How Rembrandt's pupil failed the test

For two centuries, Dutch painter Gerrit Dou was considered a genius. None of us would think so now, but to realise why we don't is crucial to understanding the great shift in modern taste.
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The people in Gerrit Dou's pictures are often peering. They peer at the pages of books, at crucifixes and at urine samples. They peer into darkness or into the light. They peer out at the viewer. And the viewer must peer back. Dou painted small pictures, and he painted them minutely. They demand the closest inspection. Peer hard enough, and you may get an inkling why Gerrit Dou - rhymes with cow - was so well regarded.

The people in Gerrit Dou's pictures are often peering. They peer at the pages of books, at crucifixes and at urine samples. They peer into darkness or into the light. They peer out at the viewer. And the viewer must peer back. Dou painted small pictures, and he painted them minutely. They demand the closest inspection. Peer hard enough, and you may get an inkling why Gerrit Dou - rhymes with cow - was so well regarded.

Whether you'll be able to share that regard, I doubt. And that is the most interesting thing about this artist, and the best reason for going to "Gerrit Dou 1613-1675" at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Here's a body of work that was for two centuries held in the highest esteem, and is now hard to feel much for at all.

Dou was Rembrandt's first pupil, and in his lifetime he was pretty well the top Dutch artist. He mostly painted scenes from what art historians call everyday life. People sit in front rooms, kitchens, studies. They stand in windows. They read or play the violin or water plants in a posed-for-the-camera manner.

The lighting is a version of daylight or of candlelight and very carefully laid on, but it doesn't really look like lighting. The dominant impression is brown, with glows and glistenings. For Dou, who was praised by contemporaries for his uncanny realism, reality means a shine. In this world, no texture looks very true, no substance feels very solid, but if there's an edge or a surface to send off a nice gleam that's real enough. Peer into a Dou painting, and you generally find a figure surrounded by miscellany of light-catching objects. He was especially keen on books with curling pages, on globes with a nice sheen, on cabbages ridged with highlights.

A Dou picture is a shopping list of items, a lot comprising a number of spry visual effects. The lighting, day or night, doesn't come together; it falls in arbitrary pools on the principal bits and pieces. A picture hardly ever becomes a scene. The scale of things, and the sense of a solid floor, are always insecure. As for human drama, there's a range of vacant and half-baked expressions, limp gestures, and nothing in the way of lively action or tense stillness.

Now I am making a case against Dou. But it's not a case that would normally seem worth making. For his work is nowadays more or less invisible. There are one or two pictures here, or bits of pictures, that I was glad to see. There are a couple of finely painted hour-glasses, and a couple of eagerly attentive faces. But mainly it's the kind of stuff which, going through the Dutch rooms of some general historical collection, I'd probably walk by, and I'm sure I'll continue to do so.

So the question is: what's this show for? Is there somebody behind it who really rates Dou and can get us to view him more enthusiastically? Or is this just the doctrine of reappraisal operating on auto-pilot?

Sometimes it seems today's art-lovers are supposed to be into everything. Never before in history has so much art of so many periods been known and appreciated. But it's never enough, our appreciation has encyclopaedic ambitions - wider still and wider. When we hear of a corner of art that was once enjoyed, but isn't any longer, we know what we must do: we must reappraise and enjoy it again. Every taste that ever was must be ours.

Of course, we're much in debt to the reappraisals of the past. Some of the artists who now seem the best of Dou's period - Caravaggio, Frans Hals, Vermeer, Georges de la Tour - were only discovered or revived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That was a great age of artistic reclamation. But the reclamation was part of a great shift in taste, a shift in which there were losers as well as winners. As some artists were revived, others once prized went down. And it was with the rediscovery of Vermeer that Dou's gleaming reputation began its headlong descent.

One can't just undo that sort of change with kindly hopes and open mindedness. Beyond a certain point, we can't choose what we like. Try this experiment on yourself, an experiment with time-boundness. Say the following sentence: Gerrit Dou is a better painter than Vermeer. Try to think of ways you could believe it.

Now perhaps someone will write in, saying they have always and in every way preferred Dou to Vermeer. I say to that person: you are a rare atavism, an art-historical coelacanth, report yourself at once to the Dulwich Gallery and tell them how it's done, because they don't know. At least, reading the show's captions and catalogue, I got the impression that - though very much in favour of trying - they have no idea what it would be like to really admire Gerrit Dou. I mean, to admire him now.

They can tell you how he was admired once, which is certainly interesting. Here speaks a man of taste, a century and a half ago: Dou was "a perfect master of all the principles of art which, united with consummate skill and labour, enabled him to produce the most perfect specimens that ever came from the easel of a painter".

And that praise is revealing, because it's not just that we can't rate Dou so highly now. It simply isn't how we'd praise any artist nowadays - as a producer of "perfect specimens". That doesn't sound like painting, it sounds like jewellery. But then, that must be the trick. If you admire Dou's work, that is the way you admire it - for its twinkling gem-likeness, for its fine and exquisite workmanship.

With its itemised gleams and finical miniaturism, it's an art that competes with the highly crafted objects it sometimes depicts. You're meant to feel that it tweaks into the nooks and crannies of the world. Dou's realism isn't a matter of appearances. It's a matter of proximity, of getting into the grain of things.

Looking at some twinkling strand of carpet or tiny speck of glowing tobacco, you may presume that these pictures must have been painted through a magnifying glass. That's the problem of course - they seem to have been done entirely through a magnifying glass, the painter's eye scanning from one detail to another, never drawing back to consider the whole image.

But if you're going to like Dou, you mustn't mind that. You don't care about the image. You certainly don't care about drama. You care about minutiae. You value the sense that the painter has reconstituted the world, so to speak, from scratch. In its way, this is a very refined artistic taste. It isn't at all out for kicks. It savours quietly and intently.

And of course, a Dou-lover wouldn't be at all impressed by Vermeer. We may find in Vermeer's interiors luminous stillness and enigmatic psychology. But a Dou-lover would find them loud and loose - those big contrasting blocks of tone and colour, those inexact spottings of paint - why, you can see everything from a good foot away, you don't have to get up close at all.

Something like that. And it's not that I'm recommending this attitude, or have any sympathy with it. I simply don't think it's available to us. But it can be imagined, and it's useful to do so, because it shows so clearly the basic limits of our own taste. What for us Dou's painting lacks fundamentally is impact. It just doesn't hit out. You have to go up and pick at it. And Vermeer's painting, which we tend to think of as being so subtle and elusive, does have impact. It has clear visual drama. It can transfix you across a room. And that's an essential. It's a defining ingredient of modern art. Everything we like - from Matisse to Pollock and Warhol - has got it. Gerrit Dou hasn't, and once upon a time that was fine. That's what the Dulwich show has to tell us. But we can't do anything about it now, except peer and boggle.


Gerrit Dou: Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21; daily to 19 Nov; admission £3 to gallery, and £2 more to exhibition