Sunday, 29 July 2012


“Which painting in the National Gallery would I save if there was a fire? The one nearest the door, of course.” - George Bernard Shaw
Gerrit Dou was a Dutch artist, born in 1613 in Leiden, The Netherlands, and died in 1675 in Leiden. Dou’s father was a glass engraver and he gave his son his first painting lessons. The young Gerrit was then apprenticed to a distinguished printmaker and glass painter, receiving additional formal artistic training from the Leiden glaziers’ guild. At fifteen he was appointed to the enviable position of apprentice in Rembrandt’s studio, where he studied for six years.

After Rembrandt left Leiden in 1631, his influence on Dou waned. Dou continued to paint on wood in a small scale but adopted cooler colours and a more highly refined technique characteristic of the fijnschilders (fine painters), a group of Leiden artists who painted small, highly finished pictures. Portraits in impasto gave way to domestic genre subjects, enamel-smooth and rich in accessory details. Dou became one of the highest paid artists in the Netherlands and the founder of the Leiden painters’ guild. Royal patrons from all over Europe sought him out. King Charles II of England even offered him the post of court painter, which he refused. Despite his international reputation, Dou scarcely left his native Leiden.

Dou was greatly praised during his lifetime because of his carefully realistic portrayal of nature and the visual illusions and the common occurrence of trompe l’oeil effects in his works. Dou’s paintings expressed the “paragone debate” around his time. The paragone debate was an ongoing competition between painting, sculpture and poetry about which of them was most capable in representing nature. The discussion was especially heated in Leiden, as the painters wanted to obtain the rights of a guild from the town council, in order to have laws enacted for their economic protection.

The “Sleeping Dog” of 1650, is an oil on panel work, 16.5 cm x 21.6 cm. It is in the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. It is typical of the work of Gerrit Dou, with a detailed, finely crafted depiction of the subject matter – in this case, a seemingly run-of-mill domestic scene. A dog sleeps besides a basket, an earthenware container, a bunch of sticks and a pair of clogs. The objects are chosen to highlight and contrast a variety of textures and colours, the soft pale fur of the dog, the glazed pottery, the rough sticks and the woven wickerwork. The artistry and skill of the painter is consummate and the composition wonderful.

However, the work can also be interpreted using the symbolism of the objects. The dog as a symbol of faithfulness and guardianship, the pot and basket as symbols of industry and domesticity, the bunch of sticks as a symbol of strength and the clogs implying intimacy. One may draw whatever conclusions one wants from this assemblage of objects and the things they symbolise, something like: If one lets one’s guard down (sleeping dog) and strays from the everyday chores of life (pot and basket) that are the basis of virtuous life giving one strength of character (sticks) one may fall victim to one’s sexual passions (a common symbol in the 17th century was the removal of slippers as evidence of succumbing to sexual passion or immorality). One may hazard all sorts of other interpretations or simply enjoy the scene for what is superficially appears – a sleeping dog, and perhaps we should just let sleeping dogs lie!


  1. Thank you.

    When I first started tutoring and lecturing in art history 20 years ago, Dutch art of the 17th century was one of my passions, including the delicious Gerrit Dou. Now everyone wants to study late 19th and early 20th century art, and would not know Dou if they tripped over him. What a tragedy.

  2. Sorry,

    I am in Portugal and so the comment came up by mistake through my partner's account.

    Thank you again,