Woman at her Dressing Table, c. 1645
Ferdinand Bol, Dutch, 1616–1680
Oil on canvas
50 3/4 × 36 1/8 in. (128.9 × 91.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Mrs. Harry C. Hanszen
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Woman at Her Dressing Table
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
One of Rembrandt van Rijn’s (1606–1669) best known and successful students, Ferdinand Bol followed his master’s techniques so closely that his work was often critiqued in comparison to Rembrandt’s work, and sometimes even mistaken for it. Bol moved to Amsterdam in 1635 to study under Rembrandt in his workshop and served as his assistant. By 1640 he achieved great success as an independent artist, although he continued to be compared to Rembrandt. In 1649 he received his first commission to paint a group portrait, which led to a series of commissions outside Amsterdam. Typical of Rembrandt and 17th-century Dutch art in general, Bol painted historical, allegorical, and mythological scenes. He followed Rembrandt stylistically but was often criticized for failing to achieve the psychological intensity of his master. By 1650 Bol turned away from Rembrandt’s influence and formed his own identifiable style. In 1669 he married a wealthy widow and quit painting entirely.
It has been questioned whether this painting is a portrait of a specific person, a portrait in which the sitter is playing a role in an allegorical or a historical scene, or merely a scene from everyday life. It has also been suggested that the woman in this painting bears a likeness to Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612–1642). However, the most likely conclusion is that this is a painting of a woman personifying the vice of Vanity, a well-known subject in 17th-century Dutch art. Intended to symbolize the transitory nature of earthly life and the inevitability of death, the woman sits at her vanity table admiring herself. She is depicted in a natural light and covered in an abundance of jewels, symbols of the impermanence of earthly possessions.
By not showing the mirror as the direct source of light and creating an elusive glow on the woman’s face, Bol highlights her gentle expression and allows the mood evoked from her face to be the central theme in this painting. This technique is referred to as chiaroscuro, an extreme contrast of light and dark. Chiaroscuro was popular with artists in the 17th century as a way to isolate the subjects they painted and to heighten emotional tension. In this painting, the carefully detailed jewels are dimly lit with shimmering yellows to subtly add brilliance. Bol’s palette, which contains a spectrum of reds arranged in patterns of dark to light to enhance the effect of shadow, details the expansive weight and volume of the woman’s dress.
After the end of the Eighty Years War with Spain in 1648, Amsterdam attained great wealth as the trading and cultural center of the world. By lending money to kings and emperors internationally, Amsterdam also held great political influence across the globe, and its ships set out for newly found colonies in the Americas and East Indies. With the emergence of wealth in the middle classes, and few demands for religious art in the Calvinist Netherlands, most art commissions came from private individuals or wealthy organizations. For most artists, including Rembrandt and Bol, portraits were the main source of income. For the first time artists were competing in the open market, with paintings being used as payment on debts, collateral on loans, and even as objects of investment and speculation.
- Describe what is happening in this scene. What is the woman wearing? Where is she looking? What emotions do you read in her face?
- Describe the lighting in this portrait. What is illuminated? What is not?
- What do you think is the most important part of this image? Defend your answer.
- Consider that when Bol painted this portrait, Amsterdam had immense wealth and cultural power from trade. It lent money to foreign kings and emperors, and Dutch society in general grew wealthier and wealthier. What do you think Bol thought about all this growing wealth?
- Bol was an in-demand and fashionable portrait painter for his time, and portraiture was likely his main source of income. Examine this portrait. What characteristics about this work do you think made Bol such a desirable portraitist? Why do you think so many people wanted their portraits painted by him?
- We are unsure of the origins of this portrait, but one plausible explanation is that this is a personification of the vice Vanity. Why do you think scholars might conclude this portrait to be that of Vanity? Consider the woman’s expression, clothing, jewelry, and the use of light.
• Ferdinand Bol’s work was at times confused for the work of his teacher, Rembrandt. Research some of Rembrandt’s work in portraiture and see how Bol could be mistaken for his master. Is there an apparent difference in skill? How does the coloring compare in each of the artist’s works?
• For the first time in Western history a middle-class society emerged in 17th-century Holland. Study the causes and events that led to this new social class. How did this influence the subject choices and painting style of the Dutch artist?
• The three physical properties of color are hue, value, and intensity. Closely observe the spectrum of reds used by Bol in the woman’s dress. Explain how Bol manipulated the properties of red to create volume, texture, and weight in the woman’s dress.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.