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Het werkelijke onderwerp van Aert de Gelders 'Heilige Familie' te Berlijn

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

When Aert de Gelder's painting (fig. i) was purchased for the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Bode wrote a note on it in the Amtliche Berichte aus den königlichen Kunstsammlungen 31 (1910) which, despite the brevity of the text, established the interpretation of the representation until now. Bode adopted the title by which the work is generally known, 'The Holy Family', without any reservations, but regarded the unconventional conception of the religious subject as genre-like and profane. He saw this incongruity as the consequence of De Gelder's extreme 'naturalism', which in his opinion was manifest in the types and costumes of Jews from the Orient, portrayed so faithfully that to Bode they resembled nothing so much as 'a family of Jewish immigrants from Poland' ... (refugees from the pogroms were evidently a common sight at that time). The characterisation of the figures is amazingly vivid, but struck Bode as almost comical. To him, oddly, De Gelder's drastic realism was coupled with a rendering based on Rembrandt's last, broad manner of painting but executed coquettishly ; too much an end in itself, it was this virtuoso method that divested the work of the serious mood appropriate to the subject. Bode's negative assessment of 1910 was surpassed by Plietzsch in 1960, but their repudiation of De Gelder's art has since been superseded by positive appraisals in publications of the past few decades. Unfortunately, though, their total misconception of the picture persists. It is still thought to be the profane conception of the religious subject, the conclusion being that the painter only chose his biblical scenes as an excuse to paint colourful pictures of orientals in stereotypical garments. Only in his old age is De Gelder credited with having painted biblical subjects - notably the Passion series - with inner conviction. This complex of speculations is built on the quicksand of carelessly observed figures: the putative Mary is an old woman with jewels in her ears, on her forehead and round her wrists; the alleged Joseph is very close to her, his hand on her shoulder - such intimacy is unthinkable for the Holy Family. The figure on the far right is taken for an unrecognizable subsidiary figure. What Bode confidently imputes to De Gelder as a profane interpretation is blatantly unhistorical fiction: every history painter always felt obliged to depict his subject recognizably and in keeping with the facts and circumstances, arbitrary personal departures from which would have branded him as ignorant and stupid. It is disconcerting and tragi-comical that a mistaken identification of the subject of one painting, resulting from downright carelessness in the observation of details, could go unnoticed and uncriticized for so long and, what is more, be the point of departure for purely speculative statements about De Gelder's alleged indifference to the biblical subjects he depicted. It goes without saying that this articulate figure composition of an aged couple with an infant, laughing for joy, presents familiar characters, and the account in the Old Testament (Genesis 17-21) corresponds with the elements of De Gelder's scene. The frequent mention of laughter - in seven passages- inspired the painter to depict Abraham and Sarah with their child Isaac, whose name means 'to laugh'. It is a scriptural representation, albeit not of a situation from an actual story. There was no precedent for this specific image - the fruit of personal familiarity and sympathy with the story in the Book of Genesis- which explains why it was unknown and hence hard to recognize. De Gelder's wholly personal interpretation of the story is also apparent in his invcntion : the contrast between the family's joy and the forlorn Ishmael at the far right. In fact, though, the supposedly profane work provides proof positive of the paintcr's personal religious persuasion, and it is not the only one of its kind in his oeuvre. Another picture of Sarah and Abraham (fig. 2), iconographically just as unique, dates from the same pcriod - according to Sumowski from the early 1680s. It shows the episode in which Sarah insists on the banishment of Ishmael and his mother as related in Genesis 21:10, but De Gelder depicts Sarah as a supplicant, pleading with Abraham, distressed by Ishmael's harsh behaviour towards little Isaac (not in Genesis, but in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians). Jan Victors' picture (fig. 3) 'The Feast in Celebration of Isaac's Weaning; Ishmael's Mockery of Isaac' (Genesis 21:8-9) shares three significant elements with De Gelder's Berlin painting. First the frequent laughter: Ishmael's is mocking, Isaac's triumphant and Hagar's barely concealed. Second, Isaac's important attribute, the fruit he is holding up. Third: here, too, Ishmael is dark-skinned ; as the son of an Egyptian this might be expected, but in the seventeenth century and in our part of the world only these two artists, to my knowledge, depicted him thus. The occurrence of these three unusual elements in both painters' works is evidence that De Gelder was familiar with Victors' picture. In Victors' (fig.4) and C.W.E. Dietrich's (fig.5) paintings 'The Banishment of Hagar and Ishmael' the apple(-like) fruit is seen again; these two artists and De Gelder evidently gave Isaac this attribute in order to distinguish him from Ishmael. In view of Rembrandt's etching B.33 (fig.6), we may assume that his aforementioned pupils learned this device from him. The argument that the father and son in Rembrandt's etching are Jacob and Benjamin, taken from a drawing of Jacob and his sons, offers no explanation for the somewhat provokingly triumphant expression with which the lad holds up the fruit; in connection with the paintings discussed here, the identification of this father and son as Abraham and Isaac would appear to be convincingly confirmed.


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