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 71.142; 71.162) 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.
For models Dietrich turned most often to the works of Rembrandt and his circle. The Museum’s Christ Healing the Sick of 1742, which illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Matthew (19:2), combines and reformulates figural and architectural motifs from two prints by Rembrandt, to which Dietrich had access in the royal print cabinet in Dresden. The Hundred Guilder Print (Hind 236; see 29.107.35) provided the theme, the overall design (in reverse), and motifs such as the man on the cart and the camels at the edge. From Christ Preaching ("La Petite Tombe") (Hind 256; see 29.107.18), Dietrich borrowed the platform on which Christ stands, the man seated at the edge of the platform, and the arched opening in the background. Those elements have not been directly copied but instead adapted and newly arranged; nevertheless, they retain an instantly recognizable connection to the printed prototypes, an aspect that was surely appreciated by Rembrandt connoisseurs among Dietrich’s clientele. In comparison with his models, Dietrich also clarified the architectural space, redistributed the crowd frieze-like across the foreground, and broadened the fall of light to leave fewer figures shrouded in darkness. In accord with contemporary criticism, which recommended retaining the strengths and correcting the weaknesses of old masters for the general advancement of art, the balance of what Dietrich kept (a variety of types, poses, and emotions) and what he added (greater spatial clarity) would have been understood as an improvement on Rembrandt (see Keller 1981, pp. 46–49).