Exhibitions/ Art Object

Portrait of an Old Woman

Style of Jacob Backer (Dutch, second quarter 17th century)
Oil on wood
28 x 24 in. (71.1 x 61 cm)
Credit Line:
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929
Accession Number:
Not on view
When this panel was in the Kann and Havemeyer collections, it was highly regarded as a Rembrandt. The picture held its place in Rembrandt catalogues through Valentiner's unreliable corpus of 1931, after which the work was dropped from scholarly discussions for fifty years. Sumowski (1983) published the painting as by Backer, an attribution made more tentatively by Van Dyke (1923). Both critics draw attention to a canvas formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin, which depicts the same woman at about the same age, in the same or very similar attire, sitting in a chair with a small book and glasses in her hands. Her shoulders are at the same angle to the picture plane as in The Met's portrait but her head is turned toward the viewer, and her expression is thoughtful and stern. Bauch knew the Berlin picture well and in his monograph on the artist (see Jakob Adriaensz Backer, ein Rembrandtschüler aus Friesland, Berlin, [1926]) included it as a work by Backer dating from about 1635–40. Wilhelm Martin and Otto Benesch favored the same attribution for the present portrait when they saw it in 1938 and 1940, respectively. A postwar predisposition to describe former "Rembrandts" as products of later periods was demonstrated by viewers of the painting such as Gelder, Gucllaugsson, and Stechow (verbal opinions recorded in departmental archives). No specialist today would doubt that the portrait was painted in or near Amsterdam between about 1633 and 1640.

The current notion of Backer's work in the 1630s is based mainly on his stylish history and genre pictures and his most admired portraits, such as the Portrait of a Boy in Gray, dated 1634 (Mauritshuis, The Hague). One gains a very different impression of Backer's manner from the tronies of old men he painted about 1633–35, such as Old Man with a Mirror (Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) and Old Man in a Beret and Fur Coat (Gemaldegalerie, Dresden), which are monogrammed "JB" and "JAB," respectively. The latter picture and a few contemporary paintings by Backer depict the same model as the one Rembrandt used for his great canvas of 1632, Man in Oriental Costume ("The Noble Slav") (20.155.2). Much as Rembrandt worked in a different manner in the Bellona of the following year (32.100.23) and demonstrated a variety of techniques in portraits dating from 1632 (see the Portrait of a Man in The Met's collection, 64.126), 1633 (see Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, 43.125), and 1634 (see the Portrait of an Eighty-three-Year-Old Woman [Aechje Claesdr Pesser], National Gallery, London), Backer appears to have modified his style according to subject matter and figure type, especially about 1633–34, when he was in immediate contact with Rembrandt and their mutual dealer, Hendrick Uylenburgh (ca. 1584/89–1661).

Scholars for whom all this is familiar information—Bauch, Martin, Benesch, Sumowski, Ekkart, among others—agree that this portrait is in the style (or a style) of Jacob Backer. When Bauch (1926) catalogued the lost Berlin portrait as by Backer, he recalled "the same woman by Rembrandt (Backer?) in the Havemeyer Collection." As noted above, Sumowski (1983) considers both pictures to be by Backer. In 1988, Ekkart concluded that the panel is probably a contemporary copy after a portrait by Backer (and that the Old Woman in an Armchair, also in The Met's collection [14.40.603]) is either by him or an early copy). Liedtke and Sonnenburg agreed with this opinion (1995), and it remains the most plausible hypothesis.

However, there are reasons for uncertainty. Presumably, Backer's original would have been more fluently painted, and yet the presumed copyist, in the present picture, chose to render flesh (if not fur and cloth) as if he were emulating Gerrit Dou or the other followers of Rembrandt who during the early 1630s turned topographical description of old faces into demonstrations of artistic skill. Often in those works (Dou's Old Woman with a Fur Hat in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, is a good example) the dryness and detail of wrinkled skin are compared with painterly suggestions of soft fur and other contrasting materials. The broadly stroked strips of fur in The Met's portrait are reminiscent of Backer and at the same time seem atypical of a copy. The delicacy with which thin skin and fine hair, veins, moisture in the eyes, transparency and highlights in the collar and cuffs, shadows to the right of the head, and other effects are described also speaks against the notion of a copy, as do the pentimenti at the shoulder to the left and at the top of the head.

