This vibrant portrait of an unidentified old lady belongs to the Golden Age of Dutch painting. It was probably painted during the latter years of the artist Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) and certainly the artist has created here an unflinching and unromanticised image of old age. The woman’s face is heavily lined, her eyes are sunken – her pince-nez by now among her most valued possessions – and she has few teeth left. Yet her face is still full of life and character: she concentrates hard on the sheet from which she is reading and, if she is actually singing, she is singing for the sake of it, for she has no audience other than herself.
The table at which she sits is a plain trestle: her possessions, we deduce, are few and well worn, but the pewter flagon and the well-thumbed notebooks are old friends. She is comfortable with them and – as far as her clothes are concerned – in them. Her headdress (half-cap, half turban) can be seen in any number of Dutch interior scenes and her clothes are worth careful study. Look at her left arm. She seems to be wearing a white sleeved shift underneath her glowing orange garment, the sleeves of which (to judge by the turned back cuffs) are lined with a grey or black material. Over this she wears a full, heavy, dark green pinafore dress, gathered at the waist. Finally, around her neck loosely hangs a well-worn open ruff collar.
This costume is almost a standard uniform for Dutch women of the 17th century: the orange in particular popular no doubt because it identifies the wearer as a supporter of the ruling House of Orange. Is she a servant, or a widow, or simply an old woman of indeterminate class living within her meagre means? Neither the artist, nor the title of his portrait, gives this away – though she wears no ring on the hand we are shown. But she is clearly a woman who can read and who is not defeated by life or age. Her concentration and the jut of her chin suggest an inner character that seems almost to radiate out towards us as we gaze at this absorbing painting by a great artist, one who lived his life in the shadow of his early master, Rembrandt van Rijn.