In this tiny portrait, an affable young man turns towards us, settling his elbow over the back of his chair. His pipe is paused and he meets our gaze with an easy, relaxed look. Perhaps he has just taken a puff; the tobacco is glowing and smoke twists upwards from the bowl. Other minute details – from the pattern of the gold braid on the man’s hat to the reflections in his eyes – add to the atmosphere, and it is through such meticulous painting that Gerrit Dou has managed to capture the sense of a moment in time, rather than just a deadpan likeness. But the realism belies the point of the painting. Until recently it was thought to be a self portrait, but the similarities with known paintings of Dou are too generic for us to be sure. It is more likely that this is a tronie – an image of a stock character – which were highly popular in the Netherlands at the time.
One of the great achievements of the best Dutch artists of the seventeenth century was their ability to capture a moment in time. Whether the image is of a woman sweeping a kitchen, a group of men in conversation around a meeting table, or a riotous scene in a tavern, you get the sense that you are sharing a real moment with them. Rather than a deadpan composition, the painting is somehow alive.
This tiny portrait is an example of just this effect. The young man has turned towards us and settled his elbow over the back of his chair. He seems to be waiting for us to say something. His pipe is paused, slightly away from his mouth, and he meets our gaze with an easy, relaxed look. Perhaps he has just taken a puff: the tobacco is glowing and a wisp of smoke twists upwards from the bowl.
Maybe it is this sense of a pause in his pipe smoking which creates the feeling of a moment captured – it is always hard to explain why some paintings are more effective than others in this respect. The exquisite detail definitely adds to the atmosphere. Even though this portrait is just 19 x 15cm, Dou has teased out the pattern and the highlights of the gold braid on his hat, the reflections in his eyes and even the texture of the skin on his left hand. But he also adds the occasional dash of brilliance. The glimpse of his shirt where his jerkin has become unbuttoned has been suggested with a single stroke of white paint.
Dou’s father was a glass engraver, so perhaps his attention to minutiae was inherited or ingrained at an early age. His creativity with oil paint, however, was learned in Rembrandt’s studio, where he was an apprentice from 1628 until 1631/2. He certainly made a success of his abilities and founded the so-called Fijnschilders (‘fine, or small-scale, meticulous’) group of painters in his home town of Leiden, where he specialised in minutely painted scenes of everyday life. Such was his fame by the 1660s that Charles II invited him to visit London. He declined, preferring to stay in his home town.
Until recently this picture – which was probably painted in about 1635–40 when Dou was in his mid-twenties – was considered to be a self portrait. The pipe perhaps replaced the brush which Dou saw when he looked in the mirror. The long wavy hair, the moustache and tuft below his lip, and the hump in the nose have similarities with portraits that we know are of Dou. But they are too generic for us to be sure of a secure identification and it is more likely that what we are looking at here is a tronie – an image of a stock character – which were highly popular in the Netherlands at the time.
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