The composition of an Old Woman baking Pancakes in front of a Fire, after the Flemish artist Adriaen Brouwer (b. Oudenaarde 1605/6, d. Antwerp 1638), exists as an etching in two states (examples of both are in the British Museum, first state: S.4282; second state: S.6265, see fig.1). The first state, probably executed in the late 1620s or early 1630s, has the inscriptions ‘A. Brouwer inv.’ and ‘Matham excu’, telling us that Adriaen Brouwer made a drawing (or possibly a painting) which was then copied and printed as an etching by Theodor Matham, a member of a famous family of engravers (b. Haarlem 1605/6, d. Amsterdam 1676).
The second state of the etching, probably executed between 1650 and 1680, has an additional inscription, ‘Frederick de Widt excudit’, implying that the etching plate was later acquired and republished by Frederick de Widt (b. Gouda 1629/30; d. Amsterdam 1706) (fig.1).
The original drawing or painting by Brouwer that Matham copied in his etching is now lost. Two related paintings of pancake makers are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, both assigned as possibly by Brouwer. The attribution of the painting with a female pancake maker (PMA Cat.680) is not certain, whereas the painting of a male pancake maker is widely accepted as an important work by the artist (PMA Cat.681).
Imagery of pancake makers has a long history in Flemish and Dutch art and stories of itinerant pancake makers – usually females surrounded by hungry children – abound. Pancakes are traditionally associated with a full stomach and the good life. Some scholars have seen the old woman as a Primeval Mother figure. Of the many depictions of the subject, Rembrandt’s 1635 etching of a pancake maker (e.g. British Museum 1848,0911.62) is particularly striking in comparison with the Matham/de Witd print. The Museum notes state that Rembrandt is known to have owned a painting by Brouwer “A Piece by Ad. Brouwer, depicting a pastry cook” (see http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=755412&partId=1&searchText=1848,0911.62&images=true&page=1).
How and when the print which is the basis for the Mughal miniature journeyed to India cannot precisely be known, but there was a steady two-way flow of goods between India and the Low Countries via the Dutch East India Company during the seventeenth century and the use of European printed images as inspiration for Mughal painting is well known. However, unlike the majority of Mughal adaptations of European prints created at the Imperial Mughal court between circa 1580 and 1620 that were often an amalgam of several elements present in European works, this Mughal painting of the Pancake Maker, done by an artist of the next generation, copies its source precisely and faithfully, and it is notable that it is based on a genre composition, not on the classical and Biblical compositions more often copied by the earlier generation. It even encapsulates the composition in a tondo frame, like the European source, a rarely used convention in Mughal art. Indeed, the accuracy of the copying of the composition, forms and objects in the miniature and the fact that the size of the miniature and the European source prints is almost exactly the same (to within a few millimetres) perhaps implies that the miniature was pounced from a copy of the Dutch print itself.
The Mughal artist has added elements from his own world: the back wall of the smoky Dutch kitchen is removed and replaced by a decorative and cloudy sky shot through with golden light. The crude doorway of the print has become a sumptuous Mughal wall decorated with flower vases in arched niches. A rolled textile is attached to the top of the carved wooden door. The rough wooden chair, although retaining its overall shape, has been fashioned to resemble similar objects from seventeenth-century Goa, probably covered with ivory, hinted at here by the white panels of flat carving. The gold embroidered caps of the two boys reflect the Mughal interest in textile patterns. Additionally, the finely-articulated yellow Kashmiri shawl warming the shoulders of the boy at the top and the old woman’s blue wool headgear continue this interest in textile patterning, an interest that is absent from the source etching. Perhaps the most intriguing diversions from the source print are the two vessels in the foreground, which although retaining the exact shapes of the utilitarian originals, have been completely refashioned in a very decorative manner. The Mughal artist’s imagination has converted the surface of each vessel into miniature scenes. On the jug is a boy in a landscape, the depiction of a lumpy little Breugelesque boy reminiscent of the boys in the larger composition above. On the smaller pot we find a Perso-Mughal crouching lion amidst vegetation and clouds, and interestingly the surface is clearly implied to be moulded in high relief. Despite these changes from and additions to the source composition, the artist has approached the subject with an intense and respectful desire to comprehend a strange world and to recreate it in a literal manner. The woman’s body, robe and face have real three-dimensional solidity achieved by understanding Matham’s use of shading in the print. The strange gnome-like faces of the boys in the print are cleverly captured.