The raw portrayal of human suffering and despair in this powerful and enigmatic painting stands apart from Arent de Gelder’s many other biblical and mythological scenes. One finds in this work no semblance of the exotic figures, often turbaned and wearing ermine cloaks or other costly garments evoking a distant world, both geographically and temporally, that De Gelder generally included in his paintings.1 Equally absent are De Gelder’s other familiar symbols of power and wealth, including golden scepters, expensive lace, feathers, and strands of pearls. Instead, this roughly executed and broadly brushed painting features the poor, dressed in simple unadorned clothes, who have come to the edge of a pool of water in hopes that its restorative powers will cure those among them who are sick or disabled.
The painting’s thematic core revolves around a group of men searching for that cure. Among them are a man who has been transported to this location in a simple wooden cart and his two companions who have carried him to the water. As the suffering man lies on his back, he rests one hand on his bare chest while clutching the cloak of the man to his right, a gesture that poignantly expresses both his desperation and his dependence on others. The companion at his left twists his face upward with eyes closed, as though in supplication or prayer that his friend’s ailments will be cured. Two large men, with their backs to the viewer, dominate the foreground. One of them vigorously pulls on tautly stretched ropes attached to the cart, while the other, on crutches, approaches the rippling pool of water from the right with fierce determination. Their anonymity is symptomatic of the universality of their plight. De Gelder has apparently portrayed neither a particular moment in human history nor a specific narrative from the Bible or mythology. Instead, his painting is a broader commentary on the tribulations of those experiencing illness or injury, the importance of caring for others, and the healing power of hope and faith.
De Gelder contrasts the varied reactions of witnesses to these events. Two men, dimly lit and barely visible at the far left, stand aside without any evident response to what they see, representing the broad swaths of society that remain indifferent to the difficulties faced by people experiencing illness. Others, however, do care, as seen in the prominent family group situated just behind the wooden cart—distinguished through light, color, and brushwork. The husband’s animated gestures, outstretched arms, and facial expression are particularly compelling as he shares his concerns with his wife, who listens intently while holding her child close to her body. Her elaborate headdress, surmounted by lace and decorated with jewels, indicates that the family belongs to a different social and economic stratum than the pilgrims who have come to these healing waters.
Much uncertainty has existed about the theme of De Gelder’s painting since it was first shown to the public in 1965 in the exhibition Arm in de Gouden Eeuw (Poor in the Golden Age),2 where it was simply titled Unknown Scene. During the exhibition, Pieter van Thiel and Ingrid van Gelder-Jost proposed that De Gelder had depicted the Pool of Bethesda and related the painting to an episode in the life of Christ that is recounted in the Gospel of St. John:
Now in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, there is a pool which in Hebrew is called Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these porticoes lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, limping, or paralyzed. Now a man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus, upon seeing this man lying there and knowing that he had already been in that condition for a long time, said to him, “Do you want to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.3
In the catalogue for the 1968 exhibition Rondom Rembrandt, Maarten Wurfbain rejected the proposal that De Gelder’s painting was connected to the biblical narrative in John 5, since Christ does not appear in the painting.4 Wurfbain gave the painting a more generic title, De genezing van de zieken (The Healing of the Sick), and plausibly suggested that it was identical to a work listed in De Gelder’s inventory of 1727: “1 stuk verbeeldende de genesingh der kranken” (1 piece representing the healing of the sick) in the “kamer agter ‘t voorsalet” (room behind the front room).5 In his 1969 dissertation on the artist, David van Fossen accepted Wurfbain’s proposal, noting that the painting was not a fragment of a larger composition, since it was signed twice, once in the upper left and again in the lower right.6 These arguments persuaded Werner Sumowski that the painting was a genre scene. In 1983, he wrote that if the painting were connected to the biblical account in John 5, then “the helpless man who had been hoping for a cure for thirty-eight years should be depicted . . . above all, Christ is missing as a miracle worker.” He viewed the motif of the sick person being submerged in the water by two men as being “only an incidental motif.” Nevertheless, Sumowski left open the possibility that the painting was a “preliminary work for a religious subject.”7
