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. He received many commissions for portraits and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
This woman’s reserved demeanor, her wide-wheel ruff collar, and the Bible in her lap all suggest that she was a conservative member of Dutch society and dedicated to her religious beliefs. The sitter does not communicate directly with the viewer through a gaze or gesture, but instead seems lost in her thoughts about the biblical text she has just read. Despite the inventiveness of the portrait concept and the painterly qualities evident in the face, it seems probable that Rembrandt relegated the costume, chair, and background to a studio assistant. A small but telling detail confirms that the collar was executed after the head was completely finished: a stroke of white paint overlaps the woman’s right cheek. Once Rembrandt had blocked in the form in his customary manner and painted the woman’s head and hands, he likely passed the unfinished canvas on to an assistant to be completed.
The identity of this formidable woman is not known, but her black cap indicates that she is in mourning and is probably a widow. Her stern demeanor, the wide-wheel ruff collar she wears, and the Bible she holds in her lap all suggest that she was a conservative member of Dutch society and dedicated to her religious beliefs. Despite the bold execution, the portrait is remarkably subdued. The sitter does not communicate directly with the viewer through a gaze or gesture, but rather appears lost in thought as she ponders the words of the Bible she has just read.
It is clear that she has finished reading the Bible since the back cover is on top, the normal position of a book when one closes it.
Because such black, fur-trimmed costumes are found in Dutch painting from the mid-1630s until the late 1650s, the dating of this imposing canvas has been particularly problematic. Until a date was discovered in the lower left at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was generally described in an all-inclusive way as belonging to Rembrandt’s “best period.” First read as 1643, the date was later believed to be 164.
See, for example, respectively, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century, 8 vols., trans. Edward G. Hawke (London, 1907–1927), 6:401, no. 876, and Jakob Rosenberg, Rembrandt, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), 1:45.
This information is of some consequence when discussing the attribution of the work, which has been rejected in recent years by both Gerson and Schwartz.
Abraham Bredius and Horst Gerson, Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings (London, 1969), 578, no. 362, suggest associations with Gerbrandt van den Eeckhout (1621–1674). Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings (New York, 1985), 380, rejects the painting in his concordance without explanation. Ernst van de Wetering (personal communication, 1991) has indicated to me that he does not accept the attribution of this painting to Rembrandt.
Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 3, 1635–1642, ed. Josua Bruyn et al. (Dordrecht, Boston, and London, 1989), 321–327, A132. The painting is generally in a poor state of preservation with the exception of the area around the face. The signature and date of 1639 are not considered by the RRP to be authentic, but the date is accepted as appropriate on the basis of style.
The woman’s hands and the Bible in An Old Lady with a Book are likewise modeled with bold strokes and great surety. Their forms are quite geometric and their positions carefully conceived, yet Rembrandt has suggested the nuances of texture and modeling with great sensitivity. The sheen of the flesh as it is accented by the light seems to glow from within, while the metallic corners of the book glisten with specular reflections. Also remarkable is the subtle translucence of the eyeglasses, which reveal the diffused images of the thumb and finger beneath them.
The surety of Rembrandt’s modeling of form is particularly evident in the X-radiographs
A photographic or digital image analysis method that visually records an object's ability to absorb or transmit x-rays. The differential absorption pattern is useful for examining an object's internal structure as well as for comparing the variation in pigment types.
An alteration made by the artist to an area that was already painted.
Despite stylistic connections with Rembrandt’s work from the late 1630s, the figure is unusually stiff and formal in its presentation. Gerson complained that the hands were “without expression,” but the same criticism could be more aptly applied to the upright position of the woman as she sits rigidly in the armchair.
Abraham Bredius and Horst Gerson, Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings (London, 1969), 578, no. 362.
The fascinating conceit of depicting the woman contemplating a written text is consistent with Rembrandt’s interest in extending the limits of portraiture during the late 1630s and early 1640s. Just how remarkable the concept is can be seen through a comparison with Solomon Koninck’s Portrait of an Elderly Lady, 1634
For illustrations of these two etchings, see Ludwig Münz, A Critical Catalogue of Rembrandt’s Etchings, 2 vols. (London, 1952), 2:54 and 61.
See inventory no. 828L, from Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz.
Despite the inventiveness of the portrait concept and the painterly qualities evident in the face, it seems probable that Rembrandt relegated the costume, chair, and background to a studio assistant. The brushwork in those portions of the painting is comparatively uninspired. A close comparison of the treatment of the millstone ruff on this portrait and that of Alotte Adriaensdr. (
It may well be, then, that Rembrandt, after devising the concept for the portrait, blocked in the form in his customary manner, executed the head and the hands, and then passed on the unfinished canvas to an assistant to bring it to completion. Although this pupil cannot be identified, a strong candidate would be
For an excellent overview of Bol’s work see Albert Blankert, Ferdinand Bol (1616–1680): Rembrandt’s Pupil, (Doornspijk, 1982), and also Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler, 5 vols. (Landau i.d. Pfalz, 1983), 1:282–425
For an extended discussion of the various attributions that have been given to this painting and convincing reasons for the attribution to Bol, see Van Thiel in Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch, and Pieter van Thiel, Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop: Paintings (New Haven and London, 1991), 322–327, no. 65.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
lower left: Rembr[an]dt. / f.17.
