A Painter’s Studio In The Seventeenth Century: Dou’s Pupils And Followers

AMONG the works of the great Dutch painters there are not a few which give us a glimpse into their studios and their ways of working. Rembrandt frequently painted, etched and drew his workroom ; Jan Vermeer and Adriaen van Ostade depicted their studios ; and in some instances a mirror hanging on the wall shows us the artist at his easel, or we see him reflected in the surface of a vase, as in the still-life studies of de Heem and van Beijeren.

The arrangement of the studio depended in the first place on the character of the works executed by the artist, and in the second on his means, though of course certain furniture and accessories were indispensable.

Painters bought colours in the lump from a colour merchant, and prepared them by pounding them, or grinding them in a colour-mill, and then rubbing them down on a stone with a muller, adding oil or water. Generally a pupil was trusted with this task, as may be seen in several pictures ; the oil-colour was kept in little pots or bladders, the water-colour in shells.

For painting on, canvas was needed, panel-generally oak—or sometimes copper. The canvas or panel was prepared generally with chalk-white under a surface of white lead, umber, or even black, as may be seen in some of Dou’s earlier works. The canvas was not stretched and nailed over the frame, as is customary nowadays, but firmly laced into it, as embroidery is stretched in an embroidery frame. This may be seen in pictures by Aert de Gelder, Gonzales Coques and others. Of the palette and brushes and mahl-stick there is little to say ; they were identical with those now in use. The easel, it may be noted, was always three-legged, with a tilt backwards to avoid reflections, so that the painter must always have admitted the daylight at the same angle. When we consider this, it is easy to account for the high level from which pictures of interiors and of still-life, and also landscapes painted in the studio, are illuminated. The windows of a seventeenth-century house could be half shuttered from below, and it was in these conditions that most of the Masters were accustomed to paint 1 That Dou painted in a room with a north light is expressly stated by Sandrart. It does not follow that every studio faced north ; it was certainly not a rule ; in fact, I know of one picture in which a studio is shown with the sun coming in. I have also seen a picture of the period, where the window of the studio is seen to be screened from sunlight by linen or paper stretched on a wooden frame; and there is no reason to assume that painters always worked in a cool north light, especially Rembrandt, whose pictures are best seen in a strong light, and so were probably painted in a strong light.’

Prints were a form of property always to be found in a studio at that time. No painter, however poor, but had his little collection, partly for his own pleasure, partly to assist him in ” making up ” his pictures. It would be well worth the trouble to follow up the evidence of the influence exerted by the great masters of engraving on wood and metal, especially Dürer, and by prints after the Italians, particularly Raphael, Mantegna and Michael Angelo, which served as models, or as suggestive aids, to Dutch painters. The minor masters frequently worked also from prints by the Dutch engravers of that time ; and in the portraits, especially of the first half of the seventeenth century, the manner of composition is often accounted for by the fact of its having simply been taken as it stands from a picture by Mierevelt or Frans Floris. Landscape, genre and still-life painters in the same way utilized prints, and it is impossible to say how many were copied bodily and ended by passing as the original work by the master.

In those days such annexation was less severely judged than now. William Gabron, in one of his studies of still-life, copied a parrot exactly from one by Jan Fijt ; Teniers’ imitators constantly reproduced his characteristic figures, especially a girl by a well ; and Dou’s pupils in the same way—van Toi above all copied whole passages from their master’s works. Men who painted for bread without having any marked talent made free use of prints from pictures and drawings, as well as of those by the great masters them-selves. In fact, de Piles, who wrote a Handbook for Painters, included a chapter on the usefulness of prints, in which he says that ” it is good to make use of the studies of others, without any hesitation.”

Such an abuse must not, however, be imputed to the greater painters. For the most part they had these prints as copies to set before their pupils ; plaster casts were extensively used for the same purpose, and we frequently see them in pictures of studio interiors, as in Dou’s portrait of himself at Dresden (a Greek statue), and in another ‘ (a plaster head) ; and in works by A. v. Ostade, Nic. Maes and others. Dou and Frans van Mieris both owned casts of Greek statues.

Skulls, too, are constantly seen, and not alone in the studios of those painters who devoted themselves to such subjects as the popular Vanitas, hermits or still-life studies ; they were part of the ornamental furniture of every studio, like musical instruments, weapons, etc., and a horse’s skull seems to have been regarded as a decorative object ; at any rate, it is frequently seen in studios of that time.

The other “properties ” varied with the line of the painter’s work. If a figure painter, he usually had a lay-figure, often called “the boy,” on which to arrange costumes and drapery, of which we see an example in Ostade’s Studio at Dresden, besides the accessories he preferred. The variety of costumes, weapons, etc., in Rembrandt’s possession, is well known ; and in Caspar Netscher’s studio, after his death, pieces of silk and satin were found which he had used to paint from. Among various objects with bright reflecting surfaces, we often see a convex mirror or a crystal ball. Artists seem to have made some use of this object, though for what purpose is not quite clear, probably to concentrate the light of a lamp or candle.

