IMPORTANT OLD MASTER PAINTINGS FROM THE FORBES COLLECTION FORMERLY AT FETTERCAIRN HOUSE
A priest, Florence;
Acquired from the above by James Irvine on behalf of Sir William Forbes, 7th Baronet of Pitsligo (1773–1828), of Fettercairn, Kincardineshire, between 15 and 22 September 1827, in Florence, for 630 Francesconi (as Rembrandt);2
By descent to his son Sir John Stuart Hepburn-Forbes, 8th Baronet of Pitsligo (1804–1866);
By whom offered in the sale of pictures purchased by the late Mr Irvine for the late Sir William Forbes, Bart., London, Rainy, 2 June 1842, lot 19, bought in (as Rembrandt, incorrectly listed as previously from the collection of Count Lecchi at Brescia);
By inheritance to his son-in-law Charles Trefusis, 20th Baron Clinton (1834–1904);
Thence by descent to the present owner.
Florence, Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, Il Trionfo Delle Bell'Arti, 1767 (as Rembrandt);
Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, Works of Old Masters and Scottish National Portraits, 1883, no. 277 (as Rembrandt).
'Quaderno dell'Inventario dei Quadri, e Disegni Levato dall'Inventario Generale da I a 34', Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Carte Riccardi, Ms, Florence after 22 September 1752, p. 70, no. 61 (as Rembrandt, as owned by Marchese Vincenzo Riccardi and hanging at the Palazzo di via Larga in the 'seconda stanza dei mezzanine dalla parte di Via Larga');
C.N. Cochin, Voyage d'Italie, ou Recueil de notes sur les Ouvrages de Peinture & de Sculpture, qu'on voit dans les principales villes d'Italie, Paris 1758, 3 vols, II, pp. 76–80 (as Rembrandt);
Recorded in Florence by Edward Gibbon in his Journal on 10 August 1764 (not published until 1961 by Georges A. Bonnard);
B.P. Bonsi, Trionfo delle bell'arti, exh. cat., Florence 1767, p. 19 (as Rembrandt, as lent by dell' Illuftrifs. Sig. March. Riccardi), p. 19;
'Nota dei quadri che sono in casa Ill.mi Sig.ri Marchesi Riccardi, Archivo di Stato, Riccardi 276, Ms, Florence 18th century, p. 1, no. 20 (as Rembrandt);
Ignazio dell'Agate, 'Estratto delle minute che esistono nella cancelleria del tribunale di prima istanza sedente in Firenze, Dipartimento dell'Arno,' Archivo di Stato, Riccardi, Ms, Florence 20 July 1810, p. 47, no. 251 (as anonymous, as hanging in the 'Salotto del cammino. Facciata a mezzogiorno' in the Palazzo di via Larga, valued at 800 scudi);
'Not dei quadri attenenti al patrimonio del Sig. re Vincenzo Riccardi, esistenti questo dì 14 Settembre 1814', Archivo di Stato, Riccardi 278, Ms, Florence 14 September 1814, p. 9, no. 181 (as anonymous, valued at 5600 Lire);
E. Gibbon, Gibbon's Journey from Geneva to Rome, G.A. Bonnard (ed.), London 1961, p. 205;
C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonné..., vol. VI, London 1916, p. 176–77, under cat. no. 296 (the provenance of the present painting confused with another painting of the same subject, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington);
Fettercairn House inventory, 1917 (as Rembrandt; Drawing Room);
Fettercairn House inventory, 1930 (as Rembrandt; Drawing Room);
G. de Juliis, 'Ricerce d'Archivio. Appunti su una quadreria fiorentina: la collezione dei marchesi Riccardi', in Paragone, May 1981, pp. 62 and p. 70, no. 61;
H. Brigstocke, William Buchanan and the 19th Century Art Trade: 100 Letters to his Agents in London and Italy, published privately by The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, New Haven 1982, pp. 27–28;
V. Pinchera, The art consumption in early modern Florence, The collections of the aristocracy in the 17th and 19th centuries, unpublished conference paper, Helsinki 2006, p. 21.
This painting has remained, since its purchase in Florence in 1827, at Fettercairn House in Scotland. It has not been recently exhibited or published, and so the opportunity for discussion of the attribution is only now possible. That James Irvine bought this painting in Florence as a Rembrandt comes as little surprise. The composition of this interior scene and the dynamism of the execution of the paintwork speak strongly of the very real and close influence of Rembrandt van Rijn. Upon seeing the painting for the first time in Florence, Irvine wrote to Sir William Forbes that 'Parts of the picture... are admirably painted with little work but great truth and effect'.1 The painting had been in the Riccardi collection since the early eighteenth century, and was exhibited twice in Florence, demonstrating the appreciation of the works of Rembrandt beyond the boundaries of the Netherlands at this time, and the extraordinary reach of his reputation.
In the 1990s the late Werner Sumowski was sent transparencies of the Old Woman Plucking a Chicken. He was unable to securely identify the hand, but tentatively referenced the names of Barent Fabritius, Abraham van Dijck and Cornelis Bisschop. More recently Jonathan Bikker has independently proposed an attribution to Abraham van Dijck referencing in particular two comparable paintings: the first is Elia and the widow of Zarpath, the whereabouts of which is unknown, the second is the Old Couple Praying at the Table in the collection of Emile E. Wolf, New York.2
The vigorous execution of the animal and of the fillets of fish on the plate at the right reveals a boldness of touch that is balanced with the more precise rendering of the woven basket and gleaming links of the chain hanging from the old woman’s waist, and on the table at the right. Her face is rendered in half shade, as are the details of the back ground: the string of onions and the bellows hung on the wall are only just visible. In 1655 Rembrandt painted the Old Woman Reading from the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry.3 In this atmospheric painting Rembrandt also depicts his sitter’s face in half light, her fist jutting towards us as she bends back the pages of her book – just as we see here in the solid clasp of the old woman’s hand around the chicken’s legs, and her face shaded by her hat in contrast to the bright but limited light that shines from the left, illuminating her collar, the slack skin at her neck, her hands, and the bird. The 1650s seem like a likely period of execution for the present painting: Rembrandt had over ten pupils in his studio during this decade and given that it was Rembrandt’s aim to impart as much of his own style to his pupils while they worked alongside him, it is of little wonder that attributions of the works produced around this time by his close circle are not easily made.
