After completing his artistic training with Gerrit Dou (1613–75) in Leiden, Godefridus Schalcken returned to Dordrecht and began to paint—in his teacher’s somewhat stiff manner—genre pieces that usually feature sausage-stuffing kitchen maids, Rommel-pot players, and quack doctors. Throughout the 1670s Schalcken continued to prefer small formats, but he gradually replaced the protagonists from the lower echelons of society with handsome youngsters in costly attire, inhabiting an elegant setting. The manner in which Schalcken executed these more bourgeois figure paintings was lighter, looser, and livelier than that of his teacher, and with a better sense of color, too. He soon developed an unmistakable idiom of his own that is readily distinguishable from the work of Dou and that master’s many other followers.
In the 1680s Schalcken began to concentrate more and more on subjects typical of history painting, the category ranked most highly by art theorists. The hierarchy of genres had no doubt been instilled in the artist by his first teacher, Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78), also known for his writings on art.1 In any case, Schalcken made sure that even in subjects derived from ancient history or classical mythology, he made intelligent use of his technical skill in portraying artificial illumination. A good example is his depiction of the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who carries a burning lamp in broad daylight as he searches the market square for “an honest man.”2 For an artist who came from a family of clergymen and theologians, the Bible was naturally a rewarding source of subjects in which artificial lighting—whether by torch, candle, or oil lamp—could be used to advantage. Denial of Peter, Mocking of Christ, and Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins were only three of the nocturnal scenes from the New Testament that he rendered in paint.3
Around 1680–85 Schalcken painted Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver, in which he adhered closely to the text of Luke 15:8–10: “Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbors together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” As the words of Christ indicate, the parable is always interpreted in the various exegeses of the different religious groups as the joy of repentance, with the lamp symbolizing the Word of God. This interpretation applies in every way to Schalcken’s portrayal, but it is also evident that the master deliberately sought a text in Holy Scripture that would allow him to put his exceptional technique to good use.
There is no other known painting of this subject in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch art.4 It appears, however, that Schalcken’s composition was inspired by a sixteenth-century work—a print made in Flanders. One of the first large series of engravings after biblical texts, Thesaurus Veteris et Novi Testamenti, which was published by Gerard de Jode (1509–91) in Antwerp in 1585, contains prints after texts from the New Testament, including a series of twelve engravings of the parables of Christ. They can be found in the section titled Thesaurus Novi Testamenti, which was supplied with a separate title page and probably added to the edition only after 1591.5 One of the twelve prints, engraved by Jan Collaert I (ca. 1530–81) after a drawing attributed to Ambrosius Francken (1544–1618), portrays Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Piece of Silver (fig 1).6 It depicts the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders, but the left part of the engraving is more important to us because it portrays two scenes from the Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver. In the left foreground we see the woman looking for the coin by the light of the lamp she holds, while the scene in the background shows her displaying the recovered drachma to her friends and neighbors. This print and the Thesaurus as a whole were widely disseminated. Claes Jansz Visscher (1587–1652) republished the engravings under the title Theatrum biblicum in Amsterdam in 1643, with reprints following in 1646 and 1674.7
Considering that Schalcken was a descendant of a family of clergymen, and one expected to study theology, it is more than likely that one or more of the above-mentioned editions could be found in the artist’s parental home; if not, then he could easily have seen the edition published in 1674 by Nicolaes Visscher (1618–79). Nevertheless, by following the biblical text closely, Schalcken created an extraordinary composition, for the rejoicing on the part of the friends and neighbors upon learning of the recovery of the piece of silver is the focal point of the picture, in contrast to the composition of the engraving (fig 1). Thus Schalcken represents the positive quintessence of the story, precisely as described in the Bible. In executing the painting, he remained faithful to the small format he preferred, but the richly appointed interior, the pleasingly light palette, unusual in a nocturnal scene (see, for example, the light green dress of the girl at the lower right), and the supple brushwork demonstrate that by this time the painter had completely abandoned Dou’s idiomatic style and subject matter. A dating to the early 1680s is therefore plausible, additionally supported by the fact that the artist painted this picture on canvas.8
Such a dating is corroborated by the man at the far left, the top half of whose face is concealed in shadow. This man, who looks at the viewer, closely resembles the painter, who was approximately 40 at the time, so presumably the master used himself as the model for this personage. Perhaps he did so because of some connection he felt with this biblical passage, but he may well have done it to highlight his own accomplishment: the creation of a thematically unique painting. It has already been pointed out in another context that Schalcken always gave close consideration to his choice of subject matter.9
The painting was first published in the 1783 catalogue compiled by Simon Causid of the paintings in the collection of the landgraves of Hessen-Kassel. That catalogue records no fewer than 11 paintings by Schalcken, which means that the Dordrecht-Hague painter was certainly a favorite of the collector Wilhelm VIII of Hessen-Kassel (1682–1760).10 This landgrave spent a long time in the Netherlands as an officer in the States army and also served as governor of Breda and Maastricht, so his warm feelings toward the Low Countries and his fondness for Dutch art went hand in hand.11 Causid’s description of the painting is striking, particularly the information imparted in the second half: “The woman from the Gospel, who shows her friends the found coin by the light of a burning lamp. Take note: the figures in this piece are portraits of the painter himself and his family”12; compare with (fig 2). This notion was reason enough to list the work among the portraits when the first inventory of the Kassel collection was drawn up in 1749. The presence of the artist at the left seems plausible, but it is highly questionable whether the other figures should be seen as portraits of family members. The same catalogue describes Girl with a Waffle in Her Hand (fig 3), for example, as follows: “Schalcken. This painter’s wife in a blue gown, holding a waffle in her hand.” But it is evident that Françoisia van Diemen, Schalcken’s wife since 1679, did not pose for this genre painting.13
The artist’s presence in Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver was described in the sale catalogues of both auctions held by Alphonse Giroux in Paris in 1816 and 1819, at which the painting was put up for sale after having been stolen in 1806 along with 47 other major works from the collection in Kassel by French troops under the command of General Lagrange.14 The painting must have acquired a certain fame soon after its arrival in Paris, since high-quality copies on panel were offered at auction as early as 1818 and again in 1819 (“It would be difficult to find a copy more similar to the original”).15 In fact, a partial copy of this painting now in the Leiden Collection (fig 4) came from a French collection.16 Other copies continue to appear at French auctions.17
Remarkably, however, within two generations the subject of the painting had been completely forgotten. At the Paris sale of the collection of the Utrecht physician Munnicks van Cleeff in 1864, the painting was interpreted as a scene of seduction and described in a completely different way. Despite the fact that Theodor Demmler exhibited the painting in 1917 as Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver, it was sold again in 1924 as a seduction scene. Even Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, the son of a theology professor, did not recognize the biblical subject when he viewed the pieces for sale at that auction, no doubt because of Schalcken’s highly original manner of portrayal.18