Nor is there any lack of literary advice to painters as to the various subjects to be treated. Angel, in his ” Lof der Schilderkonst,” counsels them when treating biblical or mythological subjects to follow the text closely, and instances Rembrandt as doing so faithfully. A Bible was rarely wanting in a studio, and other books, especially Ovid’s ” Metamorphoses ” and certain fable-books, were usually to be found, and were a source of inspiration for subjects.

Landscape and marine painters studied their subjects out of doors, and painted them at home. The painters of sea-fights went out with the fleet ” to have the opportunity of drawing or painting anything remarkable that should come to pass between the hostile fleets.” The artists who were most successful in painting ducks kept them in their gardens, and Otto Marseus, famous as a painter of insects and reptiles, kept his models in an outbuilding behind his house to study them at his convenience.

But the living model is not all that is needed. This our masters well knew, and gave their minds to sound theoretical study, both of anatomy and of perspective.

The science of anatomy, which made rapid progress in the Netherlands after 1555, when the law prohibiting the dissection of dead bodies was rescinded,’ found many students among painters. At first difficulties were placed in their way, and even at Leyden, where there was a “dissecting-place” as early as 1592, the painters complained in 1641 that they had no means of pursuing this study. But, not long after, anatomical schools were established at Leyden, Amsterdam and Delft, on the plan of the famous Theatrum Anatomicum at Leyden, where artists might occasionally look on at a dissection and draw from the human skeleton. Those who could not avail themselves of this opportunity made use of the Anatomy of ” Meester Heynderick and Meester Cornelis van Haerlem, which contained écorchés from plaster figures for lack of others,” so as to acquire some knowledge of the nude. Jacob van der Gracht’s ” Anatomy of the Outer Parts of the Human Body” (1634) was also in use, and the works of Vezalius, Cabrolius and others. At a later date Godfried Bidloo’s ” Anatomia humani corporis,” with illustrations by Gerard de Lairesse, was most in demand.

Perspective was studied almost exclusively from Dürer’s wellknown treatise, which every painter possessed with very few exceptions ; but that by Hondius was also in use.’ At a later date, when the decadence had begun, artists took their studies lightly, and were content to depend on manuals treating of perspective, anatomy and methods of painting, down to the minutest details, more especially Hoogstraten’s ” Introduction to the High School of the Painter’s Art.” This work bears witness to the lack of earnestness prevalent among the younger artists, even in the most elementary studies ; for ” who,” says Hoogstraten, ” has time or wish to toil slowly through the writings of Vezalius, Laurentius or Kabrolius, concerning the human members ? Even van der Gracht is more fitted for the masters of healing than for painters.”

As such views spread, this class of book was multiplied till the minutest instructions were laid down for painting portraits, genre, landscapes, flower-pieces, etc.

And ponderous volumes were filled with advice as to the grinding of colours and arrangement of a studio ; such books were still in use in the last century.’

Gerard Dou’s studio is wellknown to us from several of his pictures, best, perhaps, from his portrait of himself at Bridgewater House, London, and his Young Mother, in the Gallery at the Hague. It was a spacious room to the north ; the light came fully in as it was not obstructed by buildings opposite. There was a pleasant outlook over the Galgewater, with the Blauwpoort in the foreground, and the mill called ” De Valk ” rising above the trees of the turf market.

In this room, which opened into another, the first thing that strikes the eye is a pillar or newel, round which winds a stair to the upper floor. The furniture repeatedly depicted by Dou and his pupils—was very simple. In the early days of his life there it consisted of a round table, some chairs—one being the armchair in which he so often painted himself and Rembrandt’s father—and the three-legged stool which figures in his very early biblical subjects. The accessories included an earthenware bowl, a skull, a money bag, some books, a Chinese parasol, the Turkish scarf which sometimes adorned the head of Rembrandt’s mother, a few pots and pans, a plaster cast of a Greek bust, some prints and a fine pink sea-shell.

These are the objects constantly to be seen in his interiors till about 1645. After that date he frequently added to them : we see an oak chest, a handsome cooler with a richly enamelled flask, some pieces by his favourite sculptor Duquesnoy, etc. He had also, of course, a miscellaneous collection of such objects as appear in his pictures birdcages, lamps and candle-sticks, a pair of scales and other things. His pupils, too, used these objects, unless they copied them from their master’s pictures, as in some cases they very probably did.

