This arresting portrait, a rare individual portrait of a black woman at this period is very reminiscent of Annibale Carracci's head studies from life of the 1580s. Sir Denis Mahon, who has inspected the work in the original, inclines towards an attribution to the artist. We are also grateful to Dr. Elizabeth McGrath for pointing out a comparable black chalk drawing, Portrait of a young black boy, now attributed to Antonio Carracci of circa 1595 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig 1; no. A2150). The dignified sitter in the present painting holds the viewer's gaze with a commanding directness, endowing the picture with an unusual immediacy and intensity of expression. A sense of distance is re-asserted by her beautifully painted right hand, which clasps an apparently incongruous gilt-bronze table clock. The fleeting red brushstrokes that highlight the corners of her eyes and her lips are also used in the reds of her expensive coral necklace; similarly the abbreviated yellows and gold in the clock finds echoes in the sitter's gold and pearl drop earring, and in the mysterious v-shaped formation of pins that adorn her dress. The tone of her collar, where, unusually for a painting on canvas, the paint seems to have been applied to the picture surface with a palette knife, is repeated in the white cuffs of her sleeve and in her hair adornment. The overall effect is one of careful symmetry, juxtaposed against the carefully observed clock, which is given pre-eminence.
The gilded and engraved brass table clock that the sitter holds was an object of extreme luxury in the 16th century and was considered more valuable than many other works of art, not least because it was an item of cutting-edge technology of the period. Its hexagonal shape suggests that it was made in France or perhaps in Flanders, around 1550-1600. It is made up of an outer hour ring with Roman numerals, for showing the time, and an inner ring with faint indications of Arabic numerals, suggesting that the clock also had an alarm function. It even appears to have been equipped with touch pieces for telling the time at night.
This painting may be seen in the light of such works as, for example, Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli's Portrait of a Philosopher (lot 69 in this sale), in which the hourglass-symbol of mortality - and book suggest themes of reflection on the passage of time. Similarly such vanitas themes are immediately recognisable here; the elaborate clock, like the hourglass, was a signifier of the passing of time and the transience of life; indeed, the hand of the clock appears to be broken, making it impossible to read the time.The sitter's coral necklace can be similarly interpreted: coral being associated with healing powers and reputed to protect against the evil eye. X-ray and infra-red reflectography indicate that the present canvas has been reduced on the right and lower edges, and traces of an outline on the right side of the image suggest a lost detail, although this might be better understood with the removal of the present overpaint in this area.
It is possible that this portrait has an allegorical interpretation. A coral necklace is an attribute of Africa personified (the other female personifications were Asia crowned with flowers and adorned with jewels; Europe with crown and sceptre; and America with feathers, bow and arrow). Similarly, a clock, symbol of a well-regulated life, was an attribute of Temperance (which with the female personifications of Justice, Prudence and Fortitude was one of the four cardinal virtues). It has also been suggested that the sitter was a housekeeper, or that alternatively, the picture could have been half of a double portrait, depicting the wife of a clockmaker or goldsmith - although it would be unusual for the woman to have been placed on the left hand side of her husband. Like some of the most alluring old master paintings, the picture at present raises more questions than it is able to answer.