Skip to Main Content
Reader Mode

Copy-and-paste citation text:

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch 17th Century/An Old Lady with a Book/1637,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 18, 2024).

Export as PDF

Export from an object page includes entry, notes, images, and all menu items except overview and related contents.
Export from an artist page includes image if available, biography, notes, and bibliography.
Note: Exhibition history, provenance, and bibliography are subject to change as new information becomes available.

Version Link
Thu Apr 24 00:00:00 EDT 2014 Version
Sun Jan 01 00:00:00 EST 1995 Version

You may download complete editions of this catalog from the catalog’s home page.


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.[1] She stares outward but looks inward, gently touching the clasp of the Bible with one hand while holding her spectacles between the fingers of the other.

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[7].[2] The confusion is understandable because damage in this area of the painting obliterates a portion of both the signature and the date. The conservation treatment of the painting in 1983, however, revealed that the date should be read as 1637. While the damage does affect both the “6” and the “3,” enough of each number survives to identify them (see this painting’s inscription). The signature and date are integral with the paint structure and are of a type characteristic of the late 1630s.

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.[3] Indeed, while the execution does not relate easily with Rembrandt’s paintings from the late 1640s, close comparisons can be made with other women’s portraits from the late 1630s, in particular Alotte Adriaensdr. of 1639 in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam [fig. 1].[4] Not only are the costumes worn by both women similar, but the sure modeling of features in both portraits is achieved through a variety of short, unblended brushstrokes. Among those areas of the face that best bear the characteristics of artistic approach are the articulation of the eyes, the modeling of folds just below the eyes, the formation of the mouth, and the way the pulled-back hair is indicated with thin black strokes drawn from the forehead to the hair. Since the features of the somewhat older woman in the Washington painting are rougher and the thrust of light on the face stronger, the brushwork is freer than in the Rotterdam portrait. In both works, nevertheless, Rembrandt used his paint to suggest at once the structure of the face and the patterns of light and dark that accent the form.

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 [fig. 2] [see X-radiography]. Here also the distribution of lead white is compatible with that of other portraits from the middle to late 1630s. No Pentimenti are evident as Rembrandt seems to have worked directly on the canvas with great confidence of his intent. As is evident from the surface but also from the X-radiographs, the collar is painted very densely. Technical analysis indicates that it was executed in two layers. This technique was probably developed to help convey the translucent quality of the material. Folds along the edges of the material were articulated with strokes of gray for the shadows and strokes of white for the accented portions.

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.[5] Indeed, compared to most Rembrandt sitters, she seems rather remote. In part, Rembrandt’s characterization must be seen in response to the personality of the patron, an intangible in the process of portrait painting that can never be adequately assessed. The woman’s restrained demeanor must also be understood within the iconographic content of this work. Unlike most of Rembrandt’s subjects the woman does not make eye contact with the viewer. His intent was to emphasize how the word of the Bible has made an impact on the woman’s state of being rather than to enliven her form with momentary expression or gesture.

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 [fig. 3]. Here, even though all of the components of the painting are comparable, the woman has posed as though interrupted from her text rather than immersed in her thoughts. Rembrandt’s interest in demonstrating the effect of words on a sitter’s mind can also be found in his graphic work from the 1630s and early 1640s, in particular his etched portrait of Jan Cornelis Silvius, 1633, and his etching Man at a Desk Wearing a Cross and Chain, 1641.[6] In painting, this conceit culminated in 1641 in his magnificent Portrait of Anslo and His Wife, 1641 (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz),[7] where he conveyed the impact of the preacher’s words through the quiet, reflective mood of the woman.

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. ([fig. 1]), for example, reveals that this collar is executed with less sensitivity to the delicate nuances of light and form. The result is that the translucency of the material is rendered less illusionistically than it is in the Rotterdam portrait. 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.

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 Ferdinand Bol (Dutch, 1616 - 1680), a trained artist who had moved from Dordrecht to Amsterdam to work as an apprentice and assistant with Rembrandt between the years of about 1636 and 1641.[8] While it is difficult to determine which works Bol actually executed during those years, in his later career he painted a large number of portraits as well as biblical and mythological scenes. One portrait that has been convincingly attributed to him from the 1640s, and which is comparable to An Old Lady with a Book, is Portrait of Elizabeth Jacobsdr. Bas [fig. 4].[9] Although the brushwork in the costume is somewhat rougher and bolder in the Washington painting because of the need to paint in Rembrandt’s style, the bodies of both women have a massive yet static character that is quite similar, for example, in the way the fur-edged jackets fall across the women’s laps. Similar also is the manner in which the shadows fall across the women’s mill ruffs. Finally, the oblique perspective of the circular form of the chair arm is identical.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


lower left: Rembr[an]dt. / f.1[63]7.



