Informal bust-length figure studies, called tronies in the seventeenth century, were frequently painted by Rembrandt and members of his workshop. This small oil sketch of a wizened old woman is a painting of this type. The sitter stares out from under a white headpiece, her black cape fastened at the neck. The woman’s wrinkled visage is expressed with dense paints applied vigorously with a stiff brush. At the edge of the strokes are crisp and definite ridges, a characteristic of alla prima painting, which is also evident in the X-radiographs [fig. 1] [see X-radiography]. This technique is particularly apparent along the decorative pattern at the lower edge of the headpiece, which has been created by pushing a firm object, perhaps even a brush, into the wet paint. In contrast to the thick impastos on the face and headpiece, the black cape is thinly painted and summarily indicated. Surprisingly, the background is vigorously painted, particularly in the upper region. The paint in the background around the head is actually thicker than that of the thinly executed black cape.
The attribution of this painting to Rembrandt dates to at least 1765, when it was engraved in reverse by J. H. Bause. At that time it and a male pendant were in the Gottfried Winkler Collection in Leipzig. Nevertheless, despite the expressive character of the tronies of this old woman, its attribution seems impossible for stylistic reasons. As Edith Standen implied in her notes on the painting when it was in Widener’s collection, the compositional arrangement is rather awkward. Standen wrote: “Lower part unconvincing; head does not seem to join body, set of shoulders seems wrong.” As noted in the catalog of the Gallery’s 1969 exhibition, the painting “differs markedly from the rest of Rembrandt’s work, and it has not yet been possible to relate this study to any of his other paintings.” Stechow questioned the authenticity of the signature and date in 1937, and Gerson, in 1969, published that they were forged. Gerson also thought that the painting did not resemble “the style of Rembrandt’s authentic oil sketches.”
While the signature and date, 1657, differ markedly from Rembrandt’s own, there is no technical evidence that they were applied after the execution of the painting. In any event, it would appear that the sketch was executed in the latter half of the 1650s. Dendrochronological examination [see Dendrochronology] has established the felling date for the tree from which the panel was made as between 1637 and 1643. Thus one can with some assurance conclude that the work was painted during Rembrandt’s lifetime. The large number of such tronies that have survived from Rembrandt’s workshop indicates that he encouraged his students to paint such studies directly from the model. This direct manner of painting helps explain the bold brushwork and intense scrutiny of the aged woman’s expressive face that is evident in this work. Rembrandt’s paintings of old women from the mid-1650s, among them An Old Woman in a Hood, 1654 (Pushkin Museum, Moscow), and An Old Woman in an Armchair, 1654 (Hermitage, Saint Petersburg), would also have served as pictorial models.
The old woman depicted in this painting also appears in a number of works by Abraham van Dijck (1635/1636–1672), in particular his The Old Prophetess, c. 1655–1660, now in the Hermitage. Although the harsh angular style of the oil sketch is not characteristic of the more finished works by this artist, it is entirely possible that he could have painted in such a manner when executing a preliminary oil sketch. Until more information is known about the full range of his work, however, it is not possible to offer more than an initial suggestion of this artist, who seems to have studied with Rembrandt in the early 1650s. If the painting were, in fact, executed by Van Dijck, then it almost certainly was painted after he had left Rembrandt’s workshop and had begun painting on his own.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014