It was in this studio that Dou painted most of his works, but he sometimes placed his subject in some other part of his house, especially in the upper rooms. The old woman reading the Bible in the Louvre, the old woman with a spinning-wheel at Dresden, and the woman winding yarn at St. Petersburg, in all of which the rafters of the roof are visible, are good examples. That he always painted indoors, even the studies for figures to be placed in the open daylight, is evident, not only from the tone of his pictures, but from the fact that the light always falls from above and from the left. There is no work by Dou in which the light comes in any other direction.

Dou’s technique at its best is a marvel of finish and smoothness. Like all the painters of his time, he began by under-painting, that is to say, after making a rough sketch on the panel indicating the light and shade in monochrome—usually in brown.’

Then began the over-painting. He first laid on the flat colour and left it to dry. The half-tints were then laid on and worked up while wet. Finally, when all was dry once more, the high lights, which Dou treated with such brilliant mastery, were touched in with thick paint, mixed perhaps with varnish. This was the order he always followed in his work, as may best be seen in an unfinished picture at Schwerin; but as he advanced he abandoned the free manner he had learned from Rembrandt, and gradually adopted the method of glazing one colour with another, with as much transparent smoothness as possible. He more and more avoided all inequality of texture and, especially after 1645, strove to conceal every touch of the brush, a characteristic of all his imitators.

Dou’s ideal was to achieve the perfectly smooth surface which led Evelyn to compare his work with enamel, a finish which amazes us no less than it surprised his contemporaries. We may therefore imagine that his greatest anxiety was lest any dust or dirt should get into his paints, and Sandrart is no doubt correct when he gives this account, of Dou’s manner of working :

“Finally, he rubs down his colours on glass, and makes his brushes himself; he keeps his palette, brushes and paints carefully put away out of the dust which might soil them, and when he prepares to paint he will wait quite a long time till all dust has completely settled. Only then does he very quietly take his palette out of its box near at hand, the prepared colours and brushes, and begin to work ; and when he has done he puts everything carefully away again.” This is fully confirmed by his pictures ; and besides this, when Dou represents his easel we find a Chinese parasol opened and placed above it to protect the painting from floating particles of dust.

Dou must have had inexhaustible patience. Whether he really went so far as ” to draw with a frame stretched with threads in squares,” because he ” did not trust himself in freehand drawing,” as Houbraken tells us, is not proven ; it is certainly not impossible. And it is quite certain that he would do anything to achieve accuracy and finish, and used a magnifying glass to assist his eye. When Sandrart went to see him with Pieter van Laar, Dou showed him what works he had in hand. ” And when we praised, among other things” (says Sandrart), “the great diligence which he devoted to a broom hardly larger than your finger-nail, he replied that he had still three days’ work to do on it.” This anecdote, which has become proverbial, is sufficient evidence of Dou’s patience. He worked with slow perseverance, and from morning till night. In bad weather, or when it was too dark to paint, he went out walking ; otherwise he was an indefatigable worker. And he accomplished much ; we know positively that between 1628 and 1675 he painted about three hundred pictures, no small quantity when we consider their miniature-like execution.

It must also be remembered that a good deal of time was spared from his work and devoted to teaching his pupils. The first, Gabriel Metsu, went to his studio in 1644, and next to him, Frans van Mieris ; and after 1660 he had several pupils : Pieter Cornelisz. van Slingelandt (1661), Godfried Schalcken (after 1662), his own nephew Dominicus van Tol (1664), Bartholomaeus Maton, Matthijs Naiveu, a certain Gerrit Maes (of whom nothing is known beyond the fact that he came to work in Dou’s studio in 1669), and Karel de Moor (1670). Other painters, without being his pupils, profited by his example and advice, and may be included among his followers, such as Adriensz. v. Gaesbeeck, Quirin van Brekelenkam and others.

The teaching given by Dou to his pupils was in the nature of things various, according to their talents and taste. If they came to him as beginners, as probably was the case with van Toi, Naiveu, Maton and G. Maes, he set them to copy prints and then to draw from the round, giving them instruction in anatomy and perspective; subsequently they would have to prepare panels and paints, and learn the methods he himself practised. If, like Frans van Mieris, they had some technical knowledge, or, like de Moor and Schalcken, could already paint with some skill, he at once showed them his own manner of working, and his pupils, like himself, had to paint the objects about them. We find no sign of Dou’s ever making them paint any subjects but those he himself selected. Nor did the learners expect anything else ; they came to him to learn to paint the things he painted as he painted them.

The custom of painters who, like Dou, formed a school, may be seen from Rembrandt’s way of giving a lesson. He caused all his pupils to set out on canvas the subject he himself was working at—say Jacob’s Blessing. He set before them the model he himself drew from, and thus was able at once to detect the errors in their drawing ; thus too they constantly painted from the life.

