Old Woman Cutting Her Nails – Rembrandt

This, the most remarkable of all the pictures in North the room, is an example of Rembrandt’s late time wall (the date, somewhat abraded, is 1658); it manifests the breadth and beauty of his painting at what seems to us today his greatest period, and shows also to the full the intellectual quality of this time, the profound insight into human experience, that his work took on after fortune and popular favor had passed away from him. It was the year of the forced sale of his precious collection (itemized in the inventory which has come down to us), pictures, engravings, sculptures, armor and costumes, stuffed animals, bric-à-brac, and the like, and the “fifteen books of various sizes” the things he had brought together during the time of his prosperity.

” In 1658 all his possessions were of necessity sold at auction,” says Wilhelm Valentiner, “yet in this same year he produced several of the pictures which, compromising least with the claims of the actual, most clearly reveal his own conceptions, his own vision of the world. Such are the portrait of him-self in the Frick Collection and that portrait of Titus in the Altman Collection which has mistakenly been called Haring the Auctioneer. As in these, so also in the Woman Trimming Her Nails, his art is Rembrandt’s comforter, the expression of his self-deliverance, the voice of his most lofty idealism.”

It is a painting of an old woman poorly dressed who stops her work to cut her nails. Every part of the picture, but in particular the old, furrowed face, the stiff, bony hands, the worn body inside the coarse clothing are made indicative of the sympathy the painter felt, not for his model alone, but for all humanity. All seems to have been analyzed for what it contains that is expressive and significant toward this end, so that the work is a poem on old age in which the verses are color and light and shadow. In Dr. Valentiner’s interpretation the old woman has been “transformed into a sibyl far removed from the commonplaces of everyday life,” and this is equally just, as the ends of realism and idealism meet in pictures of this calibre.

Its history is uncertain before 1779, when it was in the collection of Ingham Foster in England. It was bought and taken to Russia by Mr. Bibikoff, of St. Petersburg, from whom it passed to Mr. Massaloff, in Moscow. In recent times it belonged to Rodolphe Kann and was bought when the Kann Collection was disposed of in Paris in 1907.