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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Gerrit Dou/The Hermit/1670,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed March 04, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
Jan 01, 1995 Version

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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.[1]

The tree has complex symbolic associations. As Susan Kuretsky has argued, the dead tree in conjunction with the Crucifixion implies life through death.[2] Traditionally the cross was believed to have been constructed of wood from either the Tree of Knowledge or the tree that grew from the seeds of the forbidden apple that sprouted from the skull of Adam. Only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was it possible for man, through death, to gain everlasting life. The symbolism of life through death is reinforced by the living branches that sprout from the dead tree stump.

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 [fig. 1]. Although the basket undoubtedly served as the baby’s bed in this scene, it has been argued that, placed as it is in front of a low archway before a dark recess, the empty basket also prefigured Christ’s empty tomb.[3] Such religious symbolism for the basket is also appropriate in this painting, for it reinforces the central theme: the hermit’s contemplation of the death and resurrection of Christ.

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.[4] Examination using Dendrochronology has revealed that Dou used a panel from a tree that had been felled in the early 1630s, a fact that may suggest he kept a supply of panels in his workshop.[5] Since The Hermit contains various Pentimenti, it is also possible that Dou began this painting in the 1630s and reworked it in 1670. Too little information, however, is available about his working methods to be certain about the reason for the chronological gap between the felling date and the final year of the painting’s execution. Many of the objects found in this painting appear in different combinations in other works, indicating that Dou must have owned them and painted them from life. The horse’s skull, for example, also appears in An Artist in His Studio. The skull, as well as the water pouch and overturned jug, presumably had specific allegorical meanings in his hermit scenes beyond their obvious generic ones, but they are presently unknown.

Dou’s inspiration for his hermit scenes was probably a painting by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) of St. Jerome in Prayer that is known today only through an etching from 1631 by Johannes van Vliet (Dutch, born c. 1610).[6] Although Dou’s hermit scenes contain many of the same objects found in this etching, he rarely painted attributes that could identify the figure as a specific saint. His intent was not to represent an actual moment from church history, but to suggest the virtue of the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. This subject is frequently alluded to in Dutch seventeenth-century portraits, still lifes, and genre scenes. In numerous paintings Dutch artists called the viewer’s attention to the brevity of life and the importance of preparing oneself for the eventual Last Judgment. Although Dou’s focus on the spiritual bond between a Franciscan hermit and the crucified Christ would seem to have Catholic overtones, he emphasized the importance of the written word in his scene, a significant component of Protestant belief, and it is unlikely the subject was viewed in specific denominational terms. That the Bible was of considerable importance to him is evident from the x-radiographs [see X-radiography]. Originally the book was turned in a different position, as though supported in the hermit’s arms. The initial shape of the Bible is vaguely visible under his arm and can be further distinguished by a change in the Craquelure pattern on the present Bible.

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 [fig. 2].[7] On the back wall of their home hangs a painting of a hermit that is similar in conception to The Hermit. The burgomaster, quill in hand, is seated before a table on which lie an open book and a globe. The woman rests her hand on an overturned lute. The objects on the table refer to the arts and letters, humanistic endeavors. The suspended glass sphere was metaphorically meant to represent heaven.[8] The Brooklyn painting, therefore, can be interpreted to mean that humility and prayer, exemplified by the hermit, combined with intellectual endeavor are the means to transcend mortality. Only by balancing humanism with piety can one lead a full and truly virtuous Christian life.[9]

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



Probably Kurfürst Karl Albrecht [1697-1745], Munich, by 1742.[1] (Kurfürstliche Galerie, Munich);[2] Alte Pinakothek, Munich, by the mid-eighteenth century; deaccessioned in 1927;[3] sold to (Galerie van Diemen, New York and Berlin);[4] William R. Timken [1866-1949], New York; by inheritance to his wife, Lillian S. Guyer Timken [1881-1959], New York; bequest 1960 to NGA.

Exhibition History

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.

Technical Summary

The original support is a vertically grained oak[1] 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.[2]


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.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Clouds, ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2020: 24, fig. 9, 25.

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