An old hermit dressed in a Franciscan habit, his clasped hands resting on a well-thumbed page of the open Bible, kneels before a crucifix and contemplates the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection. Gerrit Dou was fascinated by the subject of the contemplative life and its virtue, and he produced at least eleven hermit scenes over the course of his career. Here Dou has reinforced his message with reminders of the brevity of human life: the skull, the hourglass, and the extinguished light of the lantern. The thistle stands for the hermit’s constancy, while the live branches growing from a dead tree symbolize life after death. The Hermit is an outstanding example of the exquisitely refined painting technique for which Dou became famous.
After an early training in glass engraving, Dou apprenticed with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) from 1628 to at least 1631, when Rembrandt left for Amsterdam. Dou remained in his native Leiden, where he produced ever more finely wrought, highly finished compositions. His work was greatly sought after by collectors, not just in the Netherlands but throughout Europe, and his paintings fetched high prices. In 1665 a Leiden collector rented a room and exhibited twenty-seven of Dou’s paintings, one of the first recorded occasions of an exhibition devoted to the works of a single painter.
An old hermit dressed in a Franciscan habit kneels before a crucifix, his clasped hands resting on a well-thumbed page of the open Bible. He is situated in an outdoor setting before a grottolike edifice consisting of large brick arches. The book and crucifix lie on a large rock that is covered by a frayed cloth woven from brightly colored threads. At the base of the crucifix is a human skull and beside it an hourglass. The crucifix itself leans against a large wicker basket, which in turn rests against an old moss-covered tree stump that arches over the scene. The stump appears dead, although sprigs with green leaves emerge from its withered form. Hanging from the stump, above the crucifix, is a lantern, its door opened and the candle within extinguished. In the foreground right a large thistle grows from the marshy soil. Lying on the ground is a water pouch, an overturned earthenware jug, and the remains of a horse’s skull.
The intensely spiritual gaze on the hermit’s face and the fervor with which he clasps his hands as he stares toward the crucifix indicate that he is contemplating the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection. Dou has reinforced his message with reminders of the brevity of human life: the skull, hourglass, and extinguished light of the lantern. He has alluded to the hermit’s constancy in his devotions with the thistle, a common symbol in Dutch painting for this virtue.
For a discussion of the symbolism of the thistle, see Eddy de Jongh and P. J. Vinken, “Frans Hals als voortzetter van een emblematische traditie. Bij het Huwelijksportret van Isaac Massa en Beatrix van der Laen,” in Oud-Holland 76 (1961): 117–152; also Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, ed., Wadsworth Atheneum Paintings: The Netherlands and the German-Speaking Countries, Fifteenth–Nineteenth Centuries (Hartford, 1978), 1:157, no. 83. The thistle can also relate to the crown of thorns.
The tree has complex symbolic associations. As Susan Kuretsky has argued, the dead tree in conjunction with the Crucifixion implies life through death.
Susan Donahue Kuretsky, “Rembrandt’s Tree Stump: An Iconic Attribute of St. Jerome,” Art Bulletin 56 (December 1974): 571–580.
The basket against which the crucifix leans contains references to the life of Christ that can be understood through its appearance in another painting from Dou’s workshop. In An Artist in His Studio, formerly attributed to Dou and dated 1635, the same basket, with its lid askew, appears in a scene of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt that is shown on the aged artist’s easel
Artemis Group, Ten Paintings by Gerard Dou, 1613–1675 (London, 1980), 15–17. Dou used the basket motif in a complex vanitas painting where it had a comparable meaning: A Vanitas Still Life with a Boy-Angel Blowing Bubbles, c. 1635–1636 (National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo; inv. no. P1981–1). See Artemis Group, Ten Paintings by Gerard Dou, 1613–1675 (London, 1980), no. 3.
Dou painted this scene near the end of his life, but the subject had occupied him throughout most of his career. Indeed, Martin lists eleven hermit scenes that Dou painted between 1635 and 1670.
Wilhelm Martin, Gerard Dou: Des meisters Gemälde in 274 Abbildungen, Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben, vol. 24 (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1913), 5–11, repro.
A method of dating wood by examining the annual growth rings.
Letter from Peter Klein of the Ordinariat für Holzbiologie, Universität Hamburg, January 28, 1987, in NGA curatorial files. Klein has determined a felling date of 1633.
An alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted.
Dou’s inspiration for his hermit scenes was probably a painting by
See Susan Donahue Kuretsky, “Rembrandt’s Tree Stump: An Iconic Attribute of St. Jerome,” Art Bulletin 56 (December 1974): 578.
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
The network of cracks in the paint and ground. Also sometimes referred to crackle pattern.
The moralizing function of such a painting in Dutch society can be deduced from a work traditionally attributed to Dou in the Brooklyn Museum, Burgomaster Hasselaar and His Wife
While universally accepted as by Dou since first published by John Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, 9 vols. (London, 1829–1842), 9:23, no. 76, the attribution of this picture has been rejected by Ronni Baer, who has kindly provided me with a draft of her entry on the painting, which is in the Brooklyn Museum.
Eddy de Jongh, “Pearls of Virtue and Pearls of Vice,” Simiolus 8, no. 2 (1975–1976): 74.
