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Old Woman at a Window with a Candle

Gerrit Dou (Leiden 1613 – 1675 Leiden)
oil on panel
26.5 x 20.5 cm
signed information

signed and dated bottom center in brown paint: “GDou / Anno 1671”

inventory number

Surh, Dominique. “Old Woman at a Window with a Candle” (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 July 13, 2024).

In the early nineteenth-century, John Smith observed that Gerrit Dou’s Old Woman at a Window with a Candle, despite its powerful effect, did not exhibit the usual meticulous finish associated with the artist. Indeed, Dou executed this scene with loosely brushed strokes in the highlighted areas and thinly applied paints in the shadows. The freshness of this technique allowed him to capture a spontaneous moment of visual and emotional suspense. The old woman, seemingly stirred by a noise from outside, leans out of the arched, stone window opening into the darkness. Illuminated by the flickering flame of the candle, she looks to the side, her lips slightly parted as though she were calling out into the night.

As in some of Dou’s other niche scenes (three of which are in the present collection: Cat Crouching on the Ledge of an Artist’s Atelier, (GD-108); Herring Seller and Boy, (GD-106); and Young Woman in a Niche with a Parrot and Cage, (GD-105), the artist used the arched window frame both as a repoussoir device and as a means to concentrate our focus on the pictorial narrative. Here, Dou positioned the woman so that her candlestick and its flame provide the painting’s visual focus, similar to his Young Woman with a Lighted Candle at a Window from ca. 1658–65 (). They also emphatically break the picture plane as the woman reaches across the threshold of the window to extend the path of her light. As the candlelight flutters in the open air, it casts radiating shadows along the inside of the niche while illuminating Dou’s name and the painting’s date of 1671 inscribed on the sheet of paper attached to the building’s stone exterior. Simultaneously, the flame casts a reddish glow on the old woman’s ruddy face, her simple red and white chemise and bodice, the empty birdcage in the upper right, and the limp body of a dead hen lying on the windowsill.

Dou often included subsidiary figures in the backgrounds of his paintings, either as narrative commentaries or enhancements to his primary subject. Here, sketchily blocked out in the dark interior are a man and a woman who sit before a warming fire. A similar juxtaposition of foreground and background figures is seen in Dou’s earlier nocturnal scene The Wine Cellar from ca. 1660 (). Here, as Ronni Baer has suggested, the two figures in the foreground represent “young love” while the solitary figure in the background references winter and old age. The present work probably represents an inversion of this idea, with the primary subject portraying a solitary woman as the embodiment of old age in counterpoint to the warmth of human companionship shared by the couple in the background. The empty wooden pail and the unoccupied birdcage symbolize life that has expired, as does the dead hen, which signifies that the old woman herself may be nearing her end.

Although the position of the candlestick has particular iconographic and compositional significance, Dou seems to have arrived at the final arrangement well into the paint process. Initially, he intended the old woman to hold an oil lamp on the window ledge, as can be seen in a photograph taken during restoration ().  A similar oil lamp, with a flame emitting from its side, is found in Dou’s Old Woman with Two Young Children, dated ca. 1655–65, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (). Dou subsequently replaced the oil lamp with the basket she now holds. Intriguingly, the way the woman’s face is lit from the front reflects the original position of the oil lamp, while the broader network of highlights and shadows on the niche derive from the candlelight. The character of these varied light sources indicate that Dou made this compositional modification at a relatively late stage in the painting’s execution.

Another change in the composition was in the position of the birdcage. While its final location is comparable to that found in numerous other paintings by the artist, infrared photographs indicate that Dou originally positioned it hanging lower down on the frame, to the right of the basket. This original location would have placed it along the old woman’s direct line of sight, thus making it the focus of her gaze, possibly as a reference to departed innocence or youth. This change seems to have coincided with the introduction of the dead hen lying on the ledge, indicating a deepening of the reference to senescence and the culmination of life. Other changes in the composition are evident at the lower right corner. Dou must have originally intended to depict a small flowerpot just below the ledge, as pentimenti of its shape can be seen just below the dead chicken in the infrared image. A similar flowerpot is found in a comparable scene of an old woman at a niche from ca. 1660, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna.

