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Old Woman with a Fur Cap Holding a Jug and Singing

Jan Steen (Leiden 1626 – 1679 Leiden)
ca. 1660
oil on oval panel
22 x 17.3 cm
inventory number

Kloek, Wouter. “Old Woman with a Fur Cap Holding a Jug and Singing” (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).

Situated against a dark background the seated old woman in Jan Steen’s painting joyously sings as she holds a sheet of music in her left hand, the promise of liquid pleasures in her earthenware jug adding to her festive mood. She wears a white cap surmounted by a fur-trimmed head covering, and a beautifully executed, pleated white lace collar. Otherwise, Steen has rendered the woman’s simple clothing in broad areas of red, brown and blue.

In executing this work, Steen paid exceptional care to the rendering of the woman’s fur head-covering, an article of clothing that also appears in paintings by Gerrit Dou (1613–75), for example in Dou’s Rembrandtesque Scholar Reading in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. The attention Steen paid to articulating this head covering and collar also owes much to Dou, as in that master’s depictions of Rembrandt’s mother from the early 1630s, and his Old Woman Reading a Book, ca. 1660, which is also in St. Petersburg (). Even the upright oval shape of the panel may owe its inspiration to Dou. Steen rarely painted on panels with this shape, but Dou often did. These similarities in costume, technique and panel shape, however, make all the more evident the differences in the behavior of Steen’s slightly tipsy and earthy old crone and the more pious women seen in Dou’s paintings. It is almost as though Steen intended to poke fun at that artist’s virtuous old women.

Steen’s oeuvre contains few points of reference for dating this work. Nevertheless, an approximate date for the Leiden Collection painting of around 1660 seems likely because of the careful rendering of the old woman’s figure and her clothes, consistent with Steen’s manner of painting at that time. One somewhat comparable work is Drinker at Smith College, c. 1660, which is also executed in a detailed manner, and where the drinker is similarly posed (). The way the old woman squints while reading the words of her song recalls figures in other of Steen’s small undated paintings, such as Man Sharpening a Quill Pen. Thematically, it seems likely that this delightful painting once belonged to a series of the five senses, where it would have portrayed either the sense of sight or the sense of sound.

- Wouter Kloek, 2017
  • Possibly Dr. H. Auersburg.
  • Dr. Herman Neuerberg, Cologne-Marienburg, 1925.
  • Antoon von Welie (1866–1956), The Hague, 1935 [Douwes Fine Art, Amsterdam, 1938, no. 97].
  • Irmgard Rodenkirchen, Schwangau/Füssen, 1955.
  • Private collection (sale, Sotheby’s, London, 12 December 2002, no. 33A [Salomon Lilian B. V., Amsterdam, 2003, no. 23]).
  • From whom acquired by the present owner.
  • Burgemeister, Wendela.  “An Old Woman with a Fur Cap Holding a Jug.” In Old Masters. Sales cat. Salomon Lilian B. V.  Amsterdam and New York, 2004, 68–69, no. 23.

The support is a single oval plank of vertically grained oak. A horizontally oriented bevel across the midpoint of the lower edge indicates the oval support was cut from a beveled rectangular panel. The panel is unthinned and uncradled and does not have machine tool marks. There is one paper label but no wax collection seals, import stamps, stencils or panel maker’s marks.

A light-colored ground has been thinly and evenly applied. The ground does not spill over onto the panel edges and is chipped along the outer edges of the front of the panel, which further suggests the oval support was either trimmed or cut from a rectangular panel after the composition was executed. The oil paint has been built up in successive thin layers and smoothly applied with no use of impasto.

No underdrawing is readily apparent in infrared images captured at 780–1000 nanometers. A few compositional changes are visible in the images and as pentimenti. A diagonal line of raised light paint below the figure’s proper left elbow and a raised shape similar to the shape of the paper in the figure’s proper left hand suggests the paper was lowered and shifted towards the figure. In addition, the figure’s proper right hand, shoulder and back have been shifted toward the right, and her elbow was lowered and covers a rounded form, upon which it presumably previously rested. The X-radiograph is extremely thin and only the paper in the figure’s proper left hand and the diagonal line below the figure’s proper left elbow are visible.

A light yellow pentimento showing through the figure’s blue skirt indicates a change in position of the figure’s knees and that the blue apron was added; these changes are confirmed by the infrared images. The vertically oriented apron folds obscure a diagonal line, which originally defined the figure’s waist.

The painting is unsigned and undated.

The painting was cleaned and restored in 2003 and remains in an excellent state of preservation.

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