One of the foremost genre painters of seventeenth-century Holland, Adriaen van Ostade is recorded as having started his career as a pupil of Frans Hals in Haarlem, concurrently with Adriaen Brouwer. It was from these two artists, and from Brouwer in particular, that Van Ostade first developed his themes of raucous parties of smoking, drinking and dancing peasants in their village surroundings for which he is best known. From the 1640s onwards he began to endow his low-life protagonists with increasing degrees of restraint and dignity, his palette becoming richer and his chiaroscuro stronger. He continued to work in Haarlem throughout his life, becoming dean of the Guild of St. Luke in 1662.
The present picture can be regarded as one of the artist's most successful single figure pictures but is nevertheless atypical in its unambiguous moralising theme and outstanding for its strength of colour and modelling. Executed in his maturity, at a time when the tranquil domestic interior was a favourite subject in his work, Van Ostade here bestows upon his elderly sitter a sense of monumentality and resigned dignity, portraying her as a paragon of domestic diligence and virtuousness. These virtues are to be inferred from the distaff on the table at which she is seated. Recorded in the Bible as one of the activities of the good wife (Proverbs 31: 19), spinning had long been associated with domestic virtue, and in seventeenth-century Holland the distaff was used as a stock metaphor for virtue and diligence. Roemer Visscher published an emblem of a distaff as a symbol of moderation in his Sinnepoppen (Amsterdam, 1614) and the distaff was often incorporated in contemporary moralising prints such as Geertruid Roghman's engraving of A Woman Spinning of the 1650s.
It can be argued that the success of such moralising pictures depended on the artist's ability faithfully to depict everyday reality (see S. Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 1987, p.413), and in this case the allegory has been particularly effectively conveyed by the strength of modelling and detail and the minute rendition of the sitter's resigned expression. Such a monumental treatment of so humble a subject elicits comparison with other contemporary depictions of women at their domestic duties, most strikingly with Caspar Netscher's The Lacemaker, of 1662, in the Wallace Collection, London (no. P164).
The Delessert collection was one of the most notable in Paris in the later nineteenth century. The family fortune was founded by (Gabriel-)Etienne Delessert (1735-1816), the son of a Lyons silk-merchant; having moved to Paris in circa 1775 he began lending money to sellers of luxury goods, and thereby became a banker, being one of the founders of the Caisse d'Escompte. His eldest son (Jules-Paul-)Benjamin Delessert (1773-1847) was in 1802 appointed Régent of the Banque de France and in 1812 was ennobled as Baron Delessert. During the Bourbon Restoration he combined his function as député (intermittently between 1817 and 1842) with business interests, his most notable achievement being the creation of the Caisse d'épargne in 1818. A member of the Académie des Sciences, his considerable wealth enabled him to collect paintings, a field in which he showed individuality and distinction. His most spectacular purchase was made at the sale in 1843 of the collection of the Marqués de Las Marismas de Guadalquivir, when he spent 27,250 francs on Raphael's Orléans Madonna (Chantilly, Musée Condé). Among other Old Master paintings, he owned a strong group of Dutch cabinet pictures, such as Pieter de Hooch's Merry Company (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and eighteenth-century French paintings, including Greuze's Portrait of the engraver Jean-Georges Wille (1763; Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André). Benjamin's younger brother François-(Benjamin-)Marie Delessert (1780-1868) was successful as a businessman and banker and was a député between 1831 and 1848. He, too, collected paintings. Both Delessert collections were united on Benjamin's death and dispersed in 1869.