With piercing eyes, the bearded man in Gerrit Dou’s small painting gazes steadily off to his right, his weathered face brightly illuminated against the dark beret that covers the back of his head. Everything about his physique and body language, from the set line of his jaw and the tight curls of his moustache to the forward tilt of his head, conveys his firm resolve. Dou reinforced this sense of authority through the vigor of his brushwork, which enlivens the figure by capturing the light striking his form. Bright accents bring life to his eyes, help model his forehead and cheek bones, and articulate the strands of his cropped, grey hair. Similar highlights define the folds of his open shirt and the buttons of his black jacket.
Dou’s tour de force is an outstanding example of a tronie, a type of figure study that Dutch artists frequently employed in the early to mid-17th century. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) and those connected to his workshop were particularly interested in painting such works, and Dou certainly derived his penchant for depicting them from his master. Rembrandt and Dou made tronies of both young and old models, but they were particularly drawn to the elderly, in whom they found “character,” whether in the creases that lined a wizened face or in the wisdom that radiated from those who have experienced the vagaries of life. Tronies were often sold as independent works, although sometimes they were used by artists as studies for their own genre scenes and history paintings. Although there is very little documentation about these tronies, the term was widely used in 17th-century inventories to describe such figure studies.
A great number of tronies were painted in Leiden in the 1620s and 1630s not only by Rembrandt and Dou, but also by Jan Lievens (Dutch, 1607 - 1674). Most of the sitters are anonymous, although some models have been identified, among them Rembrandt’s mother. The elderly subjects of Dou’s tronies have often been identified as his own parents. Occasionally, collectors and dealers even made pendants of Dou’s small panels, which tend to be oval in shape and about the same size. Thus it is not surprising that the first likely mention of Bust of a Bearded Man in the sale of the Jacques de Roore collection in The Hague in 1747 described the sitter as the artist’s father and paired it with a now-lost “portrait of the artist’s mother.” If this was the Gallery’s painting and its purported pendant, they were sold separately in the Johan van der Marck sale in Amsterdam in 1773 (nos. 66 and 67). In 1777, however, when this “portrait of Dou’s father” appeared in a sale in Paris, it was paired with a self-portrait of the same dimensions by Dou.
Despite the romantic notion that Dou, Rembrandt, and Lievens depicted their aged parents in such works, most of these identifications—including the notion that this tronie was a portrait of Dou’s father—have been proven wrong. Dou’s Self-Portrait in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, which dates from the 1650s, shows the artist holding a small family portrait, presumably his own [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Gerrit Dou, Self-Portrait, c. 1655, oil on panel, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig.The father of this family has a darker beard and rounder face than the man in this tronie, and is without question a different individual. Unfortunately, the identity of the bearded man in the Gallery’s painting is unknown.
Dou was renowned for the remarkable detail of his works, and his meticulous manner of execution brought him fame and fortune throughout his life. In Philips Angel’s 1641 lecture “In Praise of the Art of Painting,” presented in Leiden, the artist and theorist recommended the “never sufficiently praised Gerard Dou” as a model for young painters. He urged artists to emulate Dou’s ability to combine a meticulous style with a “curious looseness” of brushstrokes. Angel remarked that a praiseworthy painter should be able, like Dou, to represent the textures of materials with precise yet lively and bold brushstrokes. On the other hand, an artist who allowed his work to become too stiff and lifeless would be mocked rather than praised.
Few of Dou’s tronies equal the vigor and animation of this small oval panel, which makes this work difficult to date with certainty. Nevertheless, the rough-hewn character of the model, the strong chiaroscuro effects, and the fusion of detailed handling of paint with expressive brushwork suggests a date in the early 1640s. These painterly qualities can be compared to Dou’s depiction of a scholar writing at his desk from the mid-1630s, a work in which the elderly bearded man has a comparably intense expression, but whose wrinkled forehead is painted in a more delicate manner [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Gerrit Dou, Man Interrupted at His Writing, c. 1635, oil on panel, The Leiden Collection, New York. © The Leiden Collection, New York.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
June 30, 2017