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The Dutch art of the seventeenth century is often referred to as the Golden Age of painting, whereas the art of that period was supposed to be altered in accordance with the overall state of affairs. It was the period that marked the formation of independence and gradual prosperity of the Dutch Republic which started to flourish. The art is always a mirror that reflects dominant values and customs of a society. A number of outstanding artists of that time represented the life of the Dutch people in details using a realistic and descriptive approach to the world. This is the major distinctive feature in paintings of the Dutch Golden Age period. Moreover, close attention is given to details, materials and textures, rather than solely to a man in the picture. A specific focus is also put on the light which is being reflected by various objects or simply emanates from one of them. However, there is certain distinctiveness in the subject matter and pictorial language used by the Dutch artists. In this regard, the paper aims at accounting for the common and distinctive features in the works of Johannes Vermeer and Gerrit Dou.
The Lives of Vermeer and Dou
Gerrit Dou (or Gerard Dou) is well known not only for his works, but also for founding the Dutch school of fine art (“fijnschilderij”). His steps in the art perception began with glass engraving because his father specialised in it. Later, he became the apprentice of Rembrandt van Rijn. In this context, it is essential to note that Dou’s first works look similar when compared with those of his teacher. Moreover, some of the paintings were mistakenly attributed to the wrong author, whereas at that time they shared subject matter, models and even pictorial language. Gradually, the artist improved his works in terms of the composition as well as a considerable range of subjects, such as portraits, still-life, history paintings, genre scenes and even nude painting. Furthermore, the colours Dou used in his works switched from warm and brownish to cooler and paler ones. Dou’s works were highly admired and gained popularity during his time. A painstaking labour is what characterises his technique of concentrating on small details and features of his paintings (Wheelock Jr. n.d.).
According to Wheelock Jr. (n.d.), the first works of Johannes Vermeer (Jan Vermeer) were focused on history, mythology and religion. Later, he widened the range of subject matters by adding landscapes and genre scenes to his paintings. It is believed that the artist created around thirty five works, although during his lifetime, they were not known outside of Delft, a town where the artist was born and lived. Unfortunately, Johannes Vermeer died leaving some debts to be paid by his family and gained substantial fame and recognition only after his death in the subsequent centuries. Little is known regarding whether Vermeer was an apprentice or who inspired him on the way of developing his unique style. The paintings of the artist reflect the reality in a precise manner due to the interplay of colours and light, textures and materials.
It is essential to note that there is substantial evidence that during the period when both Dou and Vermeer lived and created their works, the Dutch artists used a camera obscura while creating their paintings. It was an optical device that helped to focus on details and achieve a striking similarity of painted objects with the real ones (Davies et al. 2011). Nonetheless, modern researchers argue whether Dou and Vermeer were among those artists who used a camera obscura. The researchers examine their works in an accurate and precise manner in order to prove their viewpoints.
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Self-Portraits of the Artists
Self-portraits of both artists represent exceptional and outstanding works. Dou produced several self-portraits and each of them was extraordinary in terms of symbolism and “the sheer virtuosity of particular passages” (Liedtke 2012, p. 144). Vermeer also demonstrated a unique approach which resulted in the creation of a composition that does not resemble works of others in his The Art of Painting.
The central elements, namely the model, canvas and artist himself, are displayed in the studio, which is a perfect choice to emphasise the craft in its respective process. Furthermore, the work possesses some imaginary elements that depict dream-like environment. In this regard, a young woman resembles the muse of history Clio. She holds a book and trumpet in her hands which symbolise the future accomplishments, fame and rewards. This presumable anticipation looks ironical when analysing the works of Vermeer in terms of his fate.
Meanwhile, Dou has a number of self-portraits that slightly differ from each other as the mastery of the artists evolves. In his Self-Portrait painted around the year of 1665, the artist also plays with the elements of symbolism. However, in this case, the auxiliary elements and books seem to emphasise the mastery and erudition of the artist (Liedtke 2012). This tendency can be noticed in other works of Dou. Thus, his early painting The Artist in His Studio has similar objects, specifically a book, globe, pen and ink, skull, as well as a palette and brushes in the artist’s hands. These elements highlight the significance of combining the process of creating paintings with a thorough study. In this regard, it is evident that both artists tried to depict the working environment as realistic and allegorical at the same time.
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Returning back to Vermeer’s The Art of Painting and Dou’s Self-Portrait of 1665, few similarities can be noted. Namely, various materials and textures, such as a woollen tapestry, paper, leather, liquid in the glass, satin, silk, velvet and others, are depicted in an outstanding manner with the help of light spreading and reflecting on their surfaces (Liedtke 2012). However, there is also a substantial distinction in how both artists saw the surrounding world and categorised textures of similar objects which can be noticed while comparing and contrasting the self-portraits of Vermeer and Dou.
These paintings are not only reflective, but also accurate in identifying the image of an exceptional artist who works diligently on his masterpieces in a cosy and comfortable studio. Moreover, the viewers of these self-portraits tend to feel as if they are watching furtively at the creative process due to the use of a curtain depicted in the front of both paintings.
