Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 18, 2005
Arthur K. Wheelock Gerard ter Borch Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art in association with American Federation of Arts, 2003. 172 pp.; 60 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0300106394)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., November 7, 2004–January 30, 2005; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Mich., February 27–May 22, 2005
Gerard ter Borch II (Dutch, 1617–1681). Lady at Her Toilette, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund, General Membership Fund, Endowment Income Fund and Special Activities Fund. Photo: © 1995 The Detroit Institute of Arts.

Gerard ter Borch is the first exhibition dedicated to this important seventeenth-century Dutch genre painter and portraitist in thirty years, and its accompanying catalogue simultaneously serves as the only comprehensive study on the artist to appear in English to date. The catalogue is smaller than that of the exhibition that took place in The Hague and Münster in 1974, and smaller still than Sturla J. Gudlaugsson’s truly monumental study of Terborch that appeared in 1959–60. Nevertheless, the present exhibition and catalogue open up some new avenues of inquiry, which is only natural given scholarly trajectories in the field over the past four decades. The pictures were displayed sensibly, revealing a surprisingly protean artist in terms of subject matter, particularly during his early career. The arrangement also allowed viewers the opportunity to explore the question of potential pendants in Terborch’s work or, perhaps more significantly, to consider the problem of this celebrated master’s atelier. That Terborch oversaw a workshop certainly seems plausible, even if Gudlaugsson scarcely broached the topic in his otherwise exemplary monograph. We do know that Caspar Netscher was Terborch’s pupil, and his most talented one at that. But in the absence of any additional archival data, evidence of potential workshop participation in Terborch’s production presently lies solely in the paintings themselves. The nearly identical replication of costumes, figures, and occasionally entire pictures suggests a pressing demand for Terborch’s work among his clientele; thus, the question of whether the sometimes-repetitive nature of his imagery was the result of studio intervention certainly merits further exploration. The exhibition and catalogue are to be commended for raising these important issues.

The catalogue contains three essays by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Alison McNeil Kettering, and Arie Wallert, followed by fifty-two entries on the exhibited paintings (by Wheelock, Kettering, and Marjorie E. Wieseman). An appendix contains a valuable transcription and English translation of a letter that Terborch’s father and mentor, Gerard ter Borch the Elder, wrote to his son in 1635 during the latter’s sojourn in London. Wheelock’s essay, an overview of Terborch’s life and work, essentially constitutes a synthesis of earlier scholarship on the artist but still contains many valuable observations. To this reviewer, however, perhaps too much influence is imputed to Terborch’s immediate family circle as a catalyst for his truly stupendous genre paintings and their progressive effect upon the development of Dutch genre painting. Formative were works executed between the very late 1640s and 1654, the year in which the young painter relocated to provincial Deventer in Overijssel, the hometown of his bride. Wheelock intimates that having spent this period in the rather isolated settings of Zwolle and Deventer, Terborch was out-of-touch with mainstream artistic developments. Yet this period in his career was actually marked by a great deal of travel within the heavily urbanized province of Holland, much of it apparently sparked by commissions, business with art dealers, and contacts with other artists, including Johannes Vermeer, a fledgling painter when he and Terborch jointly signed a document in Delft in 1653. The connections Terborch cultivated at that time would serve him well in the subsequent decades. Admittedly, various members of the artist’s family (and his aforementioned pupil, Netscher) served as models for his genre paintings—though labels in the exhibition tended overzealously to identify too many figures in these pictures as the artist’s kin—but surely Terborch’s numerous thematic and stylistic innovations owe much more to the initial stimulus of genre painters of the preceding generation and those of his own, among them, Willem Duyster, Gerrit Dou, Jacob van Loo, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, and even David Teniers the Younger in distant Antwerp, to whom Wheelock astutely refers in other parts of the catalogue.

Kettering’s contribution addresses the tantalizing issue of Terborch’s art as a representative of the so-called modern mode. Throughout the seventeenth-century, one finds references in inventories, art-theoretical writings, and diaries to pictures containing “modern figures,” or to those having been painted in the “modern manner.” Generally, these disparate sources invoke this rather nebulous term as a descriptor for paintings with contemporary subjects whose figures don modish dress. Kettering asserts that in addition to subject matter, the modern manner also implied “a formal approach that emphasized the skillful imitation of natural appearances” (21). Terborch’s own father encouraged him to paint modern compositions, and the result was genre paintings of fashionable figures that were uncanny for their anecdotal subtlety, their psychological innuendo and tension created by scenes and situations left deliberately ambiguous for the delectation of beholders already captivated by dazzling pictorial effects.

Foremost among these stupendous effects was the eye-catching appearance of various stuffs and textures, especially satin. Terborch’s unrivaled ability to render satin, a skill for which he was celebrated in his lifetime as well as by later generations of art lovers. In his adroit hands, shimmering satin, epitomized by the apparel of standing women, became an agent of empathic projection for viewers, allowing them to weave narratives of vicarious participation from the luminous imagery before them. In a memorable article published some years ago, Ernst van de Wetering argued that the complexities of rendering satin draped over the human form made it incumbent upon seventeenth-century Dutch painters to study real samples to ensure their proper replication, a practice endorsed by art theorists of the time. The reproduction of satin in a genre painting was a labor-intensive endeavor; in this respect, Terborch’s garments betokened value in both a figurative and a commercial sense for the prospective buyer. Arie Wallert’s essay on the artist’s working methods challenges van de Wetering’s hypothesis, proposing that the spectacularly rendered satin dresses in Terborch’s paintings, which so often closely resemble one another, were the result of the repeated transfer to various canvases of detailed drawings of the actual fabric that had been executed much earlier. This obviously has ramifications for the problem of studio participation in Terborch’s work that was noted above. The question, of course, is whether contemporary buyers recognized the ersatz quality of these fabrics or were even concerned by it. After all, somewhere in the initial stages of this process, genuine satin had indeed been methodically studied by the master himself.

The catalogue entries that follow are generally illuminating, though now and then, to my mind, questionable statements are made. For example, otherwise perceptive and beautifully written entries on portraits suggest repeatedly that the black attire donned by Terborch’s sitters connotes modesty and soberness. To the contrary, the research of Irene Groeneweg has unequivocally demonstrated that these garments were linked to international court protocol and thus betokened luxury and status, not unlike tuxedos and other formal wear in our own culture. (Interestingly enough, one of the labels in the exhibition correctly understood the significance of black attire for contemporary audiences.) Likewise, the entries on genre paintings occasionally contain debatable observations. Hence the statement that the attentive female’s gesture in The Suitor (cat. no. 30) “could be construed as an invitation for intercourse…” (124). This hypothesis is wholly inconsistent with the dignified, genteel tone of the painting, one inherent to nearly all of Terborch’s representations of this type. Moreover, gestures were rigidly codified in early modern Europe; if the woman is indeed making an obscene one, she does so incorrectly. The position of her hands superficially resembles the fig gesture in which the thumb is placed between the forefingers in mock imitation of coitus. But the fig gesture in art (and life) is always made with one hand, not two, and, equally important, is invariably shown in lascivious contexts as opposed to what is depicted here.

These negative, niggling comments aside, it can be said that the catalogue entries are generally informative and serve to bring the reader up-to-date with current scholarship on Terborch. In sum, both the exhibition and catalogue provide major contributions to the ongoing study of this fascinating master.

Wayne Franits
Distinguished Professor, Department of Art and Music Histories, Syracuse University