The story is told of a little child who, upon being introduced to a kind-faced lady, looked up brightly into her eyes with the question, "Whose mother are you?" When we look into the wrinkled old face of this picture, the same sort of a question springs to mind, and we involuntarily ask, "Whose grandmother are you?" We are sure that children and grandchildren have leaned upon that capacious lap. The name of the subject is not known, though the same face appears many times in Rembrandt's works. But there are many people whose names we can quote, of whom we know much less than of this old woman.

The story of her life is written in the picture. Those clasped hands, large and knotted, have done much hard work. They have ministered to the needs of two generations. They have dandled the baby on her knee, and supported the little toddler taking his first steps. They have tended the child and wrought for the youth. They have built the fire on the hearth and swept out the house; they have kneaded the bread and filled the kettle; they have spun and woven, and sewed and mended. They have not even shrunk from the coarser labors of dooryard and field, the care of the cattle, the planting and harvesting. But labor has done nothing to coarsen the innate refinement of the soul which looks out of the fine old face.

She is resting now. The children and grandchildren have grown up to take care of themselves and their grandmother also. She has time to sit down in the twilight of life, just as she used to sit down at the close of each day's work, to think over what has happened. She has a large comfortable chair, and she is neatly dressed, as befits an old woman whose life work is done. A white kerchief is folded across her bosom, a shawl is wrapped about her shoulders, and a hood droops over her forehead. Her thoughts are far away from her present surroundings; something sad occupies them. She dreams of the past and perhaps also of the future. Sorrow as well as work has had a large share in her life, but she has borne it all with patient resignation. She is not one to complain, and does not mean to trouble others with her sadness. But left all alone with her musings, a look of yearning comes into her eyes as for something beautiful and much loved, lost long ago.

Some painters have been at great pains to fashion a countenance sorrowful enough and patient enough to represent the subject of the Mater Dolorosa, that is, the Sorrowing Mother of Christ. Perhaps they would have succeeded better if they had turned away from their own imaginations to some mother in real life, who has loved and worked and suffered like this one. The face answers in part our first question. A woman like this is capable of mothering great sons. Industrious, patient, self-sacrificing, she would spare herself nothing to train them faithfully. And the life of which her face speaks—a life of self-denying toil, ennobled by high ideals of duty—is the stuff of which heroes are made. Some of the great men of history had such mothers.

PORTRAIT OF AN OLD WOMAN Hermitage Gallery, St. Petersburg
Hermitage Gallery, St. Petersburg

The picture illustrates the fact that a face may be interesting and even artistic, if not beautiful. This idea may surprise many, for when one calls a person "as pretty as a picture," it seems to be understood that it is only pretty people who make suitable models for pictures. Rembrandt, however, was of quite another mind. He was a student of character as well as a painter, and he cared to paint faces more for their expression than for beauty of feature.

Now the expression of a face is to a great extent the index of character. We say that the child has "no character in his face," meaning that his skin is still fair and smooth, before his thoughts and feelings have made any record there. Gradually the character impresses itself on his face. Experience acts almost like a sculptor's chisel, carving lines of care and grooving furrows of sorrow, shaping the mouth and the setting of the eyes.

The longer this process continues, the more expressive the face becomes, so that it is the old whose faces tell the most interesting stories of life. Rembrandt understood this perfectly, and none ever succeeded better than he in revealing the poetry and beauty of old age.

His way of showing the character in the face of this old woman is very common with him. The high light of the picture is concentrated on the face and is continued down upon the snowy kerchief. This forms a diamond of light shading by gradations into darker tints. It was the skillful use of light and shadow in the picture, which made a poetic and artistic work of a subject which another painter might have made very commonplace.