An elegant and fashionably dressed young lady is absorbed in writing a letter. She holds a quill pen. On the table next to her is a pen case, attached by brownish strings to a dark brown inkpot. We can‘t read what she is writing – the artist doesn’t seem to have intended it to be legible.
We don't know who she is, but the style of her dress suggests the picture was painted in around 1530. It may be a copy of a lost original by Jan van Hemessen, showing a young woman masquerading as Mary Magdalene, a follower of Christ who became one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages.
The painting has been cut on all four sides and is possibly a fragment from a larger composition.
An elegant and fashionably dressed young lady is absorbed in writing a letter. She holds a quill pen. A pen case on the table is attached by brownish strings to a dark brown inkpot, which casts an almost pure azurite shadow across the table cloth. We can‘t read what she is writing – the artist doesn’t seem to have intended it to be legible.
We don't know who the sitter is, but the style of her dress suggests that the picture was painted in around 1530. Her clothes are very similar to those shown in two paintings attributed to Jan Sanders van Hemessen: Young Woman weighing Gold (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) and Young Woman playing a Clavichord (Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts). It has been suggested that the subject of these two paintings is the young Margaret of Parma, and that our painting might be a copy of a lost third portrait of her.
The three paintings share other features: in all the woman has a very high forehead, an enormously thick neck and rather small hands. However, they are probably not portraits, but studies from life of young women masquerading as Saint Mary Magdalene. In both the Berlin and Worcester paintings there are large covered goblets made of gilded and elaborately ornamented metal. They probably stand for the covered pot that is Mary Magdalene’s attribute. Similar paintings of fashionably dressed young women, who write or play instruments and whose pots identify them as the saint, are attributed to the Master of the Female Half-Lengths.
Similarities with a signed painting by van Hemessen, The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), confirm the connection with him. Our painting is not by the artist himself, but it seems to follow a lost original. It may have been painted in his workshop, about which little is known. It cannot be by his daughter, Catharina van Hemessen as she was a child when it was painted.
The painting has been cut on all four sides and is possibly a fragment from a larger composition, perhaps originally including another figure.
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