The Dordrecht painter Arent de Gelder is primarily thought of as Rembrandt's last pupil, but works such as Christ blessing the children attest to the fact that he was a formidable artist in his own right. A young Christ stands facing the viewer, his hands held out before him and his mouth open in mid sentence. A small child appears at the lower left moving away from the group as two men in Old Testament dress confer at the right, the one nearest the viewer staring intently at the speaking Christ. Standing on lower ground and at some distance from the group, a younger man wearing a white turban decorated with a strand of pearls appears in the foreground on the right. His back is to the viewer and the contour of his face is barely visible. His placement within the picture plane implies a closer proximity to the viewer, a suggestion emphasized by de Gelder's more detailed treatment of the turban and its contrast to the sketchiness of the figures at the right.
Somewhat removed from the immediate action, the man in the white turban serves as a kind of witness to the event, Christ's blessing of the children at Judea, as recounted by Matthew (19:13-30). To one of the children's questions - 'what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?' (19:16) - Jesus responded that one must obey the commandments, rid one's self of all worldly goods, and join his following. The astonishment of the crowd regarding the second of the requirements led to a sermon on the uselessness of wealth when it comes to the question of salvation: 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God' (Matthew 20:24). It may not be a coincidence that, in a painting with so little narrative detail, the strand of pearls hangs so conspicuously from the man's turban. The sermon is directed at him and, by association, the wealthy merchants and members of the European nobility who patronized de Gelder. As he bears witness to the event, the viewer of the painting is invited to do the same.
The boldness of de Gelder's composition, dominated by a single frontal figure, is notable even within his oeuvre. He often painted large figures on a significant scale and, as with his painting of Esther (present location unknown, J.M. von Moltke, op. cit. no. 41), did not shy away from confronting the viewer with a full-length figure seen from the front. While no known drawing or preparatory study by de Gelder relates to Christ blessing the children, several drawings by Rembrandt show Christ in a similar pose. Christ awakening the Apostles on the Mount of Olives (University Library, Warsaw; fig. 1) for example, depicts Christ standing with one foot forward, arms outstretched, and mouth open. The facial type of de Gelder's Christ also relates to Rembrandt's so-called studies of Christ from life, paintings such as Christ (Hyde Collection, Glens Falls) that were based on life studies of young Jewish men in his neighborhood. Within de Gelder's own oeuvre, Christ blessing the children belongs stylistically with Jacob's Dream (Collection Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur), a dramatic composition with monumental figures and a similar reddish-brown palette.
The drama of Christ blessing the children - with its in medias res quality - has been emphasized by its having been trimmed at some point in its history. X-radiography has revealed that the painting was reduced on all sides: one or two inches at the top, four to five inches on the bottom, eight inches or more on the left, and six or seven inches on the right. The top and bottom are the closest to the painting's original dimensions and the reduction of the canvas at the left and right emphasize the verticality of the composition and the dramatic presence of the towering figure of Christ.
De Gelder was Rembrandt's last pupil and many of his works reflect the master's late style. Indeed, he never adopted the popular Flemish style of the late Govaert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol and, even within his lifetime, was considered the pupil most faithful to Rembrandt's pictorial idiom. In an advertisement of 30 September 1727 for the sale of de Gelder's estate, his collection was described as 'a great quantity of extraordinarily artful and astonishingly beautiful paintings, all of which were painted [by] the late Arent de Gelder, the only disciple who scrupulously followed his renowned master, Rembrandt, in the art of painting' (op cit., p. 8). While de Gelder emulated Rembrandt's painting style, he almost never copied his compositions. He even began to deviate from Rembrandt's example stylistically in the 1680s and, by the 1690s when Christ blessing the children was painted, had developed a different painting style, characterized by a greater refinement of technique and a subtler choice of palette. After the turn of the eighteenth century, his palette became even more colorful, incorporating intense shades of green. De Gelder painted largely Old Testament subjects early in his career but expanded his range in the 1680s to include portraits and New Testament subjects.
Arent de Gelder belonged to a wealthy family in Dordrecht and most likely became a pupil of Samuel van Hoogstraten in 1660. On advice of Hoogstraten, de Gelder moved to Amsterdam and entered Rembrandt's studio around 1661. He seems to have stayed there for two years, returning to Dordrecht in 1663 where he remained for rest of life. Just over a hundred paintings are attributed to him, only twenty-two of which are dated, making it difficult to establish a chronology of his oeuvre. His relatively low production most likely relates to the fact that he was personally wealthy and, unlike Rembrandt, did not depend on the sale of his paintings to make a living.