Arent de Gelder studied with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) for at least two years in the early 1660s, at a time when his master created some of his greatest paintings, among them the Staalmeesters (The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Draper’s Guild) of 1662 (fig 1). The stylistic and thematic impact of these works on the young artist remained strong for decades thereafter. For example, De Gelder learned from the Staalmeesters how to use a table with a heavy orange-red tablecloth as a compositional focus for his figure paintings. He also emulated Rembrandt’s expressive painting techniques, including scratching away paint with a palette knife, to create works with vibrant and lively surfaces, often with a palette of olive, brown, ochre, red, and orange colors. The importance of Rembrandt’s inspiration is particularly evident in this evocative painting, Edna Entrusting Tobias with Sarah, which De Gelder’s executed some thirty years after his apprenticeship with that master.
Like Rembrandt, De Gelder based a number of his biblical scenes on books from the Apocrypha, particularly the story of the pious, blind, and impoverished Tobit.1 Although the Book of Tobit was not accepted by the Protestants as part of the biblical canon, it was included at the very end of the authorized translation of the Bible of the Dutch Reformed Church, the so-called Statenvertaling of 1637. In the preface to the Bible, the Dutch theologians responsible for the translation specifically prohibited the reading of the Apocrypha during the divine service. Nevertheless, the Book of Tobit was recommended for its moralistic overtones and gained popularity during the seventeenth century.
De Gelder’s Edna Entrusting Tobias with Sarah features Tobit’s son Tobias, who had undertaken a long journey on his father’s behalf to the city of Ecbatana in Media.2 In Ecbatana, Tobias and his traveling companion who, unbeknownst to him, was the Archangel Raphael, met with one of Tobit’s kinsmen, Raguel, and his wife, Edina. The couple’s daughter Sarah was both beautiful and wise, and Tobias fell in love with her. Sarah, however, was beset by a demon, who had already killed each of her seven bridegrooms when they entered the bridal chamber. Acting on the advice of Raphael, who also promised his help to conquer the demon, Tobias obtained Raguel’s permission to marry Sarah.3 De Gelder’s painting focuses on the moment that Raguel’s wife, Edna, seated calmly between Sarah and Tobias, entrusts the young Tobias with her daughter.4 Raguel, seen in profile at the near side of the table, gazes at his wife and reacts to her words with an expressive gesture.5
The words to which Raguel reacts are recorded in chapter ten, verse thirteen of the book of Tobit, where Edna says: “I commit my daughter unto thee as a special trust; do not bring her pain.”6 The richly decorated gloves of young Tobias allude to the important role of wedding gloves as a marriage pledge in seventeenth-century wedding ceremonies.7 De Gelder likely based the physiognomies on live models. Whether he did this with the intention of making his figures more convincing or to satisfy the wish of a patron who might have ordered a portrait historié is not known.
The identification of De Gelder’s painting with this text from the Book of Tobit has been questioned in the past because of the young ages of Tobias and Sarah.8 By the end of the seventeenth century, however, a long pictorial tradition had been established in which Tobias was depicted as a young boy. A number of paintings and drawings from Rembrandt’s circle, for example, show Tobias about the same age as the boy represented here.9 Moreover, the Statenvertaling refers to Tobias explicitly as a jongelinck (young man) and to Sarah as het dochterken (the little daughter).10
An alternative passage in the Book of Tobit (7:13), which describes the wedding of Tobias and Sarah, has in the past been wrongly associated with this painting. In that text it is written, “then he [Raguel] called his daughter Sarah, and she came to her father, and he took her by the hand, and gave her to be wife to Tobias, saying, Behold, take her after the law of Moses, and lead her away to thy father. And he blessed them.” Thereafter, a marriage contract was drawn and signed. De Gelder did depict this subject in a painting now in Brighton.11 In the Brighton work he showed the drafting and scrutinizing of the marriage contract following, it seems, the example of Jan Steen (1626–79), who painted at least three versions of this subject.12 Aside from the fact that the present painting does not depict the marriage contract of Tobias and Sarah, the gesture of Raguel could hardly be interpreted as a blessing. Instead, Raguel’s wife, Edna, who holds the hands of the young couple with warmth and affection, is the central figure, as would be appropriate for the moment in which she entrusts Tobias with Sarah.
A painting by De Gelder in Utrecht (fig 2), incorrectly interpreted as Edna Entrusting Tobias with Sarah, differs in the scene’s much more modest setting and in the fact that one of the two female figures is an old woman.13 She resembles Anna, the mother of Tobias, as Rembrandt and his circle traditionally portrayed her. Werner Sumowski correctly identified the subject of the Utrecht picture as Anna greeting or blessing Tobias upon his return with Sarah.14 Here, too, De Gelder followed the text in the Statenvertaling (Tobit 11:9), which relates that Anna greeted her son even before Tobit did.15
Von Moltke’s opinion that the Leiden Collection painting dates from the early 1700s is incorrect.16 The rich, fanciful dress of Sarah and her mother, particularly Edna’s square neckline, open gown tied at the waist, and the long streamers that attach the back of her headdress, are consistent with female fashions of the 1690s. Although very few paintings by De Gelder from the 1690s can be reliably dated, in comparison with paintings from the 1680s it seems that his brushwork, especially in the detailed characterization of the lavishly decorated costumes, became much finer and more detailed, an effect particularly seen in his rendering of transparent veils. As with Sarah’s veil, in most cases he often rendered these delicate garments with little more than fine white contour lines.
Raguel and Tobias, with their sumptuous cloaks and curiously shaped, multicolored turbans, are dressed in a more Orientalizing fashion than Sarah and Edna. De Gelder’s knowledge of genuine Oriental dress can be detected in Tobias’s yellow kaftan and heron-feather aigrette. A portrait medallion with the image of a head in profile, similar to the one hanging from Tobias’s neck, is also featured in De Gelder’s painting Judah’s Humble Supplication to Joseph, ca. 1685.17
Arnold Houbraken, who was also from Dordrecht and well acquainted with De Gelder, described the artist’s use of studio props: “But our De Gelder has collected, no less so than he [Rembrandt], a chest of all kinds of clothes, hangings, firearms and bayonets, armor, and so on, including shoes and clogs; and the attic and walls of his studio are hung with draperies and embroidered cloths and veils, some intact, others torn. . . . From this rich stock he takes the requisites for his pictures.”18 Taking Houbraken’s account of De Gelder’s use of studio props into consideration, one would not be surprised to find that the tablecloth might be identical with “1 root fluwel taefelkleed” (one red velvet tablecloth) documented in the inventory of the artist’s estate in 1727.19