Study of a West African woman


Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam

Study of a West African woman  (c. 1633-1635)


pen in dark brown ink; greenish-brown borders, laid down on an 18th-century mat.
54 x 51 mm.

horizontal, 25 mm

on mat, below drawing: Rembrandt / Ex. J. van Haecken Colln (pen in brown ink, 18th century).


Joseph van Haecken, 1699-1749, (Lugt 2516), his sale, London, Langford,
11-27 February 1751.
Paul Cassirer & Co., Berlin and Amsterdam.
Franz Koenigs, 1881-1941, Berlin and Haarlem, acquired through Cassirer, mid-1930s(?).
Christine van der Waals-Koenigs, Heemstede.
Franz Koenigs collection, sale, New York, Sotheby’s, 23 January 2001, lot 23, acquired at the sale.


Benesch, Otto. The Drawings of Rembrandt. London, 1954-7, Vol. IV, no. A25, fig. 1024 and 1973, Vol. IV, no. A25, fig. 1083, as attributed to Rembrandt. (Although Benesch catalogued this among the Attributed Drawings, his note describes it as characteristic of Rembrandt’s genre studies of c. 1641-3.)

Haverkamp-Begemann, Egbert. Review of first edition of Benesch. Kunstchronik, 1961, p. 29.

Sumowski, Werner. Bemerkungen zu Otto Beneschs Corpus der Rembrandtzeichnungen. Bad Pyrmont 1961, p. 23.

Peck, Sheldon. Rembrandt Drawings: Twenty-five Years in the Peck Collection. Boston, Perho Documenta, 2003. Published catalogue.

The woman, drawn from life, is seen in concentration after buying at market a live chicken, which she is holding under her left arm and restraining by the neck with her mitted hand.  She is clearly a black African, according to her precisely rendered facial features.  Stylistically, the drawing compares favorably with Rembrandt’s figure studies from 1633-5.

She would have been among the recent arrivals from the Dutch West India Company’s slave trade, some of whom were brought to the Netherlands, freed, and hired as household servants by wealthy merchants.  The Dutch West India Company, established in 1621, was able to dominate the gold and slave trade in West Africa within a few years of operation.  Most of it’s early trade routes were to colonial outposts in the Caribbean and to ports along the southeast coast of the North American English colonies.  Some of these West Africans were diverted to the Netherlands for domestic service.  Thus, by the early 1630s, African blacks were the newest immigrants in Amsterdam.  This must have inspired Rembrandt’s curiosity, for he began to record images of Africans afterward in a few paintings (CRP A106, c.1634), etchings (Bartsch 77, dated 1636; Bartsch 98, dated 1641; Bartsch 357, c. 1630), and drawings (Benesch 365, British Museum; Benesch 366, private collection; and two drawings not in Benesch – Broos, 1981, catalogue no. 15 verso [Figure 2a], and Schatborn, 1985, catalogue no. 13 [Figure 2b]) as well as this sensitive study.

Rembrandt’s eye was attracted to this African woman probably because of her unusual hair cover, rather than for her facial type or the hen locked under her arm.  He focuses his detail on the West-African hair cloth – probably of bright color – used to wrap her hair, and the striking, ethnic hair clips (perhaps of ivory) she used to fasten it down.  Two clips are carefully depicted, one on either side of her left ear.  Rembrandt draws a precise, reinforced outline of her kerchief with accented lines to highlight the folds in this tightly applied hair cover.  A very similar hair cloth with clips is seen on a domestic woman of apparent African origin in a chalk drawing at Brussels (Benesch 737, c. 1642).  Rembrandt’s fascination with such details of facial appearance and clothing is well known.  The elaborate hair trappings of a young girl attracted his close attention in a large sheet (Benesch A10; Williams 2001, cat. no. 96, c. 1640-5) in the Sachs collection at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge.

The graphic style, the ink, the paper and the paper orientation are identical with that of another Rembrandt drawing in this catalogue, A pregnant woman standing (cat. no. 3), also with the van Haecken “VH” collector’s mark.  It appears that the two sketches may have been side-by-side on the same large page of small figure studies, before being cut apart.  The practice of cutting up drawings with multiple images was common among early dealers and collectors, and was carried out here probably by van Haecken himself in the first half of the 18th century.  Several other small Rembrandt figure drawings with van Haecken’s mark, on similar paper but in black chalk, further attest to the collector’s penchant for cutting many works from larger sketchbook sheets (see Royalton-Kisch, 1992, pp. 118-9, catalogue nos. 47-50).

As Haverkamp-Begemann (1961) pointed out, the artist is unmistakably Rembrandt, and Benesch’s uncertainty of this drawing’s authenticity is unfounded.