In 1994, J.W. von Moltke, in his monograph on the artist, returned to the idea that De Gelder had represented the biblical narrative. He proposed, however, that the artist had chosen to portray a moment “before Christ appears to heal the sick man.” Somewhat confusingly, Von Moltke gave the painting the title Healing of the Sick in his catalogue but noted in his commentary that he believed it represented the “Healing by the Pool of Bethesda.”8 In his entry on the painting in the catalogue for the 1998–99 Arent de Gelder exhibition, where the painting was titled De zieken bij het bad van Bethesda (The Sick by the Pool at Bethesda), Guus Sluiter agreed with Von Moltke’s view that De Gelder had portrayed a moment before Christ healed the sick man. He also argued that the vaguely rendered column behind the family group was one of the five halls at the pool at Bethesda.9 Sluiter noted that, aside from De Gelder, the only Dutch painter who did not depict Christ’s miracle in representations of the healing of the sick at Bethesda was Joost Droochsloot (1586–1666). He included, instead, the moment in which an angel appears to stir the waters, cited in some late manuscripts of John’s Gospel: “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first stepped in after the stirring up of the water was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.”10
Arent de Gelder was an upstanding and righteous man, who, according to Arnold Houbraken, frequently attended church in the latter part of his life.11 Not only did De Gelder have an extensive knowledge of the Bible, but he was also one of the great interpreters of stories from the Old and New Testament and the Apocrypha. It is therefore remarkable that so much uncertainty exists about the theme of this painting, but it seems probable that De Gelder drew inspiration from the vivid imagery in John 5:3, which describes the “multitude of those who were sick, blind, limping, or paralyzed” who had come to the pool at Bethesda “waiting for the moving of the waters.”12 De Gelder’s rendering of this scene is so different from John’s account that one surmises he had a different thematic concept in mind, emphasizing the role of human caring, together with faith in divine intervention, in healing.13
Throughout his career, De Gelder was greatly inspired by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), with whom he studied in the early 1660s. Houbraken, who, like De Gelder, was also from Dordrecht and was acquainted with his “fellow townsman,” wrote that “Rembrandt’s way of painting . . . came to [De Gelder] so naturally and successfully that . . . [no one else] approached Rembrandt as closely in that manner of painting. In addition, it is remarkable that he alone amongst such a large number who later abandoned that way of painting, stayed with it.”14 Documentary evidence suggests that De Gelder could follow in Rembrandt’s manner because he was not beholden to the changing character of the art market for his financial well-being. He never married, and he inherited a large sum of money when his father died in 1698. The extensive inventory taken after his death in 1727 lists about 200 paintings, including 70 of his own works, mostly biblical scenes. Likely among them, as mentioned above, was Healing of the Sick.15
Houbraken’s characterization of De Gelder, as a close follower of Rembrandt who continued to work in the master’s style when it was no longer in fashion, has largely obscured the fact that De Gelder developed a distinctive manner of painting that differed in many ways from that of his teacher. De Gelder’s primary contact with Rembrandt in the early 1660s occurred at a time when the latter was creating masterpieces with large-scale figures placed close to the foreground, such as his Self-Portrait, ca. 1663, in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; or his Homer, 1663, in the Mauritshuis, The Hague. De Gelder initially emulated the bold brushwork and deep, rich colors, particularly reds and blacks, found in such works. However, his touch was never as sure as that of Rembrandt, and he used multiple dabs of paint rather than firm strokes to model his forms. By the 1690s, his palette, both in his biblical scenes and portraits, tended toward lighter tonalities, including pink, orange, and velvet hues. He generally applied his paints more thinly and fluidly than did Rembrandt, and in multiple layers. Strikingly, De Gelder used a palette knife to a far greater extent than his master, both to model his forms and to define decorative elements in the fanciful costumes he depicted in his paintings.
While these characteristics are typical of De Gelder’s painting style throughout his career, his Healing of the Sick seems quite different from his other mature works, including its use of a panel support.16 It seems likely that he executed this painting very late in his career, probably around 1720. Instead of using thinly applied layers and lighter tonalities and extensively deploying the palette knife, De Gelder created this somber image with dense, dark paints. As in the expressive face and hands of the man speaking at the left and the upturned face of the man supporting the prostrate figure lying in the water, De Gelder applied thick dabs of paint, layered on top of one another, to model these rough and splotchy figures. Equally distinctive is his handling of the setting, which De Gelder indicated with broad paint strokes but left largely undefined. One wonders, for example, if the occasional dabs of orange in the dark background are meant to suggest distant figures standing on a hillside or some architectural structure. De Gelder’s composition is also unusual, as though the subject presented a new pictorial challenge that demanded a different approach. He generally conceived his biblical narratives in one of two ways: most of his Old Testament scenes focus on the emotional and physical relationships of only a few individuals, as, for example, in The Leiden Collection’s Judah and Tamar; in his New Testament subjects, he generally portrayed more expansive narratives with multiple figures in a spacious setting, as with The Leiden Collection’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. Healing of the Sick falls somewhere in between these two parameters.
