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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Anonymous Artist, Rembrandt van Rijn/Old Woman Plucking a Fowl/1650/1655,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/43512 (accessed September 28, 2016).

 

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Overview

After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist, specializing in history paintings and portraiture. He received many commissions and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.

Traditionally, Old Woman Plucking a Fowl has been associated with a work listed in the 1734 sale of paintings owned by Willem Six, where "Een Hoenderwyf, van Rembrant" (A vendor of fowl, by Rembrandt) was purchased for 165 guilders. No one would confuse this painting as it looks today with a work by Rembrandt. It was reworked in the eighteenth century and then heavily restored in the early twentieth century. With so many layers of overpaint, it is virtually impossible to determine the original character of the image. The dead bird on the woman’s lap, which has survived fairly well intact, is the sole exception. The vigorous execution of this animal does reveal a boldness of touch that provides a glimpse of the qualities that the rest of the painting may originally have possessed.

Entry

The early history of Old Woman Plucking a Fowl is not known with certainty. Traditionally this painting has been associated with a work listed in the 1734 sale of paintings owned by Willem Six, where “Een Hoenderwyf, van Rembrant” was purchased by Wilkins for 165 fl. (see Provenance).[1] Wilkins may have brought it to England, for a “woman plucking a fowl” by Rembrandt appeared in the Blackwood sale of 1757.[2] The first secure reference to the painting is from the mid-eighteenth century when Richard Houston (Irish, 1721 - 1775) made his mezzotint with an inscription indicating that the painting was in the collection of Francis Charteris, Earl of Wemyss (1723–1808) [fig. 1].[3]

Viewed today, this painting would never be confused with a work by Rembrandt; yet an attribution to the master was strongly defended when the painting surfaced in a Paris sale in 1912. It had previously been known only to the most important Rembrandt scholars of the day, Wilhelm von Bode, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, and Abraham Bredius, through reproductive mezzotints, among them the one made by Houston. The painting’s appearance generated much interest, and it was acquired by the Paris dealer Francis Kleinberger for a substantial price. Of the three scholars mentioned above, only Bredius demurred at the attribution, arguing that the painting was a workshop production, one of those paintings listed in Rembrandt’s 1656 inventory as being retouched by Rembrandt.[4] He wrote that the woman “with the strange wrinkles above her left eye and underneath her right eye, with the monotonously painted fur coat and the oddly shaped hands” had nothing to do with Rembrandt, but that the fowl was by the master. “You feel his genius in the light he gave to its wings and how the touches in its head make it perfect.”

Bredius’ comments initiated an exchange of letters in The Burlington Magazine with Kleinberger, who vigorously defended the attribution to Rembrandt.[5] He pointed out that large areas of the painting had been overpainted by an eighteenth-century restorer before the mezzotint had been made by Houston. Kleinberger added that shortly after acquiring the Old Woman Plucking a Fowl he had sent the painting to Berlin to be restored by Professor A. Hauser. Hauser removed Overpaint in the background, which revealed the windowsill and the gun leaning against it. As Hofstede de Groot also noted, Hauser discovered that the fowl’s left wing was overpainted, as were both of the woman’s hands.[6] Her costume had also been overpainted. Hofstede de Groot was quite enthusiastic about the changes that had been wrought by Hauser: not only had the woman’s expression improved, but so too had the overall lighting and color harmonies. He compared the painting to Rembrandt’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and the Dead Bittern Held High by a Hunter (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden),[7] and concluded that this painting likewise must date c. 1638–1640.

Just what transpired in Hauser’s studio is unknown. No records have been preserved that allow any judgment about the layers of paint he removed and the extent of overpainting he then added.[8] Valentiner later wrote that Hauser had been forced to reconstruct “essential parts” of the painting, but just what these were has never been determined.[9] If one were to judge the painting as it appears today, it is hard to imagine how anyone, let alone experts of the stature of Bode, Hofstede de Groot, and Valentiner, could have reacted positively to Hauser’s restoration. A close comparison with the photograph of the painting published in 1912 after the restoration, however, indicates that a second restoration must have been undertaken before the painting was given to the National Gallery of Art in 1956. Not only has the shape of the headdress once again changed, the costume has lost definition in the folds, and the face and right hand have been heavily overpainted. The Rembrandt signature is also far less visible today than it was in 1912. With all of these layers of restoration, it is virtually impossible to determine the original character of the image. The sole exception is the dead fowl on the woman’s lap, which seems to have survived fairly well intact.

