One can rarely find panels on subject in Gerrit Dou’s work. Despite the fact that the artist, apparently, played musical instruments himself, among his works, images of musicians can be counted on one hand. That is why the Young Lady Playing a Clavichord
is interesting not only as a magnificent example of the Leiden painting school of fijnschilders (“fine artists”), but also as a painting with its own “sound”. The artwork is now part of the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.
The work itself is typical of the fijnschilder technique, which required smooth painting, shiny glossy surfaces, accurate rendering of materials, textures and light, as well as meticulous, realistic depiction of objects on a small (sometimes tiny) scale. In this composition, the sun rays from the window are softly reflected on the polished body of the viola, highlighting the velvet of the red cushion and the coldness of the metal of the birdcage. The folds of the tapestry set to the right become almost tangible.
Gerrit Dou’s virtuoso technique brought him incredible success with collectors of the 17th and 18th centuries, who appreciated him more than any other Dutch artist, including Rembrandt.
Dou painted mostly home scenes, often with moral or allegorical overtones. The depiction of musicians in the Netherlands in the 17th century was associated with love. Here the young woman paused her play, perhaps turning to her beloved, who would accompany her in alte da gamba. The intimate relationship is indicated, for example, by the birdcage, which bore an erotic meaning then.
The Young Lady Playing a Clavichord is related to Dou’s other “musical” painting, Young Lady Playing the Virginal
from a private collection. Both works were painted in 1665, and both depict women at musical instruments. However, the Dutch artist interpreted the same theme with different moods and meanings. The panel from the Dulwich Gallery collection is an intimate and quiet scene, whereas its “sister” embodies the joy of life. Behind the girl playing the virginal, there is a group of people, which brings the scene to life, while the woman at the clavichord is in a room in serene solitude.
For the first time, both works were shown together in 1665 in Leiden at an exhibition organized by Johan de Bye, Dou’s patron. Perhaps it was the first ever personal exhibition of a still living artist. The next time, the paintings were reunited for a short time only after three and a half centuries at the at the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition in 2016.