One of the foremost genre painters of 17th-century Holland, Adriaen van Ostade is recorded as having started his career as a pupil of Frans Hals in Haarlem, at the same time as Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638). It was these two artists, and Brouwer in particular, who inspired Van Ostade to develop his lively, sometimes raucous scenes of smoking, drinking and carousing peasants in their village surroundings. From the 1640s onwards, however, he began to endow his low-life figures with greater restraint and dignity, his palette becoming richer and his chiaroscuro stronger. He worked in Haarlem all his life, becoming a prominent citizen and dean of the Guild of St Luke in 1662.
This exquisite cabinet painting, Portrait of an elderly lady in a red coat, is among the finest of Ostade's single-figure pictures, exceptional in its strength of color and modeling. Executed in his maturity, at a time when the tranquil domestic interior was a favorite subject in his work, it is unusual in Ostade's oeuvre for its theme of domestic virtue. Dignified and monumental, the elderly lady is portrayed neat in her best clothes, a paragon of domestic diligence and virtuousness. The flax winder (distaff) by her side symbolizes a day's work completed and a life well-lived: the spun flax is ready for the next stage. Recorded in the Bible as one of the activities of the good wife (Proverbs 31:19), spinning and weaving had long been associated with domestic virtue, which was especially valued in 17th-century Dutch society. Ostade himself was the son of a weaver, and the rhythm of spinning and weaving would have been deeply familiar--and also surely personally significant--to him.
In its sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of old age, this moving picture reflects the influence of Van Ostade's contemporary Rembrandt, for whom the elderly were a constant source of inspiration. The wrinkles on the woman's hands and face and the folds of her snowy linen ruff and white cap are executed with exquisite care. Contrasting with the pale colors of the linen and skin are the vibrant red jacket and blue skirt, singing accents that give vitality to the image. It is little wonder that it was described as among the 'plus parfaits ouvrages de ce maître' in the Lebrun sale of 1803.
Adriaen van Ostade was celebrated in his lifetime, and his works were avidly acquired after his death; no aristocratic collection was complete without one. The present painting was owned by two famous banking dynasties: the Delesserts and the Rothschilds. Jules-Paul-Benjamin, Baron Delessert (1773-1847) was appointed Régent of the Banque de France in 1802 and created the Caisse d'Epargne in 1818. He amassed a very fine collection of Old Master paintings, including Raphael's Orléans Madonna (Musée Condé, Chantilly).
François-Benjamin-Marie Delessert (1780-1868), who worked in the family bank and was a député from 1831 to 1848. The two Delessert collections were united in 1847 and became one of the best-known cabinets in Paris, being dispersed in 1869.
In 1883 the Ostade was sold from the collection of B. Narischkine (Naryshkin), a scion of the Russian aristocratic family whose forebears included Natalia Kirillovna Naryshkina, the mother of Peter the Great. It was subsequently acquired by Baron Alphonse de Rothschild (1827-1905), son of Baron James de Rothschild (1792-1868), founder of the French branch of the family banking dynasty. The painting later descended to Baron Alphonse's son, Baron Edouard (1868-1949), and then to Edouard's daughter, Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild (1914-1999).