Single figures of old women had become a popular subject matter with artists in the Netherlands by the middle of the seventeenth century. Rembrandt himself, and his pupils such as Abraham van Dijck and Nicolaes Maes (both of whom were in Rembrandt’s studio in the 1650s), repeatedly depicted such figures. As Christian Tümpel has observed, many seventeenth-century Dutch artists may have shown old age as miserly, decrepit and foolish, but Rembrandt portrayed the elderly as ‘waiting, hoping, meditating, and reading, taking on a profound human dignity through their faith and hope.’4 The artist who painted this old woman seems certainly to have been in agreement with this sensitive approach to depicting the gravitas of old age.
Note on Provenance
Irvine purchased the present work in Florence in the middle of September 1827. He records in his letters back to Sir William Forbes that he bought the painting from a priest, and that it was formerly of the Riccardi Collection. The Riccardi Collection was housed in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, on the Via Larga, today called the Via Camillo Cavour, in Florence. The Palazzo was built between 1444 and 1484 for Cosimo de’ Medici, and around two hundred years later, on 28 March 1659, was sold to Gabbriello Riccardi, the Marquis of Chianni and chief steward to the Grand-Ducal court. On his travels through Italy in 1764, the English historian and writer Edward Gibbon passed through Florence and visited the Palazzo Riccardi. His diary entry on Friday 10 August 1764 notes some of the works of art that Gibbon saw in the Palazzo: among his descriptions of a set of Evangelists by Carlo Maratta and of Luca Giordano ceilings, Gibbon lists ‘Un Rembrandt. Une Vielle femme qui deplume une poule’. He further noted, ‘Quel sujet mais quelle verité dans l’execution. La Nature elle meme ne rendroit pas mieux la Vielle-elle-meme, les plumes de la poule, la corbeille où elle les recoit et le chauderon où elle doit la cuire, et assurèment dans la nature je les verrois avec bien moins de plaisir. Je crois que les bons Rembrants sont rares.’5 Vincenzo Riccardi and his heirs exhibited the canvas twice at exhibitions held under the auspices of the Accademia del Disegno in the cloisters of the church of SS. Annunziata and partly in the cloisters themselves. The series of exhibitions there, held sporadically between 1674 and 1767 under the patronage of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, mark an important turning point in the culture of exhibiting Old Master paintings in Italy, with more space devoted to the works of deceased artists and longer exhibiting periods than had been known before. The purpose of the exhibitions seems to have had much to do with widening the horizons of contemporary artists in Florence, and the publication of an exhibition catalogue, an unprecedented thing, allowed visitors to know exactly what they were looking at.6
Vincenzo Riccardi was the scion of a noble family with a reputation for generously supporting the arts. He is listed as the owner of the ‘Rembrandt’ in the 1737 exhibition catalogue and is known to have been a voracious collector of paintings, manuscripts and jewellery. He was not only a collector, but also participated in the art market. Upon his death in 1752 his business interests and assets were divided between his brothers and his single surviving son and sole heir, Giuseppe. During the first decades of the nineteenth century the collections from the Palazzo Riccardi were dispersed via auction and private sales. It is not yet clear exactly when the present painting left the Riccardi collection, and when it entered the possession of the priest from whom Irvine acquired it. Irvine wrote to Sir William from Florence on the 22 September 1827 that ‘The Rembrandt formerly in the Riccardi gallery and mentioned by a number of writers all which the Abbe has collected with great pains and formed a sort of history of the picture. I am told there is an old print of the woman without the accessories from a drawing by Rembrandt'. Irvine goes on the report that he had successfully bartered the price down from the original asking price of 1050 Franceschoni to 630. He wrote in the same letter that ‘Having had the Rembrandt taken down and examined I resolved to secure it for fear of its slipping through my hands as several English are already arrived (among whom some purchasers) and it is said that a great many Russians are expected, who buy more than the English, though in general they do not give such good prices, and take a great deal of trash’.7
The provenance of this painting was confused by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot with a painting of the same subject now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.8
1. Letter from James Irvine to Sir William Forbes, Florence, 15 September 1827.
2. See W. Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schuler, vol. I, Landau 1983, p. 670, cat. no. 364, reproduced p. 685 and p. 673, cat. no. 384, reproduced p. 705.
3. J. Lloyd Williams, Rembrandt’s Women, exh. cat., Munich, London, New York 2001, p. 212, cat. no. 121, reproduced p. 213.
4. C. Tümpel, Rembrandt: All Paintings in Colour, Antwerp 1993, p. 299.
5. Gibbon 1961, p. 205, no. 4.
6. F. Haskell, The ephemeral museum: old master paintings and the rise of the art exhibition, New Haven 2000, pp. 12–14.
7. Letter from James Irvine to Sir William Forbes, Florence, 22 September 1827.
8. See A.K. Wheelock Jr., 'Anonymous Artist, Rembrandt van Rijn/Old Woman Plucking a Fowl/1650/1655,' in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/43512 (accessed October 30, 2016).
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