Rembrandt painted this powerfully expressive portrait of an elderly woman in 1660, at a time when he was exploring, as no artist had ever really done, the depth of the human soul. The woman’s rugged face, with its pronounced cheekbones, forceful chin, and generous nose, has great strength of character, but Rembrandt reveals the fullness of her inner life through her furrowed brow and deeply sunken eyes, which gaze fixedly into the distance. With bold brushwork Rembrandt suggests the aged character of her skin, not through definition of wrinkles but through the irregularities of its surface. Strokes of all types and colors—ochers, pinks, whites—merge, blend, and overlay in ways that defy description, as he often used a wet-into-wet painting technique.1 Seated alertly in an armchair in a darkened chamber with stark plaster walls, and with her hands in her lap, she is physically at rest but emotionally and spiritually engaged, alone with her thoughts.
During the last two decades of his life, Rembrandt turned increasingly to the half-length depiction of elderly figures.2 He portrayed these figures in moments of contemplation, as with Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped, sometimes reflecting inner anxieties, and sometimes a quiet spirituality. They often lack any narrative context or accompanying attribute, making it difficult to determine, as in the slightly earlier Old Woman in a Chair (fig 1),3 whether they are portraits or depictions of historical, biblical, or mythological figures.4 The aged men and women in these late paintings have the physical and emotional immediacy of figures painted from life, but they often occupy a realm between portraiture and character study. As one scholar has observed, with these works Rembrandt created a separate genre of painting.5
The sitter portrayed in Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped has not been identified, and, indeed, the painting is undoubtedly more a character study than a formal portrait.6 Rembrandt captured her individuality in his depiction of her physical features—the slight cleft in her chin, small mouth, broad nose, and weathered hands. Her fur-trimmed jacket with its velvet sleeves and the black hood differ slightly from the clothing seen in Rembrandt’s other portrayals of elderly women in the late 1650s and early 1660s.7 In contrast to his vigorous modeling of the woman’s face and hands, he only summarily indicates her costume. Loosely applied brushstrokes evoke the softness of the brown fur, while, with the exception of a golden yellow highlight on the trim at her wrist, her sleeves and skirt are more suggested than defined.8
Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped has a distinguished provenance that reaches back to the important English collector Sir Abraham Hume (1749–1838), and it was first catalogued as by Rembrandt in his collection in 1824.9 The attribution of the painting to Rembrandt was confirmed by the German art historian Wilhelm von Bode when he published this painting as being by the master in 1900, and all subsequent published opinions have fully supported this attribution.10 In recent decades, some scholars have privately expressed doubts about its attribution, suggesting that it was executed by one of Rembrandt’s pupils, but these reservations are unfounded.11
Many stylistic and technical considerations with Rembrandt’s paintings from around 1660 support the attribution to the master. In The Apostle Simon from 1661 (fig 2), a work likely conceived as part of a series of apostles and evangelists that Rembrandt executed between 1657 and 1661, a muted, earth-toned palette and sweeping, loose brushwork convey a sober, moving image of this Christian martyr.12 Head turned and eyes downcast, one hand grasping the handle of a large saw and the other resting on his lap, Simon focuses his attention elsewhere. But as in Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped, Rembrandt was able to make the figure remarkably present in his physical and emotional state. Technical examination of the Leiden Collection work has shown that Rembrandt built up the structure of the old woman’s hands in a manner similar to that in The Apostle Simon, using horizontal, linear strokes of white paint, particularly in the fingers of the left hand.13
The Portrait of Margaretha de Geer (fig 3), which was executed about the same time, evokes a familiar contrast of corporeal fragility with inner strength. Although Rembrandt approached this formally commissioned portrait in a more controlled fashion than he did Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped, he similarly applied grays, pinks, and yellows to animate the appearance of Margaretha’s aging skin. He likewise defined her eyebrows and forehead with a series of short, diagonal brushstrokes, and left the cool gray underlayer visible around the eyes to enhance the appearance of shadows.14 Rembrandt had already used this technique to create shadows around the eyes in his Self-Portrait of 1659 (Washington, National Gallery of Art), as well as in A Young Man Seated at a Table (Possibly Govaert Flinck) (Washington, National Gallery of Art, ca. 1660), though in a more restrained manner.15 This latter painting, significantly, depicts the same unusual stone window ledge visible behind the woman in the Leiden Collection painting.16
Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped is the first work from Rembrandt’s late career to enter The Leiden Collection, and hence expands its ability to present the full scope of this extraordinary master’s career.17 In particular, this painting’s acquisition enables the collection to demonstrate how the depiction of aged sitters continued to captivate Rembrandt, from his early Leiden period in the late 1620s to the 1660s.18 This interest is seen, for example, in Study of a Woman in a White Cap (RR-101, (fig 4)) from about 1640, where Rembrandt has similarly captured the effects of age in his depiction of wrinkles, loose skin, and heavy contours beneath the eyes.19 As Joachim von Sandrart, Rembrandt’s contemporary in Amsterdam, later wrote in 1675, “in the depiction of old people, particularly their hair and skin, [Rembrandt] showed great diligence, patience and practice … he indeed excels, not only grandly rendering the simplicity of nature but using natural forces to color, heighten and embellish it, particularly in his half-length pictures of old heads.”20 In Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped, Rembrandt succeeded in capturing his sitter with an honest stillness and inner strength, where the unhesitating brushwork that defined his late career gave form to the effects of time’s passing.