This is one of the best examples of Gerrit Dou’s brilliance at depicting different surfaces and textures, like the fraying cloth crumpled underneath a bucket, the smooth stone of the sill, the feathers in the duck’s wing and the pocked skin of its breast and neck.
Dou was one of the most successful artists in Leiden, and his accounts of everyday scenes like this – a young woman buying poultry and game – were particularly sought-after. As here, many were set in an architectural frame, an unusual device because even though the details and the figures are extremely realistic, a Leiden poultry seller would definitely not have displayed her produce in such a grand setting. It was obviously a device which proved popular with Dou’s own customers however, and it also allowed him to give his scenes a greater illusion of depth.
This is one of the best examples of Gerrit Dou’s brilliance at depicting different surfaces and textures in an extraordinarily convincing way: the fraying cloth crumpled underneath the bucket, the smooth stone of the sill, the feathers in the duck’s wing and the pocked skin of its breast and neck.
Not only do they look almost photographically real in themselves, but Dou has demonstrated his mastery of reflection and distortion by mirroring them in the shiny curve of the pail. Many seventeenth-century Dutch painters were skilled at painting in this way, but few – if any – could match Dou, who was apprenticed to Rembrandt, but also studied the minute techniques of copper engraving and glass painting. He became one of the most successful artists in Leiden, and his accounts of everyday scenes like this – a young woman buying poultry and game – were particularly sought-after.
As here, many were set in an architectural frame. It is an unusual device: while the details and the interaction between the figures are extremely realistic, the architecture reminds us that this is not a real scene. A typical Leiden poultry seller might well have looked as we see her here, but she definitely wouldn't have displayed her produce in such a grand and formal setting. It was a device which proved popular with Dou’s own customers though, and it also allowed him to give a greater sense of depth to the painting. The caged chicken, the crumpled cloth and the dead birds protruding over the sill, and the poulterer reaching out with the hare all seem to come forward into our own space. The illusion is intensified by the dramatic shaft of light which highlights the objects and figures in the foreground. Meanwhile, the shop and the two figures inside recede into a deep, shadowy background.
It is quite a formulaic composition. Dou’s customers might have recognised the sculpted panel showing children playing with a goat. It is based on a seventeenth-century marble bas-relief and often appears in Dou’s work from 1651 and later. The old woman is also recognisable from several of his works from at least 1647 onwards. The style of this painting, however, suggests that it was made significantly later than this: there are comparisons, for example, with his Grocer’s Shop of 1672 (Royal Collection, London).
Some art historians – swayed by what they see as the exaggerated eagerness of the young woman – have argued that we should read a moral message into the scene, based on the fact that the Dutch word for bird (vogel) puns with a slang word for sex (vogelen), and that empty bird cages could symbolise the loss of chastity. Hares were also associated with lust. But it’s hard to make a convincing case for what such a message or lesson might be. It is more likely that if Dou were suggesting any double entendres, they were for comic, rather than moral, effect.
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