Johan van der Marck [1695-1770], Leiden; (his estate sale, by Hendrik de Winter and Jan Yver, Amsterdam, 25 August 1773 and days following, no. 259); purchased by (Fouquet), probably for Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun [1748-1813], Paris; (his sale, by Pierrre Remy, Paris, 20-23 December 1773, no. 11); Alexandre-Joseph Paillet. Armand, marquis de Brunoy; (his sale, by François Charles Joullain, Paris, 2 December 1776 and days following, no. 26 [paired with a portrait of Admiral de Ruyter]); (Fournel). Thélusson collection, Paris; (his sale, by Folliot and Mabille, Paris, 1 December 1777, no. 17). probably (Antoine-Charles Dulac) or possibly La Chaise collection; (sale, by Paillet and Chariot at Hôtel d'Aligre, Paris, 30 November 1778 and days following, no. 346, as Le portrait de la Mere de Rimbrand); Claude Billard de Belisard. Marquis de Anne-Pierre Montesquiou-Fezensac [1739-1798], Paris; (his sale, by J.B.P. Le Brun, Paris, 9 December 1788 and days following, 1st day, no. 45); purchased by Le Brun. Charles-Alexandre, vicomte de Calonne [1734-1802], Paris and London; (his sale, Skinner and Dyke, London, 23 March 1795 and days following, 4th day [28 March], no. 38); John Julius Angerstein [1732-1823], London; gift immediately to Sir Thomas Lawrence [1769-1830], London. John Allnutt [1773-1863], London; (his estate sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 18-20 June 1863, no. 502); (François Nieuwenhuys, Paris). Alfred Louis Lebeuf de Montgermont [1841-1918], Paris, by 1900; his son-in-law, Prince Louis Antoine Marie de Broglie [1862-1958], Paris; sold 1920 to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris); sold November 1924 to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 28 December 1934 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
Associated NamesAllnut, John
Angerstein, John Julius
Broglie, Prince Louis Antoine Marie de
Calonne, Charles Alexandre de Vicomte
Christie, Manson & Woods, Ltd.
Duveen Brothers, Inc.
Lawrence, Thomas, Sir
Le Brun, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre
Lebeuf de Montgermont, Alfred Louis
Marck, Johan van der
Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, The A.W.
Mellon, Andrew W.
Montesquiou-Fézensac, Anne-Pierre de Marquis
- British Institution for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, London, 1861, no. 123.
- Paintings by Old Masters from Pittsburgh Collections, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1925, no. 60.
- The Thirteenth Loan Exhibition of Old Masters: Paintings by Rembrandt, The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1930, no. 36.
- Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 4, 14, repro.
- Loan for display with permanent collection, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1989-1990.
- Rembrandt in America, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011-2012, no. 23, pl. 4.
The support, a medium-weight, tightly and plain-woven fabric, has been lined and the tacking margins have been removed. Cusping is present on all sides, suggesting the original dimensions have been retained. The double ground consists of a thin, red lower layer followed by a very thin, gray upper layer. Paint was applied as thin pastes in dark passages and thicker paste in the lights, with individual brushstrokes blended wet-into-wet. Visible in the X-radiographs surrounding the head are the limits of a rather large reserve left for this area.
Losses are found in the signature and date, to the left of the head, and along the edges. Minor flaking has occurred at junctures in the craquelure, and the pale halo around the figure is moderately abraded. The painting underwent treatment in 1981–1983 at which time early linings were removed, the painting was relined, and discolored varnish and inpainting were removed.
 The pigments and ground layers were analyzed by the NGA Scientific Research department using polarized light microscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), and cross-sections (see reports dated July 17, 1981, July 31, 1981, August 3, 1981, August 7, 1981, and May 18, 1983).
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- Valentiner, Wilhelm R., ed. Unknown Masterpieces in Public and Private Collections. London, 1930: n.p., pl. 53, as Portrait of an Old Lady by Rembrandt van Ryn.
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- Duveen Brothers. Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941: no. 196, repro., as An Old Lady with a Bible by Rembrandt.
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- National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 109.
- Bauch, Kurt. Rembrandt Gemälde. Berlin, 1966: 26, no. 508, repro.
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- Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings. Revised by Horst Gerson. 3rd ed. London, 1969: repro. 283, 578, no. 362.
- National Gallery of Art. Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art: Commemorating the tercentenary of the artist's death. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1969: 7, 14, no. 4, repro.
- Benesch, Otto. Otto Benesch Collected Writings. 2 vols. Edited by Eva Benesch. London and New York, 1970: 1:142-143, fig. 116.
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- Fowles, Edward. Memories of Duveen Brothers. London, 1976: 137.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 279, no. 362, color repro., as by Rembrandt van Ryn.
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- Tümpel, Christian. Rembrandt. Translated by Jacques and Jean Duvernet, Léon Karlson, and Patrick Grilli. Paris, 1986: repro. 241, 426, no. A58.
- Broos, Ben P. J., ed. Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat. Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Hague and Zwolle, 1990: 391.
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- Kennicott, Philip. "Important Piece of The City's Art Puzzle." Washington Post 139, no. 97 (March 11, 2016): cover, 3, color repro.
- the worship of God
- looking sideways
- old woman
- the rich