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Hermit Praying in the Wilderness

Willem van Mieris (Leiden 1662 – 1747 Leiden)
oil on panel
21 x 17.4 cm
signed information

signed and indistinctly dated in dark paint, upper right corner: “W. Van. Mieris, Fe Ano 1707”

inventory number

Aono, Junko. “Hermit Praying in the Wilderness” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 4th ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Elizabeth Nogrady with Caroline Van Cauwenberge. New York, 2023–. (accessed May 28, 2024).

An old hermit, tucked away in a rocky cave opening to a mountainous landscape, clasps his hands in prayer as he bends over a stone table, upon which rest two books, a skull and a crucifix. He gazes downward upon the open pages of one of the books, his eyes almost closed as he concentrates inwardly on the meaning of the text. Light falling from the upper left separates the bearded hermit from the darkness of the grotto, and creates tiny, shimmering highlights on the sculpted figure of Christ on the wooden crucifix.

The religious character of the image might lead to the assumption that the painting was destined for a Catholic patron, but the subject of a religious recluse was not uncommon in the Protestant culture of the Netherlands in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One hermit that appears in a number of Dutch paintings is Saint Jerome, the leading translator of the Bible. Although Willem van Mieris did not include Saint Jerome’s attributes of a lion and a pen, he may well have had this hermit in mind when conceiving this work. A sales catalogue from 1747—the earliest known record of this picture—identifies the painting as “St. Jerome in a cell.” This catalogue also notes that the painting had a pendant, Mary Magdalene, by the same master, a painting that can be identified as The Repentant Mary Magdalene of 1709 (). In this painting, Mary Magdalene sits with her attributes in a similarly craggy landscape. She also turns her head and upper body to look at a crucifix on her right in such a manner that visually connects her to the hermit in the present picture.

As one of the most esteemed successors to the seventeenth-century painter Gerrit Dou (1613–75), Van Mieris often adapted subjects and motifs from Dou’s pictures. The present painting is no exception. At least eleven pictures by Dou feature hermits. The Hermit of 1670 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), for instance, depicts the same type of old man before a Bible, a crucifix, a skull, a basket, and an hourglass on a stone table. In his picture, Van Mieris clearly carried on Dou’s pictorial tradition. He also strove to emulate Dou’s refined painterly technique of differentiating surfaces in his figures and still-life objects. The delicately executed and minute details of the still life on the rock and the old man’s head and hands—especially the wrinkled forehead with the bulging veins, the long gray beard, and the rugged hands with black fingernails—demonstrate Van Mieris’s utmost effort to display his virtuosity as a “fine painter.”

The great reputation of Dou’s hermit paintings among early eighteenth-century collectors must have been one of the factors that determined Van Mieris’s choice of the subject. For instance, the artist’s chief patron in Leiden, the illustrious collector Pieter de la Court van der Voort, bought one of Dou’s hermits from another elite Leiden collector for the enormous amount of 3,000 guilders in 1710. It thus comes as no surprise that Van Mieris chose this subject to parade his virtuosic technique as he sought to appeal to the art lovers of his day.

- Junko Aono, 2017
  • Jacques de Roore (his sale, The Hague, 4 September 1747, no. 104 [£153, together with no. 105, Mary Magdalene, as its pendant, to Van Spangen]).
  • John van Spangen (his sale, London, 12 February 1748, no. 73 [for £43.1]).
  • Philippus van der Land (his sale, Amsterdam, 22 May 1776, no. 55 [for 180 florins, together with no. 54, Mary Magdalene, as its pendant]).
  • Charles Alexander de Calonne (his sale, Skinner and Dyke, London, 23 March 1795, no. 37 [for £48.6]).
  • Edward Atkinson, Fowey (his sale, London, 9 March 1912, no. 163).
  • Possibly Major Forbes Fraser (his sale, London, 21 November 1924, no. 120).
  • (Possibly sale, Christie’s, London, 14 July 1961, no. 60).
  • Private collection, South America [Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York, 1992; to Bert van Deun, 1993].
  • Bert van Deun, Belgium, 1993 [Otto Naumann, Ltd., New York, 2004].
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2004.
  • Williamstown, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, “An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting,” 5 March–17 September 2017 [lent by the present owner].
  • Philadelphia, Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, “An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting,” 17 April–25 July 2021, no. 6 [lent by the present owner].
  • Buchanan, William. Memoirs of Painting, with a Chronological History of the Importation of Pictures by the Great Masters into England since the French Revolution. 2 vols. London, 1824, 1: 236, no. 37.
  • Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829–42, 1: 96, no. 29.
  • Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith. Edited and translated by Edward G. Hawke, 10: 116, no. 41. 8 vols. London, 1907–28. Originally published as Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten höllandischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907–28.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Embracing an Inner World in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting.” In An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Edited by Heather Moqtaderi and Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 32n42. Exh. cat. Philadelphia, Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 2021.
  • Jorink, Eric. “An Eye for Detail: Art, Science, and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Leiden.” In An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Edited by Heather Moqtaderi and Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 52–53, no. 6. Exh. cat. Philadelphia, Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 2021.

The support, a single plank of vertically grained, rectangular oak, has bevels on all four sides. The unthinned and uncradled panel has wide, shallow, horizontal handtool marks and three deep horizontal gouges but no machine tool marks. There is a stencil and remnants of four paper labels but no wax seals, import stamps or panel maker’s marks along the reverse.

A light-colored ground has been thinly and evenly applied, followed by paint applied smoothly in successive thin layers of transparent glazing with slightly raised low brushmarking along the shadows of the hermit’s blue robe, the edges of the book pages, and the dark foliage along the upper left quadrant.

No underdrawing or compositional changes are readily apparent in infrared images captured at 780–1000 nanometers.

The painting is signed and indistinctly dated in dark paint along the upper right corner.

The painting underwent minor conservation treatment in 2004 and 2012 and remains in a good state of preservation.

Versions and Copies

  1. Repentant Mary Magdalene, signed and dated, upper right: W. VAN MIERIS 1709, oil on panel, 20.3 x 15.7 cm, present location unknown.
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