The picture depicts an episode in Genesis (28:10-12) where Jacob, who was travelling from Beer-Sheba to Haran in flight of his brother, lay down to sleep. That night he dreamt he saw a ladder that stretched from earth to heaven on which angels were ascending and descending.
Until the late 19th century this painting was thought to be by Rembrandt and was one of the most popular works at Dulwich. William Hazlitt wrote that it was ‘perhaps the most purely poetical picture he ever produced’ and the artist John Constable made a sketch after it in c.1830.
It was not until 1915 that the art historian Hofstede de Groot re-attributed it to Arent de Gelder, Rembrandt's last pupil. This attribution was confirmed in 1946 when De Gelder's signature was revealed during cleaning, inscribed into the paint with the end of a brush in the lower right corner. He learnt this experimental scratching technique from Rembrandt and would have applied it while the paint was still wet. It has also been used to define the grass and the branches of the trees.