Old Woman Cutting Her Nails

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

Long attributed to Rembrandt, this painting represents an old woman cutting her nails in a darkened room. A dramatic fall of light veils her eyes but casts light on her hands engaged in a seemingly humdrum activity. A sewing box and cloth on the table behind her suggest that this is a scene from ordinary life. However, she is dressed in a fur-trimmed robe in rich browns and with a veil of a muted gold color, which hint at something perhaps rather out of the ordinary. A brief look at Rembrandt’s career might shed more light on our picture and its possible meaning.

Both Rembrandt’s style and subject matter evolved considerably over the course of his lifetime. Most artists of seventeenth-century Holland were specialists, often choosing the subject category practiced by their apprentice masters and painting only, say, still lifes for the length of their careers: one artist, for example, spent his whole life painting pictures of asparagus. Not so Rembrandt. Originally he apprenticed to Pieter Lastman, a history painter. Histories, in the seventeenth-century hierarchy, were the most exalted of subjects, including not just history, but also literature, mythology, and the Bible. Landscape, portrait, and still life were considered less serious, and history painters targeted connoisseurs with literary and artistic tastes. Even if the subject were a religious one, history paintings seemed to be aesthetic, not devotional, in nature.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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