Frits Lugt, the great Dutch art historian and collector, acquired this study at the 1937 estate sale of his former business partner Anton Mensing, where it sold under the name of Rembrandt’s pupil Govert Flinck. Lugt probably recognized that the pen work of the old man’s face, sleeve, shoulder, and left hand closely resembled that of comparable passages in a drawing by Rembrandt already in his own collection (Fig. 1). Lugt eventually traded or sold the present sheet to the London collector C. R. Rudolf, from whom Maida and George Abrams purchased it in 1975.
Both Zacharias(?) and the Angel and the Figure 1 study, which is still in Lugt’s collection, date from the mid-1630s. The Harvard drawing exhibits the impetuous, zigzag pen lines that are a salient feature of Rembrandt’s technique of that period. Rembrandt used the sketch to address an artistic and iconographic problem that deeply engaged him and his pupils: the portrayal of a human response to divine revelation and intervention in affairs of this world. By isolating the protagonists from their narrative context he concentrated exclusively on their interaction, but the omission of a setting or any reference to the narrative hampers identification of the subject. Of the interpretations scholars have proposed for this work—Abraham conversing with God, in the guise of an angel, about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23–32); Saint Peter in prison; the angel instructing Joseph to flee into Egypt; and Zacharias in the temple with the angel Gabriel—the last is the most plausible and is provisionally accepted here.
According to the text in the Gospel of Saint Luke (1:18–19), when the priest Zacharias went alone into the temple to burn incense, an angel appeared and promised that a son, the future John the Baptist, would be born to him and his barren wife, Elizabeth. Incredulous, Zacharias asked, “Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife well stricken in years.” The angel rebuked him for doubting God’s will: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.” This exchange is presumably the one represented in the drawing. The angel’s declamatory gesture, which Rembrandt altered and corrected so that it is now barely legible, and the questioning gesture and facial expression of the old man are the expressive problems the artist set out to resolve in the sketch. Whatever its subject, the Harvard sheet is not a study for a painting or print, but one made for practice with the goal of improving the artist’s capacity for invention, composition, and expression. Rembrandt frequently sketched historical themes to practice and to create models for the instruction of his students. Works of this type constitute one of the largest categories of drawings by the master and his pupils.