Direct comparison with the Old Woman in an Armchair (14.40.603) is necessary, given the supposition that these problematic portraits of similar sitters could be by the same hand. Their execution appears consistent, allowing for the fact that the present painting is better preserved, is on wood not canvas, and represents a conscious effort to be even more specific in the description of an elderly woman's face and hands. The same surprisingly broad indication of shadows between the fingers is found, and a similar sureness, crispness, and impressive sense of volume are evident in the caps and collars. Both figures are adequately but not convincingly set in space against a nearly neutral wall. That two former "Rembrandts" of the same type may be found in the same collection is a coincidence but also a reflection of taste about 1900. This portrait was often mentioned in the same breath with Rembrandt's Herman Doomer (29.100.1), also from the Havemeyer collection, and occasionally cited as a worthy companion in which the same sort of meticulous workmanship (then thought to be typical of Rembrandt about 1640) could be admired.

Complicating the question of authorship in the case of this portrait is its relationship with a version formerly in the Yarborough and Ringling collections. To judge from photographs, the Yarborough painting, on a large panel, is inferior to The Met's picture and has suffered considerable wear. The face in the larger picture appears slightly younger and the expression comparatively vacuous. The hands are less well modeled, and the sitter's left shoulder and arm form weaker, less supportive angles than in The Met's version. One has the unexpected impression that with a bit more age, the old woman has gained strength, both in body and in character. The most likely conclusion would appear to be that the Yarborough picture records the format of the principael (first version) of the commissioned portrait, but that the Museum's painting gives a better idea of the missing work's quality. The grain of the wood in the smaller panel runs horizontally, suggesting that the artist chose a wide board so as to execute the painting on a single piece of wood of the equivalent height (cradling prevents inspection of the back). Thus, Valentiner's conclusion (1931) that The Met's version was originally as large as the Yarborough panel is certainly mistaken. Rather, it must be a reduced replica or perhaps a slightly different version (aging the sitter somewhat?) of an original knee-length portrait. In this connection, it is intriguing that Michel (1894), when comparing the The Met and Yarborough portraits, recalled that another copy, probably by Backer, was sold at auction in London in March 1889.

No firm conclusion can be drawn about the actual execution of this painting, given incomplete evidence and the present state of Backer scholarship. It would be hasty to catalogue the picture either as attributed to Backer or as a copy after a work by him. The designation Style of Backer in this case allows for either alternative, and for the possibility that the New York and Yarborough paintings and the lost Berlin portrait of the same sitter came from a different North Holland artist's studio.

[2017; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Inscription: Dated and inscribed: (lower right) Rembrandt / f. 1640; (upper left) ÆT·SVÆ·87·
Gerrit Muller, Amsterdam (until 1827; his sale, at his residence, Heerengracht, Amsterdam, April 2, 1827, no. 57, as by Rembrandt, for fl. 2,005 to ?Lelie); comte de Robiano, Brussels (until 1837; his sale, Hôtel du Defunt, Brussels, May 1, 1837, no. 543, for Fr 6,000 to Nieuwenhuys); D. Nieuwenhuys, Brussels (from 1837; sold to Demidoff); Anatole Demidoff, principe di San Donato, Palais de San Donato, Florence, and Paris (until 1868; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 18, 1868, no. 11, for Fr 55,000 to Narischkine); B. Narischkine, Paris (1868–83; his sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, April 5, 1883, no. 29, for Fr 51,000 to Beurnonville); Étienne Martin, baron de Beurnonville, Paris (1883–85; his sale, 3, rue Bayard, Paris, June 3, 1884, no. 291, for Fr 41,000, bought in; his anonymous sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, January 30–31, 1885, no. 68, for Fr 25,000 to Kann); Rodolphe Kann, Paris (from 1885); [Durand-Ruel, New York, 1890–91; sold for $50,000 to Havemeyer]; Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, New York (1891–his d. 1907); Mrs. H. O. (Louisine W.) Havemeyer, New York (1907–d. 1929)
New York. Union League Club. "Illuminated Books and Manuscripts, Old Masters and Modern Paintings," December 11–13, 1890, no. 14 (lent by Jos. Durand-Ruel).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Loan Collection of Paintings," May–November 1891, no. 12 [see Wold 1993].

