Secluded even from the artist's eye
Judging from the spot of bright light on the floor and the fact that the light must penetrate the narrow space between this room and the building across the way, the time is around noon. The year is around 1658-60. It's two centuries after Gutenberg's development of printing with movable type, 140 years after Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by publishing his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.
By now women, at least many Dutch women, have learned to read. We know this because a number of Dutch painters of this era - Pieter Janssens Elinga, who rendered this quiet, interior scene as well as Jan Vermeer and Samuel van Hoogstraten - have shown them reading.
Perhaps their reading is not surprising. Though not mighty in number, the Dutch had become the world's most prosperous people. Prosperity afforded time and opportunity for the development of culture and the arts. As a result, painting flourished. Rembrandt and Frans Hals were both active; so were Jan Steen and Jacob van Ruisdael. Peter Paul Rubens had passed from the scene less than 20 years before.
Dozens of genre painters were also at work. Some specialized in the interiors of churches. Others rendered mainly the interiors of homes. Perhaps the most notable of these latter was Vermeer whose handling of light falling across walls, fabrics and faces is known to art lovers throughout the world.
Pieter Janssens Elinga specialized in the kind of scene we see here. Closing the shutters on the lower windows, the woman has shed her clogs and secluded herself from the noontime world outside this room. She seems even to have secluded herself from the eye of the artist so that the painting depicts not a person so much as her quiet activity in the privacy of her room.
Born in Bruges in 1623, Janssens Elinga worked mainly in Amsterdam where he did genre scenes of this kind as well as still lifes and was also known as a musician. This work, owned by the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, resembles the paintings of the better known Pieter De Hooch and was at one time considered to be a work of that well-known master.
``Masterworks from Munich,'' an exhibition of paintings from the Alte Pinakothek, the first ever lent on exhibition to the United States, is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Jan. 8.