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). Wilkins may have brought it to England, for a “woman plucking a fowl” by Rembrandt appeared in the Blackwood sale of 1757. 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] [fig. 1] Richard Houston, engraving of Old Woman Plucking a Fowl, mid-18th century, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
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. 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. 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 OverpaintA layer of paint that covers original paint. 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. 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), 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. Valentiner later wrote that Hauser had been forced to reconstruct “essential parts” of the painting, but just what these were has never been determined. 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. 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. 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] [fig. 2] Style of Rembrandt, Old Woman Cutting Her Nails, 1655–1660, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, 14.40.609. Photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY, once again serves as an excellent point of reference. 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, c. 1630 - after 1680), 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. 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.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014