Portrait of an Unknown Woman
Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 91.5 cm, 1644
Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) was a Dutch old master based in Amsterdam and a pupil of Rembrandt. This painting at Kenwood House in London is one of my favourite paintings. It is so very delicate, subtle and beautiful. This time it is not the lace and the fabrics that take my breath away but the gentle realistic humanity of the sitter. It is not known who she is. But I cannot help but gape at the subtlety Bol used to paint her. The lighting is so gentle, soft and rich, her lace cap is just the perfect value in the shadow. It is not too dramatically dark, nor too simplistically bright. Her face hardly shows any brush marks, yet it is lively through its numerous shifts in temperature and value. Her pearl earring is understated; her red lips are echoed in the red string of her ruff, which is open at the front to show the Dutch bobbin lace underneath, and again in the red velvet table cloth. The beauty in this painting does not lie in these textile elements which are kept relatively simple to support the highly detailed face (and hair) of a woman that seems to be about to speak to us. The lady seems preoccupied and looking elsewhere; her features do not seem idealised and all the more real for it. She is not posing, nor standing perfectly straight, she is in the middle of something. The golden light shines warmly on her hair, dress and jewellery. I just can't get over how alive yet calm and quiet she looks.
Kenwood House, English Heritage. London
Order the exhibition catalogue here.