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; 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 Museum’s Adoration of the Shepherds, painted in the 1760s (the last digit of the date is obliterated), is a late version of a popular subject that Dietrich treated repeatedly. It offers a clear example of Dietrich’s practice of amalgamating and, in the eyes of his contemporaries, improving his sources. The composition and motifs derive largely from a 1646 painting by a Rembrandt pupil (National Gallery, London), which Dietrich probably knew from a reproductive mezzotint by Louis Bernard (British Museum, London). Dietrich adapted the man, woman, and child who lean over the wood partition from a Rembrandt etching (Hind 273; see 18.71). The leftward compositional flow and prominent cast shadows appear to have been inspired by a copy after an Adoration of the Shepherds by Rubens that entered the royal gallery in Dresden in 1741 (inv. no. 994; see Ina Maria Keller, Studien zu den deutschen Rembrandtnachahmungen des 18. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, 1981, pp. 36–38; Michel 1984, p. 98). The sharply defined contrast of light and dark was likely influenced by Correggio’s Dresden Nativity, which had graced the royal gallery since 1746.
This particular treatment of the Adoration of the Shepherds theme appears to have been well-liked among Dietrich’s clientele, as several copies are known to exist. A nearly identical canvas by Dietrich in Parma (Galleria Nazionale) has been advanced as the prototype for the present work (Michel 1984, p. 87). Two other replicas are in private ownership (art market, Rome, 1960s; Nagel Auktionen, Stuttgart, December 8, 2000, no. 1189). Aside from the replicas, similar versions of the subject which are close in date are found in the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe (dated 1758), and in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (dated 1760). Although no pendant is known for the Metropolitan’s canvas or the associated replicas, Dietrich frequently paired his Adorations with a companion piece to facilitate symmetrical hanging on a gallery wall. The version in Vienna, for example, has a counterpart in an Annunciation to the Shepherds in the same collection.