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;[1] (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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] John Allnutt [1773-1863], London; (his estate sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 18-20 June 1863, no. 502); (François Nieuwenhuys, Paris).[5] Alfred Louis Lebeuf de Montgermont [1841-1918], Paris, by 1900;[6] his son-in-law, Prince Louis Antoine Marie de Broglie [1862-1958], Paris; sold 1920 to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[7] 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.

Exhibition History

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.

Technical Summary

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.[1] 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.


[1] 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).


Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829-1842: 7(1836):163, no. 505.
Williams, D.E. The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Kt. 2 vols. London, 1831: 1:129.
Blanc, Charles. Le trésor de la curiosité. 2 vols. Paris, 1857–1858: 2(1858):168.
Bode, Wilhelm von, and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. 8 vols. Translated by Florence Simmonds. Paris, 1897-1906: 4:35, 168, no. 288, repro.
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):401, no. 876.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. 3rd ed. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1908: repro. 267, 288, 573.
Rosenberg, Adolf. Rembrandt: Des Meisters Gemälde. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Klassiker der Kunst in Gesamtausgaben 2. Stuttgart and Leipzig, 1909: repro. 267, 288, 573.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt, reproduced in over five hundred illustrations. Classics in Art 2. 2nd ed. New York, 1913: repro. 267.
Errera, Isabelle. Répertoire des peintures datées. 2 vols. Brussels and Paris, 1920-1921: 1(1920):237, as Portrait d'une Femme tenant un binocle.
Rosenberg, Adolf. The Work of Rembrandt. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Classics in Art 2. 3rd ed. New York, 1921: 267, repro.
Neumann, Carl. Rembrandt. 2 vols. Revised ed. Munich, 1922: 2: 414, 462, fig. 114.
Meldrum, David S. Rembrandt’s Painting, with an Essay on His Life and Work. New York, 1923: 195, pl. 236.
Knackfuss, Hermann. Rembrandt. Künstler-Monographien. Leipzig, 1924: 62.
Carnegie Institute. An Exhibition of Paintings by Old Masters from the Pittsburgh Collections. Exh. cat. Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1925: no. 60.
Schmidt-Degener, Frederik. "Rembrandt van Ryn: Portrait of an Old Lady" in Unknown Masterpieces in Public and Private Collections. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. London, 1930: no. 53, repro.
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.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. The thirteenth loan exhibition of old masters, paintings by Rembrandt. Exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 1930: no. 36.
Valentiner, Wilhelm R. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931: no. 79.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Gemälde, 630 Abbildungen. Vienna, 1935: no. 362, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. Rembrandt Schilderijen, 630 Afbeeldingen. Utrecht, 1935: no. 362, repro.
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. New York, 1936: no. 362, repro.
Cortissoz, Royal. An Introduction to the Mellon Collection. Boston, 1937: 39.
Duveen Brothers. Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941: no. 196, repro., as An Old Lady with a Bible by Rembrandt.
National Gallery of Art. Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1941: 164, no. 73.
Bredius, Abraham. The Paintings of Rembrandt. 2 vols. Translated by John Byam Shaw. Oxford, 1942: 1:21, no. 362; 2:repro.
National Gallery of Art. Book of illustrations. 2nd ed. Washington, 1942: 73, repro. 30, 240.
Benesch, Otto. "The Rembrandt Paintings in the National Gallery of Art." The Art Quarterly 6, no. 1 (Winter 1943): 26, 33 fig. 13.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1948: 1:45; 2:fig. 65.
National Gallery of Art. Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 83, repro.
Roger-Marx, Claude. Rembrandt. Translated by W.J. Strachan and Peter Simmons. New York, 1960: 201, repro. 200, no. 61.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 312, repro.
Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt: Life and Work. Revised ed. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1964: 77-78, fig. 65, repro. 76.
National Gallery of Art. Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. Washington, 1965: 109.
Bauch, Kurt. Rembrandt Gemälde. Berlin, 1966: 26, no. 508, repro.
Gerson, Horst. Rembrandt Paintings. Amsterdam, 1968: 348-349, no. 264, repro., 498.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 97, repro.
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.
National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 284, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 279, no. 368, color repro.
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.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 328, repro.
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.
Martz, Louis L. From Renaissance to Baroque: essays on literature and art. Columbia, Missouri, 1991: 225-227, fig. 34.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 226-230, color repro. 227.
Keyes, George S., Tom Rassieur, and Dennis P. Weller. Rembrandt in America: collecting and connoisseurship. Exh. cat. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts. New York, 2011: no. 23, pl. 4, 37, 39, 54 n. 11, 185.
Kennicott, Philip. "Important Piece of The City's Art Puzzle." Washington Post 139, no. 97 (March 11, 2016): cover, 3, color repro.

Related Content

  • Sort by:
  • Results layout:
Show  results per page

Related Terms

the worship of God
looking sideways
old woman
the rich
The image compare list is empty.