When it entered the National Gallery’s collection in 1823, this painting was described as a portrait of the painter’s wife – but we now know Gerrit Dou never married. Perhaps it was something about the intimacy and sensitivity of this tiny image which led people to assume that there was a relationship between the artist and the sitter.
Though we will probably never know the name of the subject, we can tell she comes from a wealthy family. She is wearing teardrop pearl earrings as well as a pearl necklace – jewellery which was fashionable, coveted and expensive at the time. Otherwise, however, she is dressed informally in an open-necked blouse and a fur-trimmed jacket which, though a sign of wealth, was commonly worn by women in the home. Dou specialised in minutely painted scenes of everyday life, and produced a small number of tiny portraits such as this.
It does appear to be a portrait of a real person rather than an example of a tronie (a genre depicting personality types which was particularly popular at the time). Dou’s Portrait of a Young Man, a painting of very similar size, is probably a tronie rather than a straight portrait.
If the painting here is indeed a portrait, we will probably never know the name of the subject. But we can tell that she comes from a rather well-off family. She is wearing teardrop pearl earrings as well as a pearl necklace – jewellery which was fashionable, coveted and expensive at the time. Otherwise she is dressed informally in an open-necked blouse, and a fur-trimmed jacket which, though a sign of wealth, was commonly worn by women in the home. The black gauze veil covering her hair is a sign of Christian piety.
That the portrait has been commissioned from Dou suggests that the sitter, or her family, appreciated high-quality painting, or wanted to be associated with one of the most fashionable painters of the time – note the prominence of his signature against the background on the left. Dou was one of Rembrandt’s most successful apprentices, but he stayed in their hometown of Leiden after Rembrandt had left to set up his studio in Amsterdam. Dou, whose father was a glass engraver, went on to specialise in minutely painted scenes of everyday life, and also a small number of tiny portraits such as this. He was the founder of the so-called Fijnschilders (painters of fine, or small-scale, meticulous works). Such was his fame by the 1660s that Charles II invited him to visit London. He declined, preferring to stay in his hometown.
You can see why his skill was so admired. Dou’s depiction of the fall of light here is remarkably successful given the small scale on which he was working. Look at the sheen on the pearls, the complex shadows on the sitter’s blouse and the faintest hint of moisture on her lower lip. Pentimenti (alterations made by the artist to an area already painted) in the neck of the chemise suggest that he went to some trouble to get this very small detail right. There’s some uncertainty about when exactly this picture was made, but on grounds of style and costume it is most likely to have been painted about 1655.
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