The vigorous execution of this animal does reveal a boldness of touch that provides a glimpse of the qualities that the rest of the painting may originally have possessed.[10] While the dry brushwork used to suggest the feathers on the bird’s body is, in fact, quite different in character from Rembrandt’s handling of similar areas in the Rijksmuseum painting of dead peacocks, a similar technique is found in the work of one of Rembrandt’s pupils and followers from the early 1650s, Karel van der Pluym (1625–1672). A particularly close comparison is found in the brushwork on the armor of Mars in Liechtenstein, a painting convincingly attributed to Van der Pluym by Sumowski and dated to the early 1650s, after the artist had left Rembrandt’s workshop and returned to Leiden.[11] If one were to extrapolate, moreover, from the general compositional format, large scale, and figure type, what the image might originally have looked like, a painting generally attributed to Van der Pluym, Woman Cutting Her Nails [fig. 2], once again serves as an excellent point of reference.[12] Here one finds the same deep-set eyes, square face, and blocky hands. Even the thick, heavy, fur-lined cloak is comparable.

The information available, however, is not sufficient to attribute this heavily overpainted work to Van der Pluym. Neither of the comparative works mentioned above is signed or dated, so their attributions to Van der Pluym should be understood as tentative. Moreover, other artists in the Rembrandt circle during the 1650s, including Gerrit Willemsz Horst (1612–1652), Abraham van Dijck (1635/1636–1672), Heyman Dullaert (1636–1684), and Willem Drost (Dutch, active c. 1650 - active 1655), also painted large-scale, blocky figures that are comparable to the woman in Old Woman Plucking a Fowl. Indeed, a painting of this subject by Drost belonged to an Amsterdam collector in the 1670s.[13] Despite the admirable efforts of Sumowski and others to construct a body of works for these painters, too little is presently known about their artistic personalities to make a precise judgment about the attribution of this work.[14]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014

Provenance

Possibly Willem Six [1662-1733], Amsterdam;[1] possibly (his estate sale, Amsterdam, 12 May 1734, no. 170); possibly Wilkins. Possibly John(?) or W.(?) Blackwood; possibly (his sale, Mr. Prestage, London, unknown dates in 1757, 2nd day, no. 70).[2] Francis Charteris, de jure 7th earl of Wemyss [1723-1808], Gosford House, Longniddry, East Lothian, Scotland; Ralph Willett [1719-1795], Great Canford, Dorset; bequeathed to his cousin, John Willett Adye [d. 1815], who later assumed the surname Willett in lieu of Adye; (his sale, Peter Coxe & Co., London, 31 May-2 June 1813, 2nd day, no. 62, bought in); (sale, Christie's, London, 8 April 1819, no. 124); Anthony Stewart [1773-1846], London; sold to Andrew Geddes [1789-1844], London, by December 1820; (sale, Christie & Manson, London, 23 May 1835, no. 94, bought in); by inheritance to his wife, Mrs. Andrew Geddes; (Geddes estate sale, Christie & Manson, London, 8-12 and 14 April 1845, 5th day [12 April], no. 646, bought in); (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 30 November 1867, no. 53); (Alimonde).[3] Étienne-Edmond Martin, baron de Beurnonville [1825-1906]; (his sale, by Paul Chevallier, Paris, 3 June 1884 and days following, no. 295). Madame Levaigneur, Paris; (her estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 2-4 May 1912, no. 29); (F. Kleinberger & Co., Paris and New York); (Kleinberger sale, American Art Association, New York, 18 November 1932, no. 50); (L.J. Marion); Dr. and Mrs. Walter Timme, Cold Spring, New York; gift 1956 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1861
British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1861, no. 17.
1930
The Thirteenth Loan Exhibition of Old Masters. Paintings by Rembrandt, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1930, no. 31.
Bibliography
1829
Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 7(1836):70, no. 164.
1861
British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom. Catalogue of pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, Franch, and English masters. Exh. cat. British Institution, London, 1861: 8, no. 17.
1881
Dutuit, Eugène. Tableaux et dessins de Rembrandt. Paris, 1881: 3, no. 385.
1897
Bode, Wilhelm von, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. 8 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. Paris, 1897-1906: 8:158, no. 18, repro.
1907
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. 8 vols. Translated by Edward G. Hawke. London, 1907-1927: 6(1916):176-177, no. 298.
1907
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907-1928: 6(1915):150-151, 298.
1912
"A Rembrandt Controversy." Boston Evening Transcript (21 August 1912): 15.
1912
Bode, Wilhelm von. "Neu entdeckte und wiedererstandene Gemälde von Rembrandt." Der Cicerone 4 (1912): 504-508, repro.
1912
Bredius, Abraham, and Francis Kleinberger. "Letters to the Editor. 'The Old Woman Plucking a Fowl' from the Levaigneur Collection." The Burlington Magazine 22, no. 116 (November 1912): 121-122.
1912
Bredius, Abraham. "Letter to the Editor. 'The Old Woman Plucking a Fowl' from the Levaigneur Collection." The Burlington Magazine 21, no. 114 (September 1912): 359–360.
1912
Bredius, Abraham. "On Two Paintings Usually Ascribed to Rembrandt." The Burlington Magazine 21, no. 111 (June 1912): 164–169, repro. 165.
1912
Dell, Robert E. (R.E.D.). "Art in France." The Burlington Magazine 21, no. 109 ( April 1912): 113.
1912
Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. "Nieuw Ontdekte Rembrandts, II." Onze Kunst 22 (December 1912): 174, 178-181, pl. 2.
1912
"Illustrated Catalogues of Sales in May." The Burlington Magazine 21, no. 110 (May 1912): 122.
1912
Kleinberger, Francis. "Letter to the Editor. 'The Old Woman Plucking a Fowl' from the Levaigneur Collection." The Burlington Magazine 21, no. 112 (July 1912): 296-297, repro. 248.
1912
Kleinberger, Francis. "Letter to the Editor. 'The Old Woman Plucking a Fowl' from the Levaigneur Collection." The Burlington Magazine 22, no. 115 (October 1912): 49-50.
1912
"Rembrandt’s ‘Woman Plucking a Fowl'." The Connoisseur 33 (June 1912): 138.
1913
Bredius, Abraham. "Darft die Kritik sich nicht mit Bildern in Privatbesitz befassen?" Kunstchronik 24, no. 20 (February 1913): 273–276.
1913
Graves, Algernon. A Century of Loan Exhibitions, 1813–1912. 5 vols. London, 1913-1915: 3(1914):1008, no. 17.
1921
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt: wiedergefundene Gemälde (1910-1922). Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 27. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1921: x, xix, 45, repro.
1923
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt: wiedergefundene Gemälde (1910–1920). Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 27. 2nd ed. Berlin, 1923: x, xix, 45, repro. (also 1923 2nd ed: xv, xxiv, 50, repo.).
1930
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. "Important Rembrandts in American Collections." Art News 28, no. 30 (26 April 1930): 4, 84, repro.
1930
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The thirteenth loan exhibition of old masters, paintings by Rembrandt. Exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts, 1930: no. 31, repro.
1931
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931: no. 67, pl. 67.
1953
Simpson, Frank. "Dutch Paintings in England before 1760." The Burlington Magazine 95, no. 599 (January 1953): 40, 42.
1965
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 111, as by Rembrandt.
1968
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 98, repro., as by Rembrandt.
1974
Salvadori, Fabia Borromi. "Le Esposizioni d'Arte à Firenze, 1674-1767." Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 18 (1974): 115.
1975
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 292, repro., as Manner of Rembrandt.
1985
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 335, repro.
1995
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 326-330, repro. 327.
2001
Smailes, Helen, Peter Black, and Lesley Stevenson. Andrew Geddes, 1783-1844, painter-printmaker: 'a man of pure taste'. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2001: 48-50, fig. 38.
2004
Scallen, Catherine. Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship. Amsterdam, 2004: 233-234, fig. 56, 252, 367 n. 75, 370 n. 27.
Technical Summary