As Rembrandt never depicted this subject, De Gelder’s interpretation is distinctly his own. Nevertheless, in his search for a pictorial prototype for his rendering of the sick and disabled individuals in search of healing, De Gelder turned, as he often did, to one of Rembrandt’s prints—in this instance the master’s Hundred Guilder Print (fig 1). Among the supplicants in this iconic image of Christ preaching was a sick man lying on a wooden cart, a motif that must have inspired De Gelder to depict a recumbent figure who had been transported to the healing waters by similar means. Like Rembrandt, De Gelder also included a man walking with the aid of a staff. De Gelder knew Rembrandt’s print well, and he even portrayed a collector holding an impression of The Hundred Guilder Print (fig 2).17
Healing of the Sick is unlike De Gelder’s typical depictions of biblical narratives. His paintings generally feature elegantly robed and coiffed figures and rarely, if ever, the poor and the downtrodden. One wonders if some special circumstance in De Gelder’s life, or among his acquaintances, might account for the distinctive character of this scene. One possibility relates to his friendship with the famed physician and professor at the University of Leiden Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738), whom De Gelder portrayed in 1722 (fig 3). The portrait shows the physician, dressed informally, as though speaking and gesturing to the viewer. Just how he and De Gelder came to know each other is uncertain. But the character of this image—as well as the fact that Boerhaave and his descendants owned several paintings by the Dordrecht master, including a family portrait of Boerhaave with his wife and daughter—suggests that a personal relationship existed between them beyond the famed doctor’s evident admiration for De Gelder’s style of painting and his abilities as a portraitist.18
Boerhaave, like De Gelder, was an upright citizen and devout individual who fused his career with his strong Calvinist beliefs. Boerhaave’s father was a minister, and Boerhaave had planned a life in ministry before he decided to devote himself to medicine.19 Just as Houbraken commented on De Gelder’s faith, so too did Boerhaave’s biographer Samuel Johnson:
Boerhaave asserted on all occasions the divine authority, and sacred efficacy, of the Holy Scriptures; and maintained that by them alone was taught the way of salvation, and that they only could give peace of mind. The excellency of the Christian religion was the frequent subject of his conversation. A strict obedience to the doctrine, and a diligent imitation of the example, of our Blessed Saviour, he often declared to be the foundation of true tranquility.20
Johnson also writes movingly about an extremely difficult period in Boerhaave’s life that may be relevant to De Gelder’s painting of Healing of the Sick. In the latter half of 1722, the very year that De Gelder painted his portrait of a vigorous and engaging Boerhaave, the famed doctor suffered an agonizing illness, then thought to be gout, that left him close to death. Johnson writes:
The history of his illness can hardly be read without horror. He was for five months confined to his bed, where he lay upon his back without daring to attempt the least motion, because any effort renewed his torments, which were so exquisite, that he was at length not only deprived of motion, but of sense. Here art was at a stand; nothing could be attempted, because nothing could be proposed with the least prospect of success. At length having, in the sixth month of his illness, obtained some remission, he took simple medicines in large quantities, and at length wonderfully recovered.21
Johnson’s description of Boerhaave lying on his back and unable to move for six months calls to mind De Gelder’s Healing of the Sick where a sick man, carried by others because he could not move by himself, lies prostate in healing waters. Johnson attributes Boerhaave’s recovery to the medicines that he consumed; however, given the power of Boerhaave’s faith, one can imagine that he was also sustained by the biblical account of healing found in John 5. It seems possible, even probable, that Boerhaave’s traumatic near-death experience inspired De Gelder to paint this emotionally charged image of those hoping to be healed at the pool at Bethesda.22 This somber and poignant scene, however, is not without hope. Through expression and gesture, the husband and father of the family of witnesses at the upper left conveys his conviction that healing will come, and that faith in God’s divine providence will be rewarded.23 The husband’s views are undoubtedly those of the artist himself, and thus one must understand that the primary audience for the man’s passionate reaction to the scene before him is not his wife, but the viewer.24
The prominent location in which Arent de Gelder hung Healing of the Sick, near the front room of his house, indicates the importance he attributed to this painting and suggests that it held personal associations. After De Gelder’s death in 1727, the painting disappeared from view for over two and a half centuries. Healing of the Sick only surfaced in 1965, when the Dutch collector and art dealer Daan Cevat (1913–90) lent it to the Leiden exhibition Rondom Rembrandt. In 1973, Cevat sold his collection at Christie’s in London (November 30, 1973, no. 69), where the American collector and art dealer Richard L. Feigen (1930–2021) acquired it for his private collection (fig 4). Strikingly, only five months previously, Feigen had acquired De Gelder’s Christ on the Mount of Olives (fig 5) for his private collection as well.25
Feigen once related that he collected paintings that excited him because of the “passion of innovation, the cutting edge, the risk-taking by . . . artists that take chances.” He admired artists like De Gelder “who are not painting in their rearview mirror, but through the windshield.”26 Feigen and Thomas S. Kaplan, founder of The Leiden Collection, who were close friends, shared a love and fascination for De Gelder’s innovative and expressive paintings. Through the strong personal bond of these two collectors and their families, The Leiden Collection was able to acquire both Christ on the Mount of Olives and Healing of the Sick from the Feigen estate in 2021. Arent de Gelder is now represented by five outstanding works in The Leiden Collection, which makes it the largest holder of De Gelder’s paintings in the world.27