New York. American Fine Arts Society. "Loan Exhibition," February 13–March 26, 1893, no. 17 (lent by Mr. H. O. Havemeyer).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Hudson-Fulton Celebration," September–November 1909, no. 89.

New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "Loan Exhibition of Masterpieces by Old and Modern Painters," April 6–24, 1915, no. 8.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The H. O. Havemeyer Collection," March 11–November 2, 1930, no. 96 [2nd ed., 1958, no. 29, as Copy after Rembrandt, 18th or 19th century].

Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. January 21–April 21, 1948, no catalogue?

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection," March 27–June 20, 1993, no. A11.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 10, 1995–January 7, 1996, no. 23.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.

C. Vosmaer. Rembrandt, sa vie et ses ouevres. 2nd ed. The Hague, 1877, pp. 523–24, attributes it to Rembrandt.

Paul Lefort. "La collection de M. B. Narischkine." Gazette des beaux-arts, 2nd ser., 27 (March 1883), p. 221, ill. opp. p. 218 (etching by Ramus), reads the date as either 1640 or 1646.

Paul Eudel. L'Hôtel Drouot et la curiosité en 1883–1884. Paris, 1885, pp. 404, 406.

Eugène Dutuit. Tableaux et dessins de Rembrandt. Paris, 1885, p. 20.

Alfred von Wurzbach. Rembrandt-galerie. Stuttgart, 1886, text vol., no. 307.

Paul Eudel. L'Hôtel Drouot et la curiosité en 1884–1885. Paris, 1886, pp. 198–99.

"To Utilize the Loan Exhibit." New York Times (February 12, 1893), p. 4, calls it the companion to Rembrandt's "Gilder" ("Herman Doomer"; MMA, 29.100.1).

Émile Michel. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, and His Time. English ed. New York, 1894, vol. 1, p. 268 n. 1, calls it "an old copy, smaller and less frank in manner" after a portrait in the collection of Lord Yarborough (current whereabouts unknown), and mentions "another copy, probably by J. Backer, . . . sold by auction in London in March, 1889".

W. Bode. "Alte Kunstwerke in den Sammlungen der Vereinigten Staaten." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s., 6, no. 1 (1895), p. 71, ill. p. 74, calls the Yarborough portrait a copy after the MMA work.

Malcolm Bell. Rembrandt van Rijn and His Work. London, 1899, p. 184.

Wilhelm [von] Bode with the assistance of C. Hofstede de Groot. The Complete Work of Rembrandt. Vol. 4, Paris, 1900, pp. 31, 148, no. 278, pl. 278.

Adolf Rosenberg. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1904, ill. p. 114.

Adolf Rosenberg. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. 2nd ed. Stuttgart, 1906, p. 398, ill. p. 186.

Adolf Rosenberg. Rembrandt, des Meisters Gemälde. Ed. W. R. Valentiner. 3rd ed. Stuttgart, 1909, p. 557, ill. p. 256.

Wilhelm R. Valentiner. The Hudson-Fulton Celebration: Catalogue of an Exhibition Held in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1909, vol. 1, p. 90, no. 89, ill. opp. p. 90.

Byron P. Stephenson. "Great Dutch Artists." Evening Post (September 20, 1909) [reprinted in Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4 (October 1909), p. 167].

Joseph Breck. "L'art hollandais à l'exposition Hudson-Fulton à New York." L'art flamand & hollandais 13, no. 2 (1910), p. 54 [published in Dutch in Onze Kunst 17 (January 1910), pp. 10–11].

Alfred von Wurzbach. Niederländisches Künstler-Lexikon. Vol. 2, Vienna, 1910, p. 406, calls the attribution uncertain.

C[ornelis]. Hofstede de Groot. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Edward G. Hawke. Vol. 6, London, 1916, p. 399, no. 870.

John C. van Dyke. Rembrandt and His School. New York, 1923, pp. 45, 47, pl. VI-20, states that the sitter is the same as the one in a portrait in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, Berlin (lost in 1945), and tentatively attributes both works to Backer.

