A young mother sits by the window with her needlework. Beside her, a serving girl kneels next to the cradle. It is painted by Gerrit Dou, the forefather of the Leiden ‘fijnschilders’, or fine painters. He worked with such precision, you can hardly see the individual brushstrokes.
In 1660, this painting was part of a diplomatic gift from Holland to the new king of England, Charles II. On receiving it, the kind immediately offered Gerrit Dou a permanent position at court. But Dou declined his offer.
At the beginning of 1628 Gerrit Dou started out as Rembrandt’s pupil at his Leiden studio. Rembrandt was still young; Dou was his first pupil, and one of the most talented. Dou would not become famous by making paintings in the style of his master, however, but with scenes in which the rendering of textures was elevated to the sole objective and brushstrokes had to be invisible. With this approach Dou founded his own school of painting, that of the Leiden fijnschilders, who included Frans van Mieris the Elder, Gabriel Metsu and Godfried Schalcken. The immense care with which Dou pursued his profession is eloquently illustrated by a famous anecdote told by the artists’ biographer Arnold Houbraken in his Groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen (1718-1721). He relates that Dou set up a large parasol in his studio over the easel, and that after entering his studio and seating himself at the easel he would wait ‘until the dust had settled’ before starting work.
In ‘The young mother’ we see a spacious, high room in which a young woman with her needlework on her lap sits near her child, a baby in a cradle. A maidservant sits beside the cradle. The bright daylight streaming in through the window brings out the surfaces of the diverse objects strewn about the room to fine effect. In the background we can make out a few figures in a dimly lit kitchen. The qualities of Dou’s art as a fijnschilder emerge most clearly in the wicker cradle, the gleaming kitchenware and the young woman’s face.
Scenes featuring mothers with their children, busying themselves with domestic tasks in an orderly interior, were sometimes interpreted as images of virtue. It is unclear to what extent this interpretation is justified here, since the staffage gives no explicit confirmation. The most striking detail is the relief with little angels on the column in the middle of the room, whose meaning is unfortunately obscure. The coat and sabre beside it allude to the absent husband and father. Objects such as the globe on the cupboard, the inkwell, and the folio volumes, the customary attributes of study, would have been attributed to his domain by seventeenth-century viewers.
In 1660 the States of Holland and West Friesland decided to honour the new king of England, Charles II (1630-1685), who had spent some time in exile in The Hague, with a diplomatic gift. Besides Italian paintings, for which the king had a special fondness, this ‘Dutch Gift’ also included a work by Gerrit Dou: ‘The young mother’. The king was so delighted with this painting that he offered Dou a position as court painter, which Dou however declined. For over thirty years the painting was one of the showpieces of the large Royal Collections in England, until stadholder William III (1650-1702), who had become king of England in 1689, brought it to the Netherlands along with some thirty other works.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in in: P. van der Ploeg, Q. Buvelot, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis: A princely collection, The Hague 2005, p. 180)
Gerrit Dou (Leiden 1613 - 1675 Leiden)
'The Young Mother'
On view in
Material and technical details
55.5 x 73.7 cm
Signed and dated
linksboven, op het raam: GDOV. / 1658 GD ineen; de 8 is over een ander cijfer geschilderd
linksonder: N 35
Purchased from the artist by the Executive Committee of the States of Holland and West-Friesland, October 1660; part of the ‘Dutch Gift’ to Charles II, London, 22 November 1660; King Charles II, London, 1660-1685 (inventory 1666-1667, no. 389); King James II, London, 1685-1688 (Whitehall inventory 1688, no. 501); taken by King-Stadholder William III from London to Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn, after 1689; by inheritance to his cousin, Johan Willem Friso of Nassau-Dietz, Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn, 1702-1711 (his seal on the verso of the panel); his widow, Maria Louise of Hessen-Kassel, Apeldoorn and Leeuwarden, 1711-1731 (valuation Het Loo Palace 1712, no. 4; inventory Het Loo Palace 1713, no. 897; offered for sale as part of the Jan van Beuningen sale, Amsterdam, 13 May 1716 [Lugt 257], no. 58, bought in for 1,310 guilders and returned to Maria Louise before 1720; inventory Leeuwarden Palace 1731, no. 293); her son, Prince William IV, transferred from Leeuwarden to Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn, 1731-1751; Prince William V, Apeldoorn and The Hague, 1751-1795 (inventory Het Loo Palace 1757, no. 86; transferred from Apeldoorn to the Stadholderly Quarters, The Hague, 1763; Prince William V Gallery, The Hague, from 1774 onwards); confiscated by the French, transferred to the Muséum central des arts/Musée Napoléon (Musée du Louvre), Paris, 1795-1815; Royal Picture Gallery, housed in the Prince William V Gallery, The Hague, 1816; transferred to the Mauritshuis, 1822