The Clark has recently placed on view a significant painting by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Gerrit Dou. Girl at a Window, which had been in storage for decades, underwent extensive cleaning and conservation treatment at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center earlier this year. Its new installation in the Clark’s cabinet galleries has greatly enhanced the museum’s holdings of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings on display, including works by Abraham Bloemaert, Joachim Wtewael, and Dirck Hals. Dou’s work evokes the sophistication of Dutch genre painting at mid-century, and the jewel-like quality of Leiden fijnschilder painting (fine painting). Reconstituting this important work from the Clark’s own collection has been an exciting discovery.
The small painting on panel depicts a young kitchen maid leaning out of a stone window ledge. A strong light illuminates the woman from the upper left, resulting in highlights on the metal flagon in her left hand and a sharp shadow cast across the stone niche. Wearing a tightly laced red bodice that accentuates her décolleté, the woman looks beyond the picture plane where something has caught her attention. The dark room behind her, decorated with paintings on the back wall, opens to a Dutch cityscape beyond the window. A hallway in the back left corner extends into another room of the house.
Before cleaning, layers of grime, discolored varnish, and old retouch on the woman’s face, right arm, and framework of the arch, had obscured the fine handling and delicacy of the composition. Conservation revealed the brilliance of Dou’s color and rendering of light, and the careful attention he gave to the kitchen maid’s strands of hair, the warmth of her skin, and the reflections on the flagon. The removal of old retouch also revealed the original color of the woman’s pupils, which, at some point in the painting’s history, had been altered from hazel to dark brown. The handling of the light across the stone ledge similarly became more refined and nuanced, demonstrating Dou’s mastery of this illusionistic compositional device.
Dou was renowned in the seventeenth-century Netherlands as a fijnschilder. Working in the Dutch town of Leiden, he created genre paintings with remarkable detail and illusionism through his painstakingly meticulous technique. He developed the compositional device of situating figures in an arched window frame, where, as in the Clark’s kitchen maid, they break the picture plane by leaning over the ledge and into the viewer’s space. This illusionistic effect demonstrated Dou’s sophisticated understanding of space, light, and shadow, and ability to capture different surface textures. Most remarkable of all, however, is Dou’s handling of paint: the surface of this painting is so finely executed that it suggests the painter’s brush never touched the panel.