The medium-weight, plain-weave fabric support consists of two pieces seamed vertically at the left. It has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. Diagonal marks from a tool used to apply the thick white ground are visible in the X-radiographs. The paint was applied both thickly and thinly in dry opaque pastes, with colored glazes applied over lighter base tones. Dry brushstrokes of varying length create impasto in light areas, such as the feathers. Extensive glazing was employed in the dark passages to model forms and shadows, and impart a dark, glowing appearance.

Thin paint layers and glazes, particularly in the dark passages, are severely abraded and covered by discolored inpainting. The extent of repaint is difficult to determine precisely due to the heavy, discolored surface coating. An old lining was removed and the painting was relined, varnished, and inpainted in 1956-1957. The painting had previously been treated by Professor A. Hauser in 1912 and, based on photographs, possibly one other time between 1912 and its acquisition in 1956.[1] It is interesting to note that in a mezzotint of the painting from the mid-eighteenth century both of the woman’s hands are visible above the fowl, but in photographs taken after the 1912 restoration, the woman’s proper left hand is no longer depicted. Hofstede de Groot wrote that Hauser noted that both of the woman’s hands were overpainted.[2] Presumably, the woman’s left hand was entirely a later fabrication and, consequently, Hauser removed it.

 

[1] See the entry text for more information about the restorations prior to 1956.

[2] Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, "Nieuw Ontdekte Rembrandts, II," Onze Kunst 22 (December 1912): 178–180.

Related IconClass Terms
31B6212
looking downwards
31B6251
wrinkles
31D17
old woman
34B232
chicken +used symbolically
48A2
attribution
48A5
conservation of a work of art
48A91
genre
48B
aritst +Karel van der Pluym
48B11
studio