The painter and etcher Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich, who frequently signed his name Dietricy, was born in 1712, the son of a Weimar court painter, from whom he received initial training. At the age of thirteen he became a pupil of the landscape painter Alexander Thiele in Dresden, and in 1730 Thiele presented him to Elector Friedrich August I of Saxony (King August II of Poland, d. 1733), who appointed him court painter the next year. He retained the position during the subsequent reign of Elector Friedrich August II (King August III), under whom Dresden became a major artistic capitol. From 1734 to 1741, Dietrich traveled in Germany and possibly to the Netherlands; later he briefly visited Italy for study (1743–44). Except for his stays in Freiberg and Meissen during the Seven Years War (1756–63), Dietrich’s locus of activity until his death in 1774 was Dresden, with its magnificent royal painting gallery and print cabinet. Dietrich served as inspector of the gallery from 1748, and later he became professor of landscape painting at the Dresden art academy.
An enormously prolific artist, Dietrich was fervently admired in Germany and abroad for his ability to emulate any past or present style and to combine the manners of various masters in single works. That eclectic approach, which nineteenth-century criticism disparaged as lacking in inventiveness (thus consigning Dietrich to obscurity), was in great demand among contemporary collectors. It allowed the artist’s works to be seamlessly integrated into the dense hangings of eighteenth-century picture galleries, which typically displayed conglomerations of various schools of painting. The three pictures by Dietrich (see also 71.162; 85.9) belonging to the Metropolitan Museum demonstrate the range of his stylistic pluralism, drawing variously from the Dutch Golden Age, the Italian and Flemish baroque, and the French rococo, which were important sources of inspiration throughout his career.
The present work, signed by Dietrich in French at the lower right, is reminiscent of the manner of Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) and of his pupils Nicolas Lancret and Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater, whose fêtes galantes genre paintings were in high demand at the Dresden court. It depicts an amorous couple discovered in the seclusion of an overgrown snag. They are accompanied by a cupid who raises a finger to his lips, warning them to be quiet. The woman covers her face with a fan in embarrassment, and the man, who clutches a love letter, turns away from their embrace to gesture toward the woman at the right dressed in black, probably his betrothed. She is led by a cupid bearing a torch, the horizontal position of which suggests that her love is at a crossroads: the torch will either be raised again (love rekindled) or plunged into the ground (love extinguished). Foremost among the entourage of the betrayed woman is the masked commedia dell’arte character Harlequin, who has dropped his slapstick and doubles over with laughter. The scene was thus inspired by the Italian comic theater popular in eighteenth-century Europe, whose plots typically were love intrigues. Because Dietrich treated the full spectrum of genres and worked in a variety of styles from early on, it is difficult to assign a precise date to the present work, which he may have painted any time from the 1740s to the late 1760s, after which his eyesight and overall health strongly deteriorated.
Dietrich frequently painted such subjects in pairs to facilitate their placement within a symmetrical gallery hanging. The likely pendant to the Museum’s canvas (private collection; see Sotheby’s, New York, January 31, 2013, no. 280) depicts a mother seated on a park bench with her two children. Her husband leans against the base of a nearby statue. Pierrot, another familiar commedia dell’arte figure, presents to the woman a cameo displaying a female bust portrait. Harlequin and two couples dash into the wooded background. If the narratives of the two canvases are linked, the mother in the privately owned pendant is possibly the betrayed young woman in the Museum’s picture. Having forgiven her partner’s infidelity and founded a family with him, she is now cruelly reminded, via the cameo, of his former inamorata.