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Woman Plucking a Duck

School of Rembrandt van Rijn

ca. 1645
oil on panel
99.8 x 73 cm
signed information

inscribed (incorrectly) in light-colored paint, lower left corner: “816 Renbrant”  (written with “n” and no “d”); and lower right corner: “112.”

inventory number

Van Tuinen, Ilona. “Woman Plucking a Duck” (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 June 13, 2024).

In a composition dominated by a warm palette of deep red, ochre, and brown hues, an old woman holds a dead duck above a wicker basket as she carefully plucks the last few feathers off its bare belly. Peering through spectacles perched on her nose, the woman’s squinting eyes, raised eyebrows and slightly parted lips betray her total concentration as she attempts to remove every feather from the duck’s body. To seventeenth-century viewers, the woman’s care in properly preparing a meal would have have been an exemplar of female domestic virtue.

Lying on the table in front of the woman is an exotic, white bird of paradise, identifiable by its elegant tail with distinctive fine plumage, framed by two black filamentary feathers. The red velvet beret next to its head foreshadows the bird’s ornamental destination: the woman will soon attach the feathers to the hat with a needle and thread—another reference to domesticity—to create an elegantly adorned beret similar to one depicted by Dirck de Bray in 1672 (). Against the wall at the right is a dead snipe that gracefully hangs over the edge of a round box covered by a white satin cloth. Suspended from an empty sconce on the wall above the snipe, to be tenderized before being plucked and consumed, are a dead partridge and a chicken. As much as these four dead fowls present a glorious display of lush materials and various colorful bird feathers, they are also a subtle reference to the woman’s old age and the foreshadowing of her imminent end.

Although the painting is signed “Renbrant” [sic] in the lower left corner, this signature is spurious and the artist of the work, who was probably associated with Rembrandt’s workshop, has not been identified. This unknown master used strong lighting to accentuate the chicken, the partridge and the snipe, and painted these birds with much detail, particularly in the feathers, where he added shimmering highlights in raised impasto. In contrast, he left the woman and the bird of paradise in shadow, and executed their forms with muted colors and broad brushstrokes. The subdued cream-colored hues used in rendering the smooth, silky feathers of the bird of paradise are comparable to the broad handling seen in the woman’s flowing scarf.

Another more tightly cropped version of this composition is in the Michaelis Collection in Cape Town, where it is also attributed to the School of Rembrandt (). The relationship between these two works is unclear and probably cannot be determined with certainty until they are compared side by side. The few pentimenti in the Leiden Collection painting occur either in areas of the composition that fall outside the Cape Town version, or are too minor to indicate which of the two paintings is the primary version. Werner Sumowski considered the Cape Town painting to be of better quality than the present work. Indeed, the execution of that work is more carefully rendered in many areas, specifically in the hair on the woman’s proper left temple, the ornamental element on the woman’s upper sleeve, and the feathers of the tail of the bird of paradise, all of which suggests that the Cape Town work is the primary version of this composition.

In the early twentieth century, both paintings were considered to be by Rembrandt. By the 1940s scholars recognized that although the general composition, stark lighting, and figure type are reminiscent of Rembrandt, the execution of neither work was by the master. Attributions to a specific artist in Rembrandt’s studio, including Abraham van Dyck (1635–72), Arent de Gelder (1645–1727), Christopher Paudiss (1630–66), and Karel van der Pluym (1625–72), however, have proven to be unconvincing.

Sumowski noted that the facial features and spectacles of the woman in this composition are strikingly similar to those of the old servant in Rembrandt’s 1643 Toilet of Bathsheba (). On this basis, he proposed a dating of the present work to ca. 1645–50. This dating corresponds with the results of dendrochronological analysis, which reveal that the youngest year ring can be dated to 1629. The panel, thus, could have been ready for use by around 1646. Another connection to Rembrandt’s work from this period is the arrangement of brightly lit dead birds in the foreground and a shaded figure in the background, which is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s 1639 Self-Portrait with Dead Bittern and his Still Life with Peacocks of ca. 1639 (). Although we do not know who executed the present painting, it clearly reflects the impact of Rembrandt’s manner in the mid-1640s.

- Ilona van Tuinen, 2017
  • Wilhelm II (1859–1941), the Last German Emperor and King of Prussia, before 1920 [Hugo Moser, Aerdenhout, the Netherlands, 1926–38; Zuppinger, Herliberg, Switzerland, 1953–62; Galerie Rudolf Beckers, Düsseldorf, Germany, 1964].
  • (Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 12 July 1972, no. 26, as by Aert de Gelder [to Arlington, for £3,200]; sale, Sotheby’s, London, 6 April 1977, no. 94, as by Aert de Gelder, [for £3,000]).
  • Private collection, Switzerland, by 1994 [Jack Kilgore & Co., New York, 2006 (as by Rembrandt School)].
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2006.
  • Düsseldorf, Galerie Rudolf Beckers, “Special Exhibition of Fine Dutch, Flemish, German, and Italian Old Master Paintings,” 1964 (as by Aert de Gelder).
  • Sumowski, Werner. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler in vier Bänden. 6 vols. Landau and Pfalz, 1983–94, 4:2964, no. 1984 (as by School of Rembrandt).
  • Von Moltke, Joachim Wolfgang. Arent de Gelder, Dordrecht, 1645–1727. Doornspijk, 1994, 185, no. R 68, fig. 97 (as by School of Rembrandt).
  • Fransen, Hans. Michaelis Collection: The Old Town House, Cape Town—Catalogue of the Collection of Paintings and Drawings. Zwolle, 1996, 132 (as by School of Rembrandt).

The support is a rectangular-shaped composite panel made up of three vertically grained Eastern Baltic oak planks of similar widths, derived from a tree felled between 1636 and 1652. The composite panel is unthinned and uncradled and has bevels along all but the right vertical edge, which may have been trimmed. A metal staple along the thickness of the lower panel edge bridges the join between the center and right plank, and indicates previous panel work. There are mechanical toolmarks along the outer two planks and five import stamps, a stencil, a black inscription and chalk, but no wax collection seals or panel maker’s marks. 

A light-colored ground has been thinly and evenly applied and spills over onto the three edges with bevels. The image was constructed with thin, smooth glazes through the background, allowing the ground to show through, with low impasto through the figure’s hands and face, and with crisp delicate strokes of raised impasto defining the fine details of the four dead fowl, the white fabric, and the leaf draped over the box.

No underdrawing is readily apparent in infrared images captured at 780–1000 nanometers. Compositional changes evident in the images and as pentimenti indicate the edge of the white fabric along the lower right corner was shortened and rounded off during the paint stage. Changes were also made to the figure’s hat and shawl and to the left side of the figure’s profile from her nose to beneath her chin. In addition, a pentimento along the back of the figure’s proper right hand and infrared images indicate that originally only the thumb, pointer and middle finger were depicted; the ring finger and pinky were added later in the paint stage.

The painting is unsigned and undated.

The painting has not undergone conservation treatment since its acquisition and remains in a good state of preservation.

Versions and Copies

  1. Attributed to School of Rembrandt, A Woman Plucking a Fowl, probably mid-1640s, oil on panel, 72.9 x 62.1 cm, The Michaelis Collection, Capetown.
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