Born in Tönning in the far north of Germany in 1623, the painter Jürgen Ovens divided his career between the Netherlands and his homeland, the territory of the dukes of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf. That Ovens traveled to Holland for training (probably about 1638) reflects not only the artistic supremacy of the Low Countries within the North Sea region at the time, but also the economic and cultural ties that Duke Friedrich III of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (r. 1616–59) fostered with the Dutch Republic. Although Arnold Houbraken wrote (1718) that Ovens was a pupil of Rembrandt, documentary evidence is lacking and little more than a general relationship can be established on stylistic grounds. Ovens probably lived in Amsterdam in the 1640s, and may also have spent time in Flanders. In many of his portraits and especially in his history and allegorical paintings, he appears to have taken the elegant, courtly styles of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck as models. In 1651 Ovens returned home to Tönning, married the next year, and settled in nearby Friedrichstadt, a newly founded town heavily populated with Dutch émigrés. There he worked as court painter to Duke Friedrich, who had made his main residence, Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig, a flourishing center of art and science. Ovens traveled back to the Netherlands in 1657 and gained citizenship in Amsterdam, where he prospered as a portrait painter. Major civic commissions also came his way; in 1662 he finished Govert Flinck’s Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis for Amsterdam’s new town hall, a replacement for a rejected canvas by Rembrandt. A year later, the next duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, Christian Albrecht, called Ovens back to Friedrichstadt. The artist devoted his remaining years mainly to commissions for the ducal court and for churches in Schleswig-Holstein. Like his associate Gerrit Uylenburgh in Amsterdam, Ovens was also active as an art dealer.
The Metropolitan Museum’s portrait of an unknown woman in three-quarter length is signed and dated 1650, and thus belongs to the latter part of Ovens’s first Netherlandish period. Werner Sumowski’s observation (1983, p. 2220) that it appears to reflect knowledge of portraits by Flinck is borne out, for example, by two comparable female likenesses that Flinck painted in 1648 (Milwaukee Art Museum, M1963.89; private collection [RDK artwork no. 229170]). Also similar in character are works by Jacob Adriaensz Backer, likewise active in Amsterdam, such as his portrait of a woman in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (John G. Johnson Collection, cat. 484).
Oven’s sitter wears a black dress, a broad white ruff, and a lace cap—typical Dutch costume. She holds a pair of gloves in her right hand and rests her left hand on a book on the table. Also on the table, which is draped with a carpet, lies an open watch. The leather backrest of a chair is visible behind the woman. While the gloves connote wealth and status, the book, which was probably meant to be understood as a religious text, such as a hymnal, is suggestive of the sitter’s piety. The watch alludes to the passage of time and the transitory nature of the world; it thus underscores the function of portraiture to preserve a likeness for posterity. At the same time, the watch is a luxury object indicative of prosperity. Although no candidate is known, this work was probably originally paired with a pendant depiction of the woman’s husband.