This was probably not the case in Dou’s studio, though he occasionally painted from the nude . He set his pupils to paint still-life with a single figure perhaps, generally that of an old woman; a typical example is a little work in the Louvre by Johannes van Staveren, evidently painted in a room of Dou’s house, probably the kitchen, at any rate the same in which Rembrandt’s mother sat when Dou painted the portrait now at Schwerin. Dou had set van Staveren to paint part of this room with a round table covered with a cloth, a bowl on the table, an armchair, and behind the table the old woman whom Dou constantly employed as a model after 1650. Van Staveren evidently did his utmost, but only in the use of brush and paint did he achieve any success. Drawing, perspective and colour are bad throughout, and the likeness of the old woman is so complete a failure that he at last evidently gave it up. Adriaen van Gaesbeeck also painted Dou’s studio, and another of his pupils has left a picture of the room with one of Dou’s models—the old man he commonly painted as a hermit—sitting on an ass for a figure in a picture of the Flight into Egypt. Various objects are recognizable as belonging to this familiar interior. Who this pupil may have been is unknown ; the picture, which is in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire, is painted on panel, and measures 401 X 29 inches. It is ascribed to Dou, but is certainly not by him, so I have not included it in my list. It is a weak but very interesting work, and undoubtedly represents Dou’s studio.

Dominicus van Toi, Dou’s nephew, also studied in this way ; but the master seems often to have employed him to copy his pictures, if the ascription ” copy by van Tol” may always be accepted. It is given to many copies of Dou’s pictures ; it is not in every case conclusive, since Dou himself may very likely have put in a touch here and there, as I have observed, I believe, in several of these works.

We may also discern Dou’s method of teaching in the early works of others of his pupils, especially of Pieter van Slingelandt ; he made them paint from actual objects in all the rooms in his house, and the result of his instructions was that they almost all imitated the precise finish of their master, that they excelled in grouping and painting still-life, but were apt to be dull in colour and sometimes careless or academical in drawing the figure.

Dou himself, indeed, sometimes neglected these points, and sacrificed them to finish of execution. Thus he introduces the Blauwpoort, as he drew it looking down on it from his window, into a picture with figures, without altering the perspective ; and he sometimes made great blunders in the composition of the figures themselves, as for instance in The Quack Doctor at Munich.

Dou did not teach his pupils to produce a work of art, only to turn out highly finished panels. His inferior pupils followed him mechanically, but the more gifted, as Frans van Mieris, Schalcken, Brekelenkam and Metsu, took from him only their technique and some ideas of composition : window niches, hermits, candle-light effects, and so on ; their further development was quite independent of Dou’s influence.

The most noteworthy of Dou’s immediate pupils were : Gabriel Metsu, born in Leyden in 1630 ; Frans van Mieris the elder (1635-1681); Schalcken (1643-1706), best known by his candle-light effects ; Dominicus van Tol (1631, or 1642-1676); and Brekelenkam (dates unknown), who showed a perfectly independent talent and was one of the best Dutch painters of genre, only showing his master’s influence in his earliest works.

Dou’s influence through these pupils on younger generations was widespread. His last pupil, Karel de Moor, belongs, indeed, to a later time ; he studied chiefly under Frans van Mieris and Godfried Schalcken ; even Jan Steen, especially in his candle-light scenes, is reminiscent of Dou. But the painters who form the Leyden school are the imitators of Frans v. Mieris the elder. His son, Willem van Mieris, was his father’s disciple, and his pictures were in great demand ; his grandson, Frans van Mieris the younger (1689-1763),was not less famous; though his work, like his father’s, is spiritless, it is useful as illustrating the taste of the time when men wore periwigs and rapiers. While Dou and the elder Mieris had a sense of the picturesque in line and colour, the younger Mieris and his followers were always academic and meagre ; their figures had Greek profiles, their perspective was careless, they aimed only at execution, and their striving for finish is the only reason why they so often chose to paint a plucked fowl, a mop, or a heap of coffee-beans.

But there were other followers of this school who, if academical, were less excessive in elaborate finish. Foremost of these is Caspar Netscher (1639-1684), who was in many ways a disciple of Dou’s, though he never visited Leyden. His ” niche-pictures ” with reliefs of children at play are well known, and he more than once painted family portraits framed in a window. As imitators of Dou’s candle-light effects, besides Schalcken, the elder Mieris and sometimes Jan Steen may be named, Arnold Boonen (1669-1722), and more especially Adriaen van der Werff (1652-1729), who painted so wonderfully like his precursor that some pictures by him might be at first sight mistaken for Dou’s work.

Dou’s subjects have in fact, even till the middle of the nineteenth century, been copied and imitated in countless repetitions, drawn, engraved and etched—ample proof of their popularity. Now the times are changed, and we naturally think the modern taste the best which regards Dou as only fit to stand in Rembrandt’s shadow. Yet it must not be forgotten that in former days other opinions were held, and that the works of Dou were once regarded as the highest achievement of the painter’s art.