The earliest provenance of Old Woman at a Window with a Candle is from the mid-eighteenth century, when the work formed part of the notable Parisian collections of Nicolas de Montribloud and Claude Tolozan. By 1802, when the painting was with the London art dealer Michael Bryan, it was announced as having been part of the Citoyen Robit Collection, an association that seems to have been made in error. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the painting was actively traded at auction in London at least ten times and was owned by at least four private collectors between 1809 and 1828, a period that attests to the English market’s keen interest in this powerfully atmospheric work.

- Dominique Surh, 2017
For further discussion about this artwork, see Gerrit Dou and His Collectors in the Golden Age.
  • Christophe-Nicolas de Montribloud (d. 1786) (his sale, Paillet and Julliot, Paris, 9 February 1784, no. 36 [to Claude Tolozan for 2000 livres]).
  • Claude Tolozan (1728–96), Paris (his sale, Paillet, 2 February 1801, no. 28 [to Auguste-Louis-César-Hipolyte-Théodore L’Espinasse de Langeac for 2,320 francs]).
  • Auguste-Louis-César-Hipolyte-Théodore L’Espinasse de Langeac (d. 1814), Count of Arlet.
  • [Michael Bryan, London, by November 1801 (sale, Peter Coxe, Burrell & Foster, London, 9 May 1804, no. 71 [for £52.10]).
  • Walsh Porter (d. 1809) (his sale, Christie’s, London, 14 April 1810, no. 27 [for £210]).
  • [William Buchanan, London (private sale, De Berenger, London, 4 June 1810, no. 34probably withdrawn); (sale, Christie’s, London, 21 June 1811, no. 43 [to William Smith for £127.10]).]
  • William Smith (sale, Christie’s, London, 10 June 1815, no. 87, bought in at £101.17).
  • Admiral William Waldegrave (1753–1825), 1st Baron Radstock, London (his sale, Phillips, London, 19 April 1823, no. 53, bought in at £194.5); (his sale, Christie’s, London, 13 May 1826, no. 26 [to William Buchanan for £157.10]).
  • [William Buchanan, London (private sale, Christie’s, London, 21 April 1828, no. 16, unsold); (private sale, May 1828, no. 25, unsold); (sale, Christie’s, London, 28 June 1828, no. 28, bought in at 145 guineas).]
  • Arthur Sanderson (1846–1915), Edinburgh.
  • Sir George Lee, London, 1901.
  • Sir George Hunter Donaldson (1845–1925), London, 1902 [Sedelmeyer Gallery].
  • [Sedelmeyer Gallery, London, 1911.]
  • [Trafalgar Galleries, London, 1977–80].
  • Private collection (private sale, Christie’s, New York, 30 April 2007, no. 1964 [to Otto Naumann Ltd.]).
  • [Otto Naumann Ltd., New York, 2007.]
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2007.
  • London, Bryan’s Gallery, “The Robit Collection,” 1801, no. 65; The Old Academy Room, Pall Mall, London, 1802.
  • London, Royal Academy, “Old Master Paintings,” London, 1977, 22, no. 10 [lent by Trafalgar Galleries, London].
  • London, David Carritt, Ltd., “Ten paintings by Gerard Dou, 1613-1675,” November 13 – December 12, 1980, no. 9 [lent by Trafalgar Galleries, London].
  • Amsterdam, Waterman Gallery, “The Impact of a Genius: Rembrandt, His Pupils and Followers in the Seventeenth Century. Paintings from Museums and Private Collections,” April–May 1983; Groningen, Groningen Museum, 17 May–20 June 1983, no. 18 [lent by a private collection].
  • Oxford, Ashmolean Museum of Art, December 2009–January 2011, on loan with the permanent collection [lent by the present owner].
  • Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Dutch Treat,” 11 October 2011–6 January 2012 [lent by the present owner].
  • Leiden, Museum de Lakenhal, “Gerrit Dou. The Leiden Collection from New York,” 9 March–31 August 2014 [lent by the present owner].
  • Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art,“Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries,” 26 October 2014–4 January 2015, no. 11 [lent by the present owner].
  • Oxford, Ashmolean Museum of Art, on loan with the permanent collection, August 2015–August 2016 [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. 2 [lent by the present owner].
  • London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, “Reframed: The Woman in the Window,” 4 May­–4 September 2022 [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. London, 1824, 1: 200, no. 3; 2: 68, no. 65.
  • Smith, John.  A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. London, 1829, 1: 28, no. 83.
  • Martin, Wilhelm.  Het Leven en de Werken van Gerrit Dou. Leiden, 1901, 237, no. 332.
  • Martin, Wilhelm. Gerard Dou. Translated by Clara Bell, 83. London, 1902.
  • Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten höllandischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts.  Esslingen, 1907, 1: no. 249, possibly identical with no. 261.
  • 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, 1: 428, no. 249, possibly identical with no. 261. London, 1907.
  • Martin, Wilhelm.  Gerard Dou, sa vie et son oeuvre. Etude sur la peinture hollandaise et les marchaunds au dix-septième siècle. Paris, 1911, 201, no. 224.
  • Sedelmeyer Gallery. Illustrated catalogue of the eleventh series of 100 paintings by old masters of the Dutch, Flemish, Italian, French, and English schools. Sales cat. Sedelmeyer Gallery.  Paris, 1911, no. 5.
  • Royal Academy. Old Master Paintings. Exh. cat. London, Royal Academy. London, 1977, 22, no. 10.
  • David Carritt Limited. Ten Paintings by Gerard Dou. Exh. cat. David Carritt Limited, London. London, 1980,  28–29, no. 9.
  • Jansen, Guido and Ernst Van de Watering. In The Impact of a Genius: Rembrandt, his Pupils and Followers in the Seventeenth Century. Edited by Albert Blankert et al., 126–27, no. 18. Exh. cat. Amsterdam, Waterman Gallery; Groningen, Groninger Museum. Amsterdam, 1983.
  • Sumowski, Werner. Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler. Vol. 6, Einleitung und Schlusswort, Corrigenda und Addenda, Nachträge 2 ­- Ortsregister, Ikonographisches Register – Bibliographie, Künstlerverzeichnis I – VI.  Landau, 1994, 6: 3702, no. 2252.
  • Surh, Dominique, Ilona van Tuinen, and John Twilley. “Insights from Technical Analysis on a Group of Paintings by Gerrit Dou in the Leiden Collection,” JHNA 6, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 2, 3, 12, 21–22, figs. 12a, 12b, 29, 62a, 62b, 63a, 63b. DOI:10.5092/jhna.2014.6.1.3.
  • Weller, Dennis P. Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Their Contemporaries. Exh. cat. Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art; Birmingham, Birmingham Museum of Art. Raleigh, 2014, 81–3, no. 11.
  • Moqtaderi, Heather and Lara Yeager-Crasselt, eds. An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Exh. cat. Philadelphia, Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 2021, 68, no. 2.
  • Sliwka, Jennifer. Reframed: The Woman in the Window. Exh. cat. London, Dulwich Picture Gallery. London, 2022.

