Pieter Leermans

(birthplace unknown, 1655 – possibly Leiden, 1706)


A ‘Portrait Historié’ of a Lady, depicted as the Penitent Mary Magdalene, three-quarter-length, besides a willow tree, with an extensive landscape in the background with a castle beyond


Oil on panel
H. 37 cm.  W. 28 cm.


Anonymous sale; Christie's, 7 April 1966, lot 15, as by Gerrit Dou;
Private collection, United Kingdom


We are grateful to Mr Fred Meijer of the RKD in The Hague, for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs and to Mr Stéphane Pinta, of Cabinet Turquin, Paris, for endorsing the attribution



This graceful oil on panel depicts in great detail a young lady in half-length and in three-quarter profile, with her head turned to the right, facing the viewer. The lady is dressed in a purple gown, with a dark blue stole over her left shoulder, running down into her lap and a white scarf around her neck. Her long dark brown hair falls over both her shoulders. She is situated in a grotto setting, with a willow three at her left. In front of her, laying on a flat stone surface, a striking large book is depicted from which she appears to be reading. The meticulously painted letters reveal in capitals ‘MARIA. VANDE (..)OEDE’, followed by ‘Aenmerckinghe’. Apart from this large book, two well-worn leather covered books are placed prominently in the foreground and three more in the background. On the two in the foreground rests a skull, behind which a cross made out of twigs and a covered ointment jar - the main iconographical attribute of Mary Magdalene - are depicted. To the right of the books lays a scourge as a symbol for self-flagellation and penitence. In front of this still-life, several bushes of blossoming water dock are depicted and in the left a pile of vegetables, comprising carrots, turnips and an onion. The leaves of the flowers are echoed in the leaves of the willow tree and the ivy running up its stem and hanging down from the grotto, at the left side of the composition. The right background is formed by an extensive mountainous landscape, with the towers of a castle rising up from a valley, further emphasising the remoteness of the grotto and in addition Mary Magdalene’s solitude and her rejection of worldly goods.


Artist’s biography (1)


The Northern Dutch artist Pieter Leermans (also sometimes referred to as ‘Pieter Lermans’ or ‘Pieter Lieremans’) remains a rather obscure artist, of whom little biographical details are known. He was born in 1655 and was active in the second half of the seventeenth century (2). A painter of portraits, genre scenes, and religious themes, Leermans lived in Leiden, though he is not mentioned in the records of the Guild of Saint Luke. His genre scenes are clearly reminiscent of the works of Gerrit Dou (Leiden, 1613 – 1675) and Frans van Mieris the Elder (Leiden, 1635 - 1681). It is not known with certainty if Leermans was one of Dou’s many pupils, but there is scholarly consensus that Leermans was active in the immediate circle of Dou or at least that he was highly influenced by this prominent master and his School (3). Dou counts as the founder of the Leiden School of ‘fijnschilders’, or ‘fine painters’. As the term denotes, the style developed by Dou and his followers involved meticulously fine brushwork, highly-finished surfaces, and a close observation of objects and textures, also clearly demonstrated in the present work (4). Like Frans van Mieris, Leermans was fond of including minute accessories in his work. The works of Van Mieris and his school display an enamel-like smoothness and an emphatic display of virtuosity in the rendering of minute details in a highly polished manner. Such was the acute attention to detail in these works, that they provoked amazement for the virtuosity and perfection that the artists produced with paint. The works by Leermans may undeniably be placed in this tradition. Pieter Leermans died in 1706, most likely in Leiden.


The ‘portrait historié’


The Penitent Mary Magdalene depiction is the representation of Mary Magdalene repenting her sinful past. In the present work, Pieter Leermans has exploited his considerable skills, with his soft rendering of the various fabrics worn by Mary Magdalene and the highly detailed still life elements surrounding her. Especially regarding the highly refined application of paint and attention to detail –especially in the layered pages of the scripture and meticulously painted skull and vegetables – Leermans clearly displays his great virtuously and uncanning ability to capture surface textures . Mary Magdalene was frequently painted as a penitent in reference to her apparent past life as a prostitute and adulteress for which, according to legend, she spent many years in the desert atoning. This assumption has been maintained throughout the centuries, even though none of the New Testament Gospels refer to her as either (5). However, in keeping with this tradition, Leermans depicts Mary with her hair worn down, her soft locks flowing over her shoulders.


The particular way in which Mary Magdalene in the present painting is depicted, supports the claim that it is a portrait of a contemporary lady (whose identity is unknown). First of all, the individual features of the lady suggest that it is rather an actual woman then an imaginary figure. But especially the rather sober depiction underlines this notion. The Penitent Mary Magdalene is usually depicted frivolous, often with one breast revealed (6). The motif of one bare breast was particularly popular in the art of the seventeenth century and Mary Magdalene was the most popular figure where, ‘her naked breast seemed to become one of her saintly attributes, a newly coined image of vulnerability and penitence, superimposed on the established theme of pleasure.’ (7). It would have been considered scandalous to present any other woman in such a revealing state of undress. Thus, the fact that the lady in the present painting is depicted in a ‘respectable’ way, clearly suggests that this work is in fact a portrait of an actual lady.


