This small oval panel was painted about 1632–33, to judge from other pictures by the artist, the painting's composition and coloring (works by Dirck Hals as well as by Pieter Codde and Willem Duyster should be compared), and the style of the woman's clothing (see, for example, Rembrandt's Portrait of a Woman
, dated 1632; 29.100.4
). Curator John Walsh, who in the later 1970s titled it The Procuress
, suggested on stylistic grounds that it must be earlier than one of Duck's very few dated works, the Merry Company
of 1635 (private collection). This is consistent with the conclusions of other scholars.
The subject, however, has nothing to do with prostitution, although the arrangement of the three figures superficially recalls Utrecht paintings like Dirck van Baburen's The Procuress
of about 1622 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). In Duck's picture, by contrast, a woman in very proper attire responds skeptically to the words of an old fortune-teller. The latter's boldly striped mantle, her appearance in general, and her "profession" make it clear that she is a gypsy. The lady's companion, who has placed his cloak and sword on the empty chair, wears an extravagantly feathered cap and an impatient expression. The setting must be a tavern, considering its plain decor, the glass of red wine to the far left, and the smoking requisites dropped onto the floor (a clay pipe, a metal tobacco box, and tobacco in a paper wrapper). The fireplace offers heat and nothing else; such a hearth in the kitchen of a Dutch house would be provided with cooking implements. A sure sign that the room is not part of a private home is that the gypsy has been admitted to it.
Salomon (1998) considers the painting as the earliest of several paintings by Duck featuring gypsy fortune-tellers. As she observes, Dutch literature and theater employed gypsies to assist the progress of romantic situations, usually by palm reading (which was given a physiological explanation at the time). Duck, however, in a departure from the lighthearted norm in Utrecht and elsewhere, shows a fortune-teller ill received by people who look incapable of having a good time.
In a painting probably dating from about five years later (private collection, Bern), Duck shows an elegantly dressed young woman in an inn declining to have her fortune read by an elderly gypsy woman, despite the encouragement of her handsome suitor. The figure of the gypsy recalls the one in The Met's picture but comes much closer to the study of an old gypsy woman in a drawing by Duck (Museen für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Lübeck). The man in the New York painting is repeated as a full-length figure leaning on a large sword in a somewhat later panel by Duck, Tavern Scene
(formerly private collection, Sweden). That he painted the figure in half- and full-length versions suggests that he made a full-length drawing of the figure before he painted either panel.
The use of a broad oval format, which is common in works by Duyster, also is found in Duck's Bordello Scene
of the 1630s (art market, 1975). The oak support of the New York painting is beveled on all sides and (despite some slight shaving around the edges) retains its original shape. When the picture was in the Jaucourt collection, it was engraved by Jean Augustin Pâtour, who reversed and altered the composition to a rectangular format and added over the fireplace the motif of a drawing of a peasant's head in profile.
[2016; adapted from Liedtke 2007]