An old man sits in a window, a glass in his hand, a pile of plump, pink shrimps on the table in front of him. Vine leaves hang down overhead, and on the windowsill is a violin. Carved into the wooden panel beneath the sill are the Latin letters for 1660, ‘MDCLX’ – the year the original picture was painted, though this is a later copy.
The picture is a tronie, a popular genre of painting in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. These pictures showed stock characters in costume with exaggerated facial expressions.
An old man sits in a window, a glass in his hand, a pile of plump, pink shrimps on the table in front of him. Vine leaves hang down overhead, and on the windowsill is a violin. Carved into the wooden panel beneath the sill are the Latin letters for 1660, ‘MDCLX ’– the year the picture was originally painted, though this is a later copy.
Despite the half-empty glass and the rakish angle of his hat, this appears to be a troubled man. His mouth is tense and his eyes have an almost puzzled, far away look. The hand that holds the glass is slack and most of the shrimps are untouched.
The violin helps to establish an illusion of space as it projects towards us out of the picture. The figure of the woman in the white bonnet behind the old man also helps this illusion – the artist has made her shadowy and indistinct. She writes on a slate – perhaps keeping the old man’s tab.
This picture isn’t the portrait of a specific person. It’s a tronie (an archaic Dutch word meaning ‘face'), a popular genre of painting in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. These pictures showed often comical stock characters in costume, with exaggerated facial expressions. The old fiddler, with his white ruff and cuff, his puffed sleeve and curve-brimmed hat, is dressed in the fashion of almost a hundred years before. This recalls Frans van Mieris’s Self-Portrait of the Artist with a Cittern, a cheerful view of himself that’s a cross between a portrait and a tronie.
Van Mieris’s paintings were very popular in the seventeenth century, fetching high prices. They were widely copied, and sometimes with variations, as in The Old Fiddler. This particular copy was probably made in the eighteenth century. It shares van Mieris’s practice of painting on an oak panel, resulting in an ultra-smooth finish that gives a greater illusion of reality. It also allows attention to tiny details like the snail on its upward journey, the crisp gathers in the man’s neck ruff and the glint in his eyes. But the unknown artist has placed vines around the window, rather than the ivy shown in van Mieris’s original (now in the Eijk and Rose-Marie de Mol van Otterloo Collection, USA).
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