The two genres of history painting and portrait painting merge in what is known as the biblical ‘portrait historié’: portraits in the guise of biblical persons. This specific genre was especially fashionable in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. In religious art, the portrait historié developed from the donor's portrait into the 'portrait in assistance', in which the patrons increasingly find their way to the centre of the composition, passively taking part in the sacred history. In the course of time, these passive witnesses gain a more active role (8). Apart from this type of depiction, there are so-called ‘identification portraits’: portrait with a direct link between the identity of the saint and the portrayed person. It seems highly debatable to explain the choice of subject matter only from a religious standpoint, let alone from a complex theological perspective, since there are often more mundane explanations for a specific identification. For example, the name, profession or personal background of the portrayed person may have determined the choice for a specific religious theme (9). It is speculative, though rather plausible, that the lady who is portrayed in the present painting was named after Maria Magdalene.




Throughout The Penitent Mary Magdalene, Leermans has scattered various symbolic messages and iconography. She is placed within a grotto- setting - a reference to the French legends of Mary Magdalene in which she is said to have retired to a cave in the St. Baume mountain range for thirty years. The skull may be a reference to Mary’s role as a witness of the crucifixion, which took place on Golgotha, the ‘place of the skull’. In addition, the skull, a typical ‘vanitas symbol’ (10) serves as a memento mori: a reminder of the brevity of life and the contemplation of death. In addition, it refers to the promise of Christian salvation. Next to the scull, an ointment jar is depicted. As mentioned in the above, this is Mary Magdalene’s primary attribute. The jar refers to the episode taking place in the house of Simon the Pharisee where the redeemed sinner washed Christ’s feet in her repentant tears, ointed them with perfumed oil and dried them with her hair (Luc 7:36-50). It further refers to Mary Magdalene’s intention to embalm Christ after his crucifixion (11). More than that, however, it serves as a reminder of her role as witness to one of the most powerful and important events in the Gospels underpinning the Christian faith - the Resurrection of Christ. As one of the main protagonists in the Resurrection, Mary encounters the resurrected Christ and steps forward to touch him only to be told, ‘do not touch me’ (noli me tangere). As already mentioned above, the scourge serves as a symbol for self-flagellation and penitence (12).


Very interesting is the herbal symbolism in the painting. Leermans has painted a blossoming plant with large rhubarb-like leaves in the left foreground. This specific herb is recognisable as the ‘great water dock’ (Latin: Rumex), a plant that appears in several seventeenth century depictions of hermits (13). Contemporary herbals record that this herb, also known as ‘Monk’s rhubarb’, possesses a medicinal quality against the stinging of serpents. Dixon points out that in paintings of devout hermits, water dock’s legendary effectiveness against snakebites, recalls Original Sin (14), initiated by Satan in the guise of a serpent. As such, the Monk’s Rhubarb serves as a botanical ally against temptation (15). Leermans has also used the symbol of the water dock in his Hermit Scholar, painted around 1680 (16). Apart from this herb, also the willow tree serves a symbolic function. Dixon states that the barren trunk of the willow from which live branches grow, refers to the Christian resurrection and the tree of knowledge of good and evil that grew in the Garden of Eden. But she also points to a specific symbolism that is closely related to the other symbols in the present painting. The pollarded willow tree is the result of drastically cut branches, thus creating a dense growth. Theoretically, by rigorously controlling a tree’s growth, it is strengthened. The disfigured willow struggles to stay alive despite repeated obstacles to its growth, assuming the role of a botanical embodiment of the tortured body and anguished sprit of the hermit saint. But the disfigured tree still manages to produce young branches, just like Mary Magdalene endures continual suffering, becoming stronger through self-denial or even flagellation (17).


Place in the artist’s oeuvre and art historic significance


In many depictions, such as the one by Titian, Mary Magdalene is shown as a troubled soul, often with her hands extended in bewildered exasperation or crossed over her chest. The present painting however, portrays her rather self-assured, almost as a scholar. This impression is strengthened even further by the fact that Mary is surrounded by well-worn leather covered books. As in the many pictorial representations of scholar-hermits in the empty wilderness, the inclusion of books alludes to the contemplative life of reflection and penitence incurred by those in spiritual isolation. This compositional device – the scholar-hermits in the wilderness – was popularized by Gerrit Dou in the 1640s. Shortly after, variations on this theme would occur frequently in the works of the Leiden School. After having explored the theme of the hermit at prayer early in his development, Dou returned to it later in his life (18). The subject of these paintings – the retreat into a life of quiet contemplation and austerity – had great appeal to seventeenth century viewers, and the proliferation of works of the same subject by other artists well into the eighteenth century is in itself testament to the popularity of the subject matter. Dou’s hermits were very influential and inspired many artists. Marin records Leermans especially for his hermits in the style of Dou (19) of which some examples are known (20). In fact, due to the close similarity, the present painting formerly was attributed to Dou (see provenance). Recent study has revealed, however, that it is the only known portrait historié by Leermans, marking the art historic significance of this piece.