Gerrit Dou and Johannes Vermeer are well known for their exceptional manner, in which their genre paintings have been made. A certain similarity with self-portraits can be traced, whereas the central figure or action performed by that character was of paramount significance for the picture on the whole and the artist in particular. Genre scenes represent the painter’s perception of the surrounding world along with reflecting artistic aspirations and concerns. Moreover, genre paintings of Dou and Vermeer are highly realistic in depicting a situation in everyday life of an individual. Their works capture the moment as if the figures were intentionally frozen by some kind of a spell and now they exist in this timeless still-life world while still performing their daily task.
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In his A Lady Writing, Vermeer managed to show a young woman who seems to be interrupted in her pastime. Dressed in a beautiful yellow jacket with fur trimmings, she holds a pen and a piece of paper while sitting at the table. Her head is turned towards the viewer as she looks slightly surprised by the sudden intrusion in her privacy. The composition is simple yet not overloaded with details. The light is softly dispersed from the left corner making the central figure emphasised to a considerable degree. In addition, the colours of the paining are soft and subtle resembling the morning light. A Lady Writing is an example of a perfect moment that was captured in a timely manner (Wheelock Jr. n.d.).
A similar capturing of a single moment can be found in Dou’s The Hermit. An old man is kneeling in front of the crucifix. His pose and crossed hands on a book, presumably Bible, make the viewer hear how the hermit softly murmurs his prayer. Just like in Vermeer’s A Lady Writing, the dark but warm and brownish colours as well as highlighted details allow feeling the intimacy of the moment. The painting also contains a symbolic message of the artist, namely, the brevity of life. It is reinforced by the depicted skull, hourglass and the overall abandonment of the scene. This work is also worth the attention due to a substantial time gap in writing of this painting. According to Wheelock Jr. (n.d.), Dou began working on The Hermit in 1630 but he altered the painting and finished it only in 1670. Apparently, the religious theme haunted him within the span of the artist’s life.
Nonetheless, it is essential to note that while creating religious-themed paintings, both Gerrit Dou and Johannes Vermeer aimed at drawing the viewer’s attention to the life itself and overall contemplation. By means of their works, the artists raised significant, though silent matters of human existence, life and death, as well as many other issues.
Another outstanding work of Johannes Vermeer is Woman Holding a Balance. Her sophisticated, yet experienced gesture draws the attention of a viewer. The woman is contemplating the balance in her hand, while pearls and gold coins are laid out in front of her on the table. Her pregnancy and the religious motif depicted in the painting raise a question of whether she is thinking about the future of her unborn child. Again, Vermeer managed to convey the quiet and private moment. The warm colours and shimmering light which is being reflected by various surfaces make the painting sensual and captivating (Davies et al. 2011).
Woman Holding a Balance was framed in a specific protective box. According to Wheelock Jr. (n.d.), it was similar to the boxes used in his works by Gerrit Dou. The purpose of such framing was to enrich the viewer’s experience. Some paintings are not created for being on display at all times. Their contemplative nature needs to be hidden and addressed only when one is eager to spend time on an unhurried observation. It is intended for an individual to stop and be lost in thought while sharing a quiet moment with the depicted figure. Thus, such box is symbolic, whereas after opening its doors, the viewer enters an imaginary world where the time has frozen. The contemplation of balance, peace and harmony makes the experience not only visual, but spiritual as well.
In Painter with Pipe and Book, Dou creates an illusion of the painter’s presence. The abundant use of light and curtains in Dou’s works is what distinguishes his characteristic style. The ability to create such illusion with the help of interplay of shadows and highlights amazed Dou’s contemporaries to a great extent. The eyes of the depicted painter are turned towards the viewer as if he has been interrupted in his reading. Now, it seems that he waits for the viewer’s gesture while enjoying smoking of his pipe.
The technique applied in Painter with Pipe and Book was a provoking and outstanding, also known as niche painting. Few artists could depict the reality so accurately and meticulously. Gerrit Dou became well known for his mastery of fine painting, leading to the emergence of followers and apprentices who aimed at learning all the peculiarities of realistic painting used by the master. In this regard, little is known about Johannes Vermeer and his scholastic heritage.
Johannes Vermeer and Gerrit Dou were outstanding and remarkable artists of the Dutch Golden Age. Although Dou gained recognition and admiration during his life, it was not the case with Johannes Vermeer. The works of the last became vastly renowned only after the artist’s death, specifically in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is essential to note that paintings of both Dou and Vermeer possess similar features that are prevalent in the Dutch art of the seventeenth century. The choices of subject matters and pictorial language look similar when analysing the most prominent works of the artists, but each painter approached the technique of light depicting in his own unique manner. In this regard, it becomes evident when observing the differences in materials and textures and the reflection of light by the surfaces of different objects. Although both of them hardly showed the source of light, Dou and Vermeer often depicted it as flowing from the left side of their paintings. Furthermore, the use of curtains can also be attributed to both of the artists. The purpose of each work created by Dou and Vermeer was to make the viewer contemplate while enjoying an eternal, yet momentary glance at one’s life being captured.
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