An old woman gazes ahead, shielding her eyes from the candlelight, while the boy behind her holds his candle, ready to be lit. The panel is painted in the style of Caravaggio, whose work Rubens had seen in Italy. This style is characterised by its exciting effects of light and unpolished naturalism.
Rubens did not make this painting to be sold; instead he retained possession of it. He probably used it as study material for the pupils in his studio.
The woman holds her hand uncomfortably close to the flame. Rubens initially painted the hand a little further away from the candle, at a more natural distance. But he rubbed that hand out and painted a new one a little lower. He probably did this because it creates a stronger and more compact composition. But the first version of the hand is still visible.
Peter Paul Rubens Old Woman and Boy with Candles
On view in Room 3
Acquired with the support of the VriendenLoterij, the Friends of the Mauritshuis Foundation, the Mondriaan Foundation, the Rembrandt Association (supported by the Prince Bernhard Cultural Fund) and the bequest of Ms A.A.W. Schröder, 2005
While he was living in Italy, from 1600 to 1608, Peter Paul Rubens became acquainted with the paintings of Caravaggio. These are characterised by strong light-dark contrasts, figures squeezed narrowly into the pictorial plane, and a large measure of realism. This night piece, which Rubens painted in or around 1616-1617, is one of the earliest works produced in the style of Caravaggio in the Netherlands. It shows an old woman holding a lit candle-stump. A boy leans over her left shoulder, trying to light his candle from hers. The woman protects the flame with her left hand, which dims the bright light to a reddish glow that illuminates only the two figures’ faces and part of their clothing, leaving the rest of the scene in semi-darkness. Rubens has convincingly suggested the reflected candlelight on the old woman’s creased face.
Prints were made of the scene shortly after 1617. Rubens himself furnished one of the impressions with a Latin inscription: ‘Quis vetet apposito, lumen de lumine tolli, Mille licet capiant, deperit inde nihil’ (‘Light can be taken a thousand times from another light without diminishing it’). This quotation from Ars Amatoria (The art of love) by the Roman poet Ovid is taken from a passage encouraging readers to use youthful beauty in matters of love. Here, Ovid sketches the image of an old woman who is looking back at her lost opportunities in love at night-time. Johan van Heemskerck, who edited Ovid’s text in 1622, put it as follows: ‘You may become an old woman before you know it, lying on a lonely bed […], with past desires in your mind, sensuality stirring in your limbs, […] your skin furrowed with wrinkles’. These lines accord well with the image that Rubens presents to us here. The woman’s vacant gaze suggests that she is deep in thought. Passing the light to the boy may be her way of encouraging him to enjoy love, so that later, when he is old and perhaps lonely as she is, he will not have to look back on a life that remained unfulfilled in that respect.
When Rubens died, on 30 May 1640, an inventory was drawn up of his art collection. Number 125 of the 314 paintings on this list, ‘Vne pourtrait d’vne vieille auec vn garçon à la nuit’, is almost certainly the painting shown here. The work certainly exhibits one of the characteristics of the paintings that Rubens made for himself: it is composed of more planks than is customary – in this case, three vertical, one horizontal, and four narrow strips along the sides. It is generally assumed that the artist was reluctant to spend too much money on such paintings and therefore asked the panel-maker to use left-over pieces of timber.
(this is a reworked version of a text published in in: P. van der Ploeg, Q. Buvelot, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis: A princely collection, The Hague 2005)
Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577 - 1640 Antwerp)
Old Woman and Boy with Candles
On view in
Material and technical details
62.5 x 77 cm
In the possession of the artist, Antwerp, until 1640 (his posthumous inventory by Jan van Meurs, Antwerp 1640, no. 125); possibly in the collection of Rubens’s brother-in-law, Arnold Lundens, after 1640; possibly Muhlmann Collection, Riga, 1646; George Rogers, before 1801; Hastings Elwyn; his sale, London (Phillips), 23 May 1806 (Lugt 7101), no. 27 (for 950 pounds to Delahante); Alexis Delahante, London, 1806; sold by him to Charles Duncombe, created 1st Baron Feversham in 1826, Duncombe Park, Helmsley (for 2.000 pounds); William Duncombe, 2nd Baron Feversham; William Ernest Duncombe, 3rd Baron and 1st Earl of Feversham; William Reginald Duncombe, Viscount Helmsley; Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham; Charles William Slingsby Duncombe, 5th Baron Feversham of Duncombe Park and 3rd and last Earl of Feversham of Ryedale; sold by him to Francis Francis, Bird Cay, Bahama’s, 1947-1965 (on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1948-1965); sale London (Sotheby’s), 30 June 1965, no. 15 (for 19,000 pounds to Agnew); Thomas Agnew & Sons, London; sold to a private collector; by inheritance to ‘A Lady of Title’; sale, London (Sotheby’s), 7 July 2004, no. 30; Otto Naumann Ltd., New York; acquired with the support of the VriendenLoterij, the Friends of the Mauritshuis Foundation, the Mondriaan Foundation, the Rembrandt Association (supported by the Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation) and the bequest of Ms A.A.W. Schröder, 2005