The work of Pieter Leermans is represented at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany; the Stadtmuseum Oldenburg, Oldenburg, Germany; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dunkerque, France; the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, Rennes, France; the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary; the Museum St. Elisabethgasthuis, Leiden, the Netherlands and the Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, the Netherlands.




(1) This biography is principally based on: Laabs, A. (2000). Von der lustvollen Betrachtung der Bilder: Leidener Feinmaler in der Dresdener Gemäldegalerie. Leipzig: Seemann; Laabs, A. (2001). The Leiden Fijnschilders from Dresden. Zwolle:Waanders; Molhuysen, P.C. & Blok, P.J. (red.) (1914). Nieuw Nederlandsch biografisch woordenboek. Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff, Vol. III, p. 297; Thieme, U. & Becker, F (1928). Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler : von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Leipzig: Seemann Vol. 22 (1928), p. 546
(2) Thieme, 1928, p. 546; RKD database
(3) Molhuysen, 1914, p. 297
(4) For more information on the Leiden Fine Painters see: Rooij, Karin de (1988). De Leidse fijnschilders. Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal ; Sluijter, E.J.[ et.a.] (1988). Leidse fijnschilders: van Gerrit Dou tot Frans van Mieris de Jonge 1630-1760. Leiden: Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal; Hecht, P. (1989). De Hollandse fijnschilders: van Gerard Dou tot Adriaen van der Werff. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum
(5) For more information on Mary Magdalene see: Brock, A.G. (2003). Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press; Burstein, D. & Keijzer, A.J. De (2006). Secrets of Mary Magdalene. New York: CDS Books; Jansen, K.L. (2000).The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Wellborn, A. (2006). De-coding Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legend, and Lies. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor
(6) A revealed breast was a particular iconography associated with Mary Magdalene, seen for example in Titian’s (ca.1480/85 - 1576) influential and much reproduced masterpiece The Repentant Mary Magdalene, executed ca. 1560, which is in the collection of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Russia
(7) Hollander, 1993 p. 198
(8) Leeuwen, R. van (2004). Het religieuze portrait historié in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden. In: Desipientia: Zin & Waan 11, nr. 2, pp. 47-52.
(9) For further reading on the portrait historié see: Leeuwen, R. van (2009). Moses and the Israelites by Maerten de Vos (1532-1603): New Insights on the portrait historié of the Panhuys family of 1572. In: V. Manuth, A.M. Koldeweij & R. van Leeuwen (red.) Example or alter ego? Aspects of the portrait historié in Western Art from Antiquity to the Present. Nijmegen: Nijmeegse Kunsthistorische Studie; Leeuwen, R. van (2009). The ‘Portrait Historié’ in Religious Context and its Condemnation. In: Van der Stighelen, K. & Watteeuw, B. (red.) Pokerfaced: Flemish and Dutch Baroque Faces Unveiled. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers; Schooten, C.J.F. van & Wüstefeld, W.C.M. (red.) (2003). Goddelijk Geschilderd. Honderd meesterwerken van Museum Catharijneconvent. Zwolle: Waanders, pp. 124-126, pp. 141 – 143, pp. 225
(10) In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The word is Latin, meaning ‘emptiness’ and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity.
(11( Giorgi, R. (2004). Heiligen. Gent: ludion, p. 249, p. 253
(12) Giorgi, 2004, p. 254
(13) e.g. Gerrit Dou, Hemit in Prayer, ca. 1635, collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, ‘Standort Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister’, inv.nr. Gal. Nr. 1711
(14) Original Sin is, according to a doctrine proposed in Christian theology, humanity's state of sin resulting from the Fall of Man.
(15) See: Dixon, L. S. (2010). Privileged Piety: Melancholia and the Herbal Tradition. In: JHNA, the electronic journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. Volume 1: Issue 2
(16) Hermit Scholar, (or ‘Der Einsiedler’) collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, ‘Standort Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister’, inv.nr. Gal. Nr. 1779, see; Bernt,W. (1980). Die Niederländischen Maler und Zeichner des 17.Jahrhunderts. München cat.nr. 712
(17) See: Dixon, 2010
(18) Hermit at Prayer, dated 1664, collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, acc. no. C128 and Hermit Praying, dated 1670, collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, United Sates of America, acc. no. 87.11
(19) Martin, W. (1936). De Hollandsche schilderkunst in de zeventiende eeuw: Rembrandt en zijn tijd. Onze 17e eeuwsche schilderkunst in haren bloeitijd en nabloei. Amsterdam:J.M. Meulenhoff, p. 221
(20) e.g. the Praying Hermit in Dresden and The Penitent Mary Magdalene, auctioned at Stockholms Auktionsverk, Thursday, May 31, 2007, as Lot 02448


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