The painting was executed on a panel made from a single plank of vertically oriented oak. It has an earliest fell date of 1645. The panel is beveled on the top, bottom and right edges as seen from the reverse. The lack of bevel on the left side indicates that it was probably trimmed. There are three pronounced horizontal grooves in the panel’s surface, which are visible in raking light and in the X-radiograph. The longest of these runs from the woman’s chin to the architecture below the birdcage. It is unclear if these are flaws in the wood or if they occurred when the plank was milled. Examination in raking light also reveals downward sloping rays emanating from the upper right corner.

The panel was prepared with a thin, light-colored ground, which does not mask the texture of the wood grain. The paint was built up in successive thin layers of light over dark. X-radiographs, infrared photographs, and examination in raking light reveal numerous artist’s changes. The woman was originally depicted holding the base of a tall oil lamp in her proper left hand with her arm extended straight rather than bent at the elbow holding a pail, as seen in the final composition. In her right hand, she originally held a flat, round object. In addition, the birdcage originally hung lower down, next to the pail; a flower pot appeared just below the ledge; and the dead poultry was positioned below the ledge as well.

The painting is in good condition and the panel is in plane. There is some abrasion, particularly in the areas of the artist’s changes and in parts of the dark background. It was treated in 2007.


  1. After Gerrit Dou, An Old Woman at a Niche by Candlelight, 1688, oil on canvas, 33 x 25 cm, Nancy, Musée des Beaux-Arts.
  2. After Gerrit Dou, An Old Woman at a Niche by Candlelight, oil on canvas, 32 x 26 cm, previous sale, Auktionsverk, Stockholm, 22–23 May 2001, no. 1394.
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