This canvas depicts a wealthy family of four—apparently mother, father, daughter, and son—in a well-appointed domestic interior of the latter half of the eighteenth century. The daughter prepares a ball of thread from the winder mounted on the card table at the left, and the mother makes netting of the type that decorates the dresses of both women. The father holds an open book and extends his right hand in a gesture of speech that suggests he is reading aloud to the family. In the background, the son sketches from the small nude and bust sculptures placed against the back wall. The family’s cultivated pursuits are paralleled by the activities (reading, manipulating a compass, and sculpting) depicted on the grisaille overdoor canvas at the upper left, which derives from a type popularized earlier in the century by Jacob de Wit (see MMA 07.225.257). The formal clarity and geometry of the scene are inspired by Dutch interiors of the seventeenth century, such as those of Pieter de Hooch (see MMA 1975.1.144). Because the facial features are more generic than individual in character, and because the son’s face is completely turned away, this work probably does not depict an actual family. Instead, it is likely a genre scene meant to convey a mood of domestic tranquility and calm industriousness.
The canvas entered the Metropolitan Museum as a work of the Dresden painter Johann Eleazar Zeissig, called Schenau (1737–1806), and retained the attribution until 2013, when comparison with secured works by that artist revealed clear differences in style. As Anke Fröhlich noted (2013), Schenau’s paintings, such as The Art Discussion (Das Kunstgespräch) of 1772 in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, are distinguished by their vigorous brushwork, lively interactions among figures, vibrant colors, and vaguely defined interior spaces. Those characteristics are incompatible with the crystalline stillness, cool palette, and spatial precision of the Museum’s canvas. Moreover, Schenau’s figure and facial types are markedly dissimilar from those in the present work. Such differences can also be observed in Schenau’s graphic oeuvre, as for example in an autograph drawing belonging to the Museum (see MMA 2008.506).
A greater correspondence in style is found among contemporaries of Schenau elsewhere in Germany, particularly in paintings by members of the Tischbein family. Similarities are immediately apparent in the work of Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder (1722–1789), court painter in Kassel. Although more fluid in the arrangement of figures and livelier in brushwork, his 1774 self-portrait with his daughters (Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover), for example, shows a comparable treatment of an interior, and it is also similar in the overly large, almond-shape eyes of the daughters, which recall those of the two women in the Museum’s painting. Further resemblances are present in the early work of the Goethe-portraitist Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751–1829; see MMA 2002.564), who was Johann Heinrich the Elder’s nephew and pupil. His Woman in an Interior with a Girl and a Doll of 1777 (Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Oldenburg) displays a comparable palette and approach to space, as well as the markedly exaggerated size of the eyes. Another Tischbein, Anton Wilhelm (1730–1804) of Hanau, a brother of Johann Heinrich, painted with a similar gray- and green-toned palette and a comparable figure style, as is apparent in his 1779 Portrait of the Souchay Family (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen). If such similarities are not mere coincidences of period style, it seems possible that the Metropolitan’s picture may ultimately reflect the influence of Johann Heinrich Tischbein in Kassel, possibly through an apprenticeship.
The portrait on the back wall of the Museum’s canvas depicts a Roman Catholic cleric, who is identifiable as such by his black bands (collar) with white edges. That costume detail suggests that the anonymous painter was active in the Rhineland, for example in Cologne, Koblenz or Mainz, where he would have catered to a predominantly Catholic clientele. In that region, certain early works of Kaspar Benedikt Beckenkamp (1747–1828), such as the 1779 Portrait of a Family before Niederlahnstein and the 1784 Pastor Gregor Joseph Lang (both Mittelrhein-Museum, Koblenz; the former on loan from a private collection), for example, show similar figure types and, in the case of the Lang portrait, a comparable treatment of an interior space, which suggests that the present work would not have been out of place there. The costumes and furnishings in the Museum’s picture suggest a date of about 1775 to 1780.