sale [The Property of a Gentleman in Ireland], Christie’s, London,
18 June 1881, lot 119
(105 gns. to Sedelmeyer)
Anonymous sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 5 June 1924, lot 97
Private collection, the Netherlands, until 2022
Christie’s sale of Old Master Paintings and Sculpture online, 8 July 2022, lot 115.
A young man, with auburn hair and moustache, stands in a stone window surround, playing a violin. He wears a salmon-coloured doublet, over a white shirt, with a silk jabot at the neck, and a black hat, set at a jaunty angle. An open book of music lies before him on the window sill, beside a leather-bound book and an hourglass. Fluted pilasters and a carved stone cartouche appear below the window ledge. A glimpse through to the interior beyond reveals a galleried room, with a tall stone mantelpiece, beautifully illuminated by natural light streaming through a casement window. The artist has lavished much attention on the rendering of the various fabrics, as well as the well-thumbed pages of music and the split leather binding.
Documented details of Dominicus van Tol’s life are patchy, but there seems little doubt that he was trained by his uncle Gerrit Dou (1613-75), in Leiden, where he joined the painters’ guild in 1664. His oeuvre reveals that he followed closely in his uncle’s footsteps, adopting many of Dou’s subjects, motifs and compositional formats. In keeping with the Leiden fijnschilders (fine painters) tradition, Tol worked on a small scale in a precise and highly finished manner. Although his technique did not equal the refinement of Dou’s, in his best work, of which this is a good example, he came close to the style of his master. As a consequence, his works have in the past often been misattributed to the celebrated Leiden master.
In this painting, as in many of his other genre scenes, van Tol has placed his figure within an arch-topped window surround. The pictorial device of the stone window frame was introduced by Dou in the late 1640s, but the format remained popular with genre painters, especially pupils and followers of Dou, well into the eighteenth century. Here, van Tol has exploited its potential to enhance the painting’s illusionistic qualities: firstly, in the trompe l’oeil-like treatment of the carved stonework, with the signature and the date seemingly inscribed in the stone, but also in the way in which he has challenged our perception of the boundary between the real world and the fictive world of the painting. This is apparent in the careful placement of the music book, jutting over the window ledge, and especially in the neck of the violin, with its conspicuous blue tassel dangling from the scroll, angled in such a way that it seems to ‘break through’ the picture plane into the viewer’s space.
The subject of a musician at a window was painted several times by Gerrit Dou during the course of his career. The likely model for van Tol’s Violin Player was a similarly conceived painting by Dou, dated 1653, now in the Princely Collections, in Liechtenstein[i]. Van Tol’s dependence on Dou’s work suggests that he was intimately familiar with the master’s painting when he created this scene. In 1667, the year he executed the painting, van Tol was working as an independent master in Leiden, having joined the local guild of St. Luke three years earlier. If his supposed date of birth around 1635 is reliable, he joined the guild at the relatively advanced age of 29, having probably worked as a studio assistant in his uncle’s workshop for some time after the completion of his training. This would certainly explain his apparently intimate knowledge of many of his uncle’s works. Here, van Tol has nevertheless varied Dou’s original composition in a number of ways, introducing a different background scene and still-life objects, thereby subtly altering the symbolic visual references that hint at the painting’s import. The representation of music and musicians in seventeenth-century Dutch painting can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on the context. In Dou’s painting, the background scene shows an artist’s studio, with an assistant grinding pigment, while the violinist, a young man wearing a beret of the type often worn by artists, is likely conceived as an artist himself. These elements suggest that Dou’s intended meaning centres upon the arts of music and painting, both liberal arts, and in particular the power of music to inspire the painter’s creative faculties. Van Tol, on the other hand, through his choice of still-life objects has emphasised the vanitas connotations contained in his composition. The transient sound of music was regarded as a metaphor for human existence, a theme reinforced here by the books, symbols of the ephemerality of earthly things, and the hourglass, an unmistakable allusion to the passage of time.
Artists were quite often depicted as musicians in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. However, to judge from a recently identified self-portrait of Dominicus van Tol, the young man portrayed here is not a likeness of the artist[ii].
Factual information about the life of Dominicus van Tol is in short supply. The son of Simon van Tol and Catharina Vechters, who were married in Leiden in 1630, Dominicus was probably born around 1635 in Bodegraven, where his father worked as a notary public between 1630 and 1643, the year the family moved to Leiden. His mother was a half-sister of the celebrated fijnschilder (fine painter) Gerrit Dou (1612-75), who was thus van Tol’s uncle. The name of van Tol’s teacher is not documented, but given the family connection with Dou, it has generally been assumed that Dominicus received his artistic training from his uncle, an assumption which is apparently confirmed by the style of his work. In 1664, van Tol joined the Guild of St. Luke in Leiden, at the relatively advanced age of 29, if the date of his birth can be trusted. However, he does not appear to have prospered and, in 1669, he left the city and moved to Utrecht. In 1670, he married Maria Pollion (d. 1679), a preacher’s daughter from Woudenbergh, near Utrecht. He remained in Utrecht until 1672, the Rampjaar (The Disaster Year), when the invading French army occupied the town. Van Tol did not wait for the siege, but fled with his wife and his infant son Simon Petrus (1672-1720) to Amsterdam, where he lived for a while: his daughter Johanna Catherina was born there in 1674. Whether he resided there continuously until 1675 is uncertain, but he was definitely back in Leiden by 1675, when he registered once again with the Guild of Saint Luke. His fortunes, however, did not improve. Archival documents for the years following his return to Leiden attest to his ongoing financial problems. In 1676, he sought permission from the city council to sell beer from his house, de Blauwe Werelt, located on the Bierkay along the Oude Vest opposite the Lakenhal. His request was granted on 6 February, but van Tol died in December of that same year and was buried in the Pieterskerk on 26 December 1676. He left substantial debts for his widow who was forced to relinquish his estate to the creditors. Shortly afterwards, Maria Pollion moved to Westzaandam, where, in 1679, she married Pieter Milius from Amsterdam[iii].
[i] Gerrit Dou, Violin Player,Signed and dated 1653, oil on panel, arched top, 31.7 x 20.3 cm. Princely collections, Vaduz Castle, Liechtenstein.
[ii] Robert-Jan Te Rijdt, “Het toeval help teen beetje: Tibout Regters – Jan Verkolje – Dominicus van Tol” in Face Book: Studies on Dutch and Flemish Portraiture of the 16th-18th Centuries: Liber Amicorum Presented to Rudolf E. O. Ekkart on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, 2012, pp. 465-472.
[iii] Biographical information is drawn largely from Piet Bakker, “Dominicus van Tol” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 3rd ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., and Lara Yeager-Crasselt. New York, 2020. https://theleidencollection.com/artists/dominicus-van-tol/