I would like to credit Ronni Baer for this interpretation of the meaning of this theme for Dutch society. She worked on the painting as a research project when she was an intern at the National Gallery of Art. For her further thoughts on Dou, see Ronni Baer, “The Paintings of Gerrit Dou (1613–1675)” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1990), as well as Ronni Baer, Gerrit Dou, 1613–1675: Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. (Washington, D.C., 2000).
Much of Dou’s fame as an artist derives from the exquisite refinement of his painting technique. This work is no exception. The care with which he has painted the hermit’s features, hair, and beard as well as the various colored threads of the woven cloth covering the rock is remarkable. Dou’s delicate yet spirited touch lends great visual interest to this scene of intense spiritual contemplation.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower center on book strap, GD in ligature: GDou 1670; on right page of book, GD in ligature: GDou
Marks and Labels
Probably Kurfürst Karl Albrecht [1697-1745], Munich, by 1742. (Kurfürstliche Galerie, Munich); Alte Pinakothek, Munich, by the mid-eighteenth century; deaccessioned in 1927; sold to (Galerie van Diemen, New York and Berlin); William R. Timken [1866-1949], New York; by inheritance to his wife, Lillian S. Guyer Timken [1881-1959], New York; bequest 1960 to NGA.
- Rembrandt and the Golden Age: Dutch Paintings from the National Gallery of Art, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, 1997, unnumbered brochure, repro.
- A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 16.
- A Moral Compass: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Painting in the Netherlands, Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1999, no. 5, repro.
- Gerrit Dou (1613-1675): Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, 2000-2001, no. 34, repro.
- Rembrandt and the Rembrandt School: The Bible, Mythology and Ancient History, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 2003, no. 57, repro.
- Time and Transformation in Dutch Seventeenth Century Art, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie; The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, 2005-2006, no. 74, repro.
- Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 1(1829):38, no. 111.
- Reber, Franz von. Katalog der Gemälde-sammlung der kgl. Älteren Pinakothek in München. Munich, 1884: 86, no. 399.
- Martin, Wilhelm. Gerard Dou. Translated by Clara Bell. London, 1902: 129, no. 132.
- Reber, Franz von. Katalog der Gemälde-Sammlung der Königlichen älteren Pinakothek in München. 2nd ed. Munich, 1904: 93, no. 399.
- Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 1(1907): 348, no. 19.
- Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 1(1907):346, no. 19.
- Martin, Wilhelm. Gerard Dou. The great masters in painting and sculpture. Translated by Clara Bell. London, 1908: 129, no. 132.
- Martin, Wilhelm. Gérard Dou, sa vie et son oeuvre: Etude sur la peinture hollandaise et les marchands au dix-septième siècle. Paris, 1911: 164-165, no. 11.
- Martin, Wilhelm. Gerard Dou: des Meisters Gemälde in 247 Abbildungen. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 24. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1913: 6, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 43.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 36, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 110-111, repro.
- Artemis Group. Ten Paintings by Gerard Dou, 1613-1675. Exh. cat. David Carrit Limited, London, 1980: nos. 2, 3.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 291, no. 381, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 134, repro.
- Baer, Ronni. "The Paintings of Gerrit Dou (1613-1675)." Ph.D. dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1990: no. 121, repro.
- Baer, Ronni. "Image of Devotion: Dou's Hermit Praying." Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts Bulletin 67 (1995): 23-33, repro.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 57-60, color repro. 59.
- Boeckl, Christine M. “Penitence/Repentance." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:723.
- Roberts, Helene E., ed. Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:723.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. A Collector's Cabinet. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998: 65, no. 16.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr., Lawrence O. Goedde, Mariët Westermann, and Henry M. Luttikhuizen, eds. A Moral Compass: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Painting in the Netherlands. Exh. cat. Grand Rapids Art Museum. New York, 1999: 52-53, no. 5.
- Baer, Ronni, et al. Gerrit Dou, 1613-1675: Master Painter in the Age of Rembrandt. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Dulwich Picture Gallery, London; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague. New Haven, 2000: no. 34.
- Kofuku, Akira. Rembrandt and the Rembrandt School: The Bible, Mythology and Ancient History. Exh. cat. Kokuritsu Seiyo Bijutsukan, Tokyo, 2003: no. 57.
- Smith, Pamela H. The body of the artisan art and experience in the scientific revolution. Chicago, 2004: 205, fig. 6.20, repro.
- Brown, David Alan, and Jane Van Nimmen. Raphael & the Beautiful Banker: the story of the Bindo Altoviti portrait. New Haven, 2005: 219 n. 17.
- Kuretsky, Susan Donahue. Time and Transformation in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Exh. cat. Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville. Seattle, 2005: no. 74.
The original support is a vertically grained oak panel with an arched top. At a later date it was squared off with a horizontally grained oak board attached with a half-lap join that overlaps the arched area on the back of the original panel. Both the original and extension panel are attached to a cradle. Dendrochronological examination has revealed that the original panel came from a tree that had been felled in the early 1630s.
Related IconClass Terms
- Roman Catholicism
- active vs. contemplative life
- vanitas symbols +hourglass
- used symbolically
- jug +used symbolically
- basket +used symbolically
- pouch +used symbolically
- lantern +used symbolically
- artist +Rembrandt van Rijn + influence of