same painting. For instance, Sylvius’s “het besgen” (old woman) could be De Bye’s “oude vrouw met een bouck” (old woman with a book), and Sylvius’s “een heremyt in een cas” (a hermit in a case) could be De Bye’s “een kluysenaer biddende geknielt voor een kruijseficx van buijtenen een kaers licht lamp ende doots hoofft’ (a praying hermit kneeling before a crucifix; on the outside a candlelight lamp and skull). Furthermore, Sylvius owned five “kaerslichten” (candlelights), and De Bye owned nine. It is thus quite possible that when De Bye’s possessions were being brought to the house of his young cousin Maria Knotter on the Rapenburg (no. 35), a stop was made at the home of Sylvius (at no. 31) to deliver some of the works in the estate bought by the scholar.

After Dou’s Death 

Dou did not long outlive De Bye and Sylvius, who both died in 1672. The loss of his most important patrons seems to have had an impact on his production. The last dated pictures are from 1672, and not a single painting in the period to his death in 1675 can be dated with certainty. Nevertheless, his work remained popular even after his death. At the end of the seventeenth century, demand for his work was greater than ever, partly due to the interest of a few foreign princes. Dou left behind a relatively small oeuvre, however, and after his death it was not easy to obtain an original painting by his hand, as the Amsterdam agent of Cosimo III de’ Medici, Guasconi, discovered. In 1676, the year of his installation as Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo ordered Guasconi to acquire works by Dou, including a self-portrait. Only with great difficulty was the agent able to procure two pictures. One of them was Dou’s 1658 self-portrait, now in the Uffizi (), for which the agent had to pay 800 fiorini. Interestingly, Guasconi initially had another portrait in mind, which was offered to him by an otherwise unnamed Leiden merchant. The agent found the asking price of 315 guilders too high to simply proceed with the purchase without Cosimo’s express permission. By the time the grand duke consented, the merchant had already sold Dou’s self-portrait to an art dealer in Antwerp, a “Mr. Gillis,” who had made a slightly higher bid for the small likeness.

Although these amounts are steep, they are no higher than what Dou commanded while he was alive. In the eighteenth century, it was de rigueur for any self-respecting collection to have a picture by Dou, and amounts over 1,000 guilders were readily paid at auction for masterpieces by the artist. Even so, Dou’s popularity eventually waned. With the rise of Impressionism in the mid-nineteenth century, a reversal of opinion set in and his meticulous style was no longer admired; in fact, it was condemned as being overly precise and fussy. In the past few decades, however, there has been a renewed appreciation for his work, which has found expression in numerous publications and exhibitions and a reinvigorated interest by art collectors, who have paid record prices for his paintings.

- Piet Bakker, 2017
Scroll back to top