Gerrit Dou (b. 1613)
Dog at Rest, 1650
On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Dutch artist Gerrit Dou painted this ridiculously gorgeous picture of a sleeping dog in 1650, when he was 37.
As a gifted teenager, Dou had entered the Leiden studio of the young Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that Dou’s dog — a recent gift to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts — derives from two works on paper by Rembrandt: one, a drawing in pen and ink, called “Sleeping Watchdog” and the other, an etching, called “Sleeping Puppy.”
There should be a curatorial policy against displaying all three together, if only because, united, they create a vortex of canine cuteness that could mess with the mental stability of unsuspecting museum-goers who happen to be dog lovers. Disinterested and aloof, I — a professional critic — am going to try to keep my head and focus only on Dou’s little dog (which, oh, my God, I just want to cuddle so much . . .).
What sort of dog is it? Good luck with that. In an essay published by Christie’s before the painting’s sale in 2005 (it fetched $4.7 million), it was described as “something of a mutt.”
That may be right. The painting, on the other hand, is no mutt.
Its pedigree is impeccable, and it has been admired for a long time. In the 19th century, John Smith, an expert in Dutch Golden Age art, wrote: “It is impossible for painting to be carried to higher perfection than that displayed in this exquisite little picture.”
Dou was a showoff. He wanted you to respond exactly as Smith did — to believe that no one had ever painted real things more convincingly.
Showoffs can keep you at arm’s length. But Dou had a way of pulling you in. His pictures are small. By 1650, when he was approaching the peak of his virtuosity and international fame, his palette radiated warmth. And (unlike, for instance, Vermeer, an intensely optical painter) Dou painted material things in a way that appealed to touch as much as to vision.
In “Dog at Rest,” it is hard to accept that Dou’s almost inconceivably lifelike rendering of the different textures of terra-cotta, wicker basket, cut twigs and wooden clogs is just colored paint. All these items, in shades of brown paint, are texturally distinct. Arranged one behind the other in the right half of the composition, the objects are hard, brittle, inanimate.
Against them, and against the darkness that encroaches from behind, the soft, proximate, breathing presence of this white dog, with its sooty, floppy, velvety, cartilaginous ear, seems so real that you have to suppress the urge to reach out and touch it.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified art historian Ronni Baer as the author of a 2005 Christie’s catalogue entry on “Dog at Rest.” Baer only assisted in the entry’s preparation. The story has been updated.