D. S. Meldrum. Rembrandt's Paintings. London, 1923, p. 109 n. 1, p. 190, pl. CXXXI.

William Howe Downes. "The Great Rembrandt Question." American Magazine of Art 14 (December 1923), ill. opp. p. 665.

Kurt Bauch. Jakob Adriaensz Backer: Ein Rembrandtschüler aus Friesland. Berlin, 1926, p. 96, under no. 195, notes that the sitter is the same as in the Berlin picture.

"The H. O. Havemeyer Collection." Parnassus 2 (March 1930), pp. 3–4, ill.

Frank Jewett Mather Jr. "The Havemeyer Pictures." The Arts 16 (March 1930), p. 455, attributes it to Carel van der Pluym, relating it to his "Old Woman with a Book" (Frick Collection, New York).

H. O. Havemeyer Collection: Catalogue of Paintings, Prints, Sculpture and Objects of Art. n.p., 1931, pp. 26–27, ill.

Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Rembrandt Paintings in America. New York, 1931, unpaginated, no. 70, pl. 70, calls the Yarborough picture a workshop copy after the original MMA painting, noting that since the sitter in the Yarborough picture is shown three-quarter length, the MMA painting must have been cut down at the bottom and possibly on the right side.

Louisine W. Havemeyer. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. New York, 1961, p. 19.

Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, pp. 172, 208–10 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].

Werner Sumowski. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler. Vol. 1, J. A. Backer–A. van Dijck. Landau/Pfalz, 1983–[94?], p. 201, no. 61, ill. p. 264, attributes it to Backer and dates it about 1636–38.

Frances Weitzenhoffer. The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America. New York, 1986, pp. 64, 66, 68, 254, pl. 20, ill. pp. 74, 224, reproduces photographs showing the painting hanging on the wall of the "Rembrandt room" in the Havemeyer home and at the Knoedler exhibition of 1915.

Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 46.

Louisine W. Havemeyer. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. Ed. Susan Alyson Stein. 3rd ed. [1st ed. 1930, repr. 1961]. New York, 1993, pp. 19, 310 n. 37.

Susan Alyson Stein in Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, pp. 211, 214, 252.

Walter A. Liedtke in Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 63.

Rebecca A. Rabinow in Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, pp. 90–91, 95, fig. 10 (installation photograph from Exh. New York 1915).

Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen. Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, fig. 30 (photograph of library of the Havemeyer home).

Gretchen Wold in Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 292, no. A11, ill.

Walter Liedtke in Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Aspects of Connoisseurship. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 2, "Paintings, Drawings, and Prints: Art-Historical Perspectives."New York, [1995], pp. 93–95, no. 23, ill. (color), calls the MMA and Yarborough pictures copies after a lost original by Backer.

Hubert von Sonnenburg. Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Aspects of Connoisseurship. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 1, "Paintings: Problems and Issues."New York, 1995, pp. 110, 114, no. 23, ill. p. 111 (color), fig. 144 (color detail), calls it a partial copy after the Yarborough picture; dates it to the seventeenth century.

Paul Broekhoff and Michiel Franken. "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Aspects of Connoisseurship." Simiolus 25, no. 1 (1997), p. 76.

Esmée Quodbach. "'Rembrandt's "Gilder" is here': How America Got its First Rembrandt and France Lost Many of its Old Masters." Simiolus 31, no. 1/2 (2004), p. 99, fig. 7 (photograph of Havemeyer library).

Catherine B. Scallen. Rembrandt, Reputation, and the Practice of Connoisseurship. Amsterdam, 2004, pp. 187, 358 n. 14.

Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 15, 18, 28, fig. 15 (Havemeyer library photograph).

Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 6, 9–13, no. 2, colorpl. 2, dates it between about 1633 and 1640.

Walter Liedtke. "Rembrandt Revelations at the Metropolitan Museum." Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, Beiheft: Wissenschaft auf der Suche 51 (2009), p. 43 n. 1.

Etched by F. Bracquemont for the Demidoff sale catalogue of 1868, and by Edm. Ramus for the Narischkine sale catalogue of 1883.
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