In the family of the present owner since the early nineteenth century, this is a newly discovered early work by the artist, indebted both in terms of its subject and its execution to Gerard Dou in whose Leiden studio Schalcken was working in the 1660s. The pictorial idea of the old woman shown in meditation or (more usually) reading, goes back to Rembrandt's numerous early etchings and paintings of a woman who was subsequently identified (although without any evidence) as the artist's mother. Dou used the same model for pictures such as the Old Woman reading (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum), and an oval Old Woman (Paris, Louvre) which was paired up in the eighteeenth century with another painting in the collection by Schalcken (Old Man reading; inv. 1832). While their pictures of women reading were probably intended as depictions of seers or biblical prophetesses, Schalcken's sitter in the present work is shown lost in her own thoughts and can be regarded more as a general meditation on old age, which she faces with both melancholy and dignity. In this respect it closely correlates with Rembrandt's miniature etchings that show the sitter in bust-length, as for example in the 1631 depiction of The Artist's Mother with her hand on her chest, Hollstein no. 349; see fig. 1).
Another version, traditionally given to Dou, was formerly in the Cook collection (Catalogue of the Pictures at Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey, in the Collection of Sir Herbert Cook, London, 1932, p. 43, no. 239), and reproduced at the beginning of the last century by Martin (see W. Martin, Gerard Dou, [Klassiker der Kunst], Stuttgart and Berlin, 1913, p. 48). On the basis of this black and white illustration, the handling seems less refined and the detail less precise than in the present work, which suggests that it was not by Dou and more likely derivative from the present work.
The form of the initialled signature (G.S.) can be found in a number of other early small-scale works by Schalcken, including two oval miniature portraits (both location unknown) and the Portrait of Elizabeth Taillard (Middelburg, Zeeuws Museum; see T. Beherman, Godfried Schalcken, Brussels, 1988, nos. 123, 102, and 76).