According to Houbracken, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout was a pupil and 'a great friend' of Rembrandt; indeed, Rembrandt apparently ranked van den Eeckhout as one of the most talented of his pupils (see A. Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh (1718-21), I, p. 174; II, p. 100). Van den Eeckhout's evident talent can be seen in much of his versatile and imaginative oeuvre, which mainly concentrated on history painting with Biblical subjects, and often showed Rembrandt's influence, as well as that of Pieter Lastman. He excelled in painting large multi-figured compositions with a rich, painterly use of colour, as evidenced by the present hitherto unrecorded canvas, which is signed and dated 1660, and will be included in Dr. Volker Manuth's forthcoming monograph on the artist (to be completed 2009). Set in a rural Arcadia, with figures bedecked in wreaths and garlands of flowers, it depicts the story of Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29:1-12). On his journey towards Haran, Jacob stopped at a well where the people of Haran watered their sheep, when Rachel, a 'shapely and beautiful' shepherdess arrived to water her father's flock. Jacob moved the stone from the mouth of the well so the flocks could be watered, and then 'kissed Rachel, and was moved to tears.'
Although rooted in the Old Testament, this bucolic scene also reflects pastoral themes so popular in Dutch art. The concept of the pastoral, as described by Virgil in his Eclogues (first translated into Dutch by Karel van Mander in 1597), revolved around the idealized, rural life of the shepherd and shepherdess, far from the complications of modern city life. It featured in Dutch literature (for example, the story of Granida and Daifilo by Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft, published in 1615), and appeared in painting from around 1620, and was a theme that was taken up by Rembrandt and his school from the 1630s. Sitters were now sometimes depicted in the playful guise of shepherds, carrying props such as a shepherd's crook, or houlette.
Unlike many of van den Eeckhout's other history paintings, the figures in the painting of Jacob and Rachel engage directly with the viewer and it would thus appear possible that this painting also serves as an elegant family portrait, or portrait historié, of a newly-wed couple. Werner Sumowski (see W. Sumowski, Gemlälde der Rembrandt Schüler, II, Pfalz 1983, pp. 719-909), does not record any other painting by van den Eeckhout that is dated 1660, but from the 1660-70s, he painted various notable portraits in pastoral surroundings, including The Portrait of a boy as Daifilo in the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, and Four Children in a Park, in The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, dated 1671. He also is known to have occasionally included portraits in his history paintings depicting, for example, a young couple in the role of a bride and groom in his painting of The Continence of Scipio of 1658 (Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art). Indeed, as Dr. Manuth has commented (private correspondence, 21 October 2008), it is perhaps even possible to speculate that the painting was commissioned by a man named Jacob on the occasion of his marriage. We are very grateful to Dr. Volker Manuth, and Paul Taylor of the Warburg Institute, for their kind assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.