Woman Doing Handwork belongs to a group of seventeen or eighteen drawings by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout that are similarly executed with the brush in delicately graduated tones of brown wash. Except for a sheet with three studies of a dog, all of them represent single figures. Seated or reclining, they read, smoke, perform simple household tasks, daydream, or stare intently at the viewer. Only two depict women: the present example and a study of the same model operating a spinning wheel (Fig. 1).
Remarkable for their delicate, economical technique, distinctive mise-en-page, and contemplative mood, these singular drawings rank among the outstanding figure studies produced by any Dutch artist in the seventeenth century. Yet none of them are signed or attributable on the basis of a direct connection to a painting or print. Drawings in this group have been ascribed to the Rembrandt pupils Van den Eeckhout, Ferdinand Bol, and Nicolaes Maes; the genre specialists Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, Mozes ter Borch, Caspar Netscher, and Quirijn van Brekelenkam; and even to the eighteenth-century French master Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The earliest references to them are in the catalogues of two Dutch auction sales of the 1770s, where they are assigned to Van den Eeckhout. Two of the drawings were reproduced in facsimile engravings by Jurriaan Cootwijck (1714–1798) and published as works by Van den Eeckhout in Christian Josi’s Collection d’imitations de dessins (1821). Finally, as Werner Sumowski and Jane Turner have emphasized, formal and technical features relate these studies to paintings and drawings securely assigned to the artist.
Van den Eeckhout’s broad, pictorial execution and sensitivity to the reserved areas of the sheet recall Rembrandt’s brush drawing Study of Hendrickje Sleeping (c. 1655). A date in the 1650s was also proposed for Van den Eeckhout’s studies until Marieke de Winkel, an authority on seventeenth-century costume, observed that the clothing worn by a youth in one sheet indicated a later origin, around 1670, which could extend to the whole group. Peter Schatborn detected the influence on Van den Eeckhout’s drawings of the studies in brush and brown wash by the lawyer and amateur draftsman Jan de Bisschop (see 1999.129) .
The handwork performed by the woman in the Harvard drawing is not clearly represented and has been identified as sewing, knitting, and crocheting. While she is most likely knitting, Van den Eeckhout depicted only one needle.