Watching a paper wind toy

An optical puzzle. There seems little consensus as to what kind of object is shown as the centrepiece.

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Painting of Watching a Paper Wind Toy
Watching a paper wind toy
Style of Dominicus van Tol
Late 17th / early 18th century

A group of four people watch a suspended paper toy. The old woman wears metal nose spectacles, whilst the old man uses a quizzing glass.  

You may click on the image of this painting to enlarge it.

There seems little consensus as to what kind of object is shown as the centrepiece. Scholars at the Warburg Institute, London, have suggested that it may represent ‘an early form of animation; that by whirling the globe, different images would blend into motion’, but there are problems with this idea both on account of the fact that histories of animation invariably assign the discovery of moving images to the first half of the nineteenth century and because the images on the different panels of the toy seem too dissimilar to merge. An expert from the Museum Boorhaave (Leiden) has, by contrast, suggested that he could imagine the toy used in ‘a context of fortune telling’.

Detail of paper toy

The late Professor Gerard Turner, along yet different lines, suggested that the ‘toy’ may have been used, in conjunction with the pair of dividers seen on the table, to measure distances on the sphere, so that the audience could work out such calculations as time zones. So whilst this is plainly a picture of interest and bafflement to historians of science we cannot be sure if it relates to optical science. At least the characters are wearing and using vision aids!

Dominicus van Tol (c.1635-1676), was a pupil and follower of his uncle, Gerrit Dou. In 1664 he became a member of the Leiden Guild and two years later of the Amsterdam Guild. After time spent in Amsterdam, he returned to Leiden the year before his death. Many of his pictures are still attributed to Dou, although van Tol’s are distinguishable on account of his coarser figures, and sometimes because the images betray the influence of Flemish artists, such as Teniers the Younger.

Detail from painting showing a woman wearing spectacles

Quite often in his work van Tol depicted old people wearing spectacles. For instance, the same kind of old woman is seen in An old woman and her lap dog (Earl of Ellesmere, Bridgewater House); there is an old man wearing spectacles in Interior with a man reading and a woman spinning (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). The figure in profile in the foreground, meanwhile, is very similar to one of the children seen in van Tol’s Children with a Mousetrap (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum).

Detail from painting showing a man with a quizzing glass

We do not, however, think this is actually a work by van Tol. Rather it is an historic copy of his style by an unknown artist. Our correspondence with the Rijksmuseum has elicited the response that this painting is executed ‘more in the style of Jacob Toorenvliet than of his Leiden townsman Dominicus van Tol’ but that ‘it is clear that the painting has a Leiden origin and dates from the last quarter of the 17th century’.

The BOA Museum picture was previously attributed to Willem van Mieris (1662-1747), an artist whose original portrait this museum actually possesses, who continued the tradition of the Leiden fijnschilders into the eighteenth century and whose father, Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81) had, like van Tol, been a pupil of Gerrit Dou.

An eighteenth century date for this picture is quite possible. It could even have been painted in England. The art of the fijnschilders was popular at the court of William III. The artist Godfried Schalken (1643-1706) had visited the Anglo-Dutch king in the 1690s and become well known for his paintings of scenes illuminated by candlelight.