Head of an Old Woman
Oil on canvas
49.2 x 38.1 cm
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
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Following text is from: Michael Sweerts, 1618-1664, by Guido Jansen and Peter C. Sutton
This sympathetic study of an old woman was first recognised as a work by Sweerts by Malcolm Waddingharn when it appeared on the London art market in 1975. He later remarked that the woman portrayed might be the same model who appears in the Louvre's Young Man and Procuress, and dated the work to Sweerts's stay in Holland, then incorrectly presumed to be from the end of the 1650s to 1661. However, the more finely executed Louvre picture was probably done during the last years of Sweerts's Roman period, while the more softly painted present work seems clearly to date from after his return to the North. It is perhaps unlikely that he would have used the same model in two such distant locations (though he was not averse to re-using the same images in different situations). For Waddingham, the painting's 'acute analysis of happy longevity expands our appreciation of his ability', and Rolf Kultzen singled it out as one of Sweerts's finest, praising 'the expression of human dignity radiating from her face' ; for Mariette Haveman it illustrates Sweerts's unconventional standards of beauty and his intriguingly 'modern' approach as an artist.
Images of the aged are common in the seventeenth century, whether as portraits or as participants or observers in a variety of roles in history paintings or religious subjects. They are frequently given an exemplary function, and this may be the case in Sweerts's own depictions of old women spinning, where the distaff can be seen as an attribute of domestic virtue. The present painting conforms more, however, to the Netherlandish tradition of the 'tronie'. These are studies of individual heads, which although often strongly individualised, are not portraits but character studies admired for their expressive content, beauty of execution, and the painter's ability to capture a psychological state though his perception and rendition of physiognomical features. Judging by the number of tronies that have survived or are mentioned in seventeenth-century inventories, this was an extremely popular genre, which both Rubens and Rembrandt embraced, and they range over a variety of facial types, including both sexes and all ages, though almost always without any specific clues as to identity, profession or class.
In the present painting, as in Rembrandt's moving images of old women, the wrinkles and other signs of decrepitude are not minimised or glossed over but carefully recorded, so that the face moves us as the locus of emotion, character, temperament, experience, even, if we like, to which an imagined biography can be provided by the viewer. But above all we are presented with an appreciation of the picturesque ('schilderachtig') beauty of old age, a term used at the time by Van Mander and others to emphasise the painter's role in sharpening our perception of beauty in unexpected places! Sweerts's unapologetic realism, his candour and fidelity to the essence of old age, and his evident empathy with his subject, which we also find elsewhere in his oeuvre (cf the figure at the left in the Plague in an Ancient City) make this painting one of the high points of the tronie tradition.