American Federation of Arts/National Gallery of Art, 228 pp., $55.00; $35.00 (paper)
The Dutch seventeenth-century painter Gerard ter Borch was widely admired in his lifetime, both at home and beyond, and he has been sought after by museums in the centuries since. The National Gallery’s retrospective, the first he has had in this country—its fine accompanying catalog is also the first comprehensive book on him in English—brings the good news that the taste of generations of collectors and scholars has in no way gone stale. Ter Borch’s reputation rests on two distinct kinds of work, genre scenes and, to a lesser degree, portraits, both of which he stamped with an elegance and restraint unmatched in the art of his era—which was, of course, one of superlative painters. This isn’t to say that ter Borch sweeps us off our feet. The artist who emerges from the Washington show has a courtly and comic view of people. He was a poet of good manners and human foibles and of an existence where passionate, outsize drives have little meaning. He certainly deserves a place in the pantheon of Dutch painting, even of European painting in general, but his isn’t a warming or expansive vision.
Ter Borch, who was born in 1617 and died in 1681, was one of the principal developers, if not the inventor, of a kind of worldly, sophisticated domestic interior scene. He is the heir of the fifteenth-century artists of the books of très riches heures, with their images of fashionably attired people on parade; and, helping to remove from Dutch art much of its rusticity and earthiness—its smoky rooms, foamy beer mugs, and defecating dogs—he led the way to the interior scenes of the younger Vermeer (who appears to have been a friend and whose wedding ter Borch may have attended). Ter Borch’s domestic interiors include predictable scenes of mothers and children and of soldiers idling away their off hours. But his most distinctive pieces are views of dark rooms in which we usually see two or three people standing and sitting around a table. They might be engaged by playing a musical instrument or writing a letter, simply chatting or looking up to greet someone who has just entered. In ter Borch’s justly best-known paintings, the central figure in this room is a young woman in a spectacularly beautiful—usually satin—dress.
What is striking about these genre scenes is how fundamentally abstract they are. We are not made to care much about what is actually going on in such masterpieces from the 1650s as Gallant Conversation, where a man is making a point to a woman who has her back to us, or The Suitor’s Visit, which shows the moment of arrival. Ter Borch’s people don’t have commanding or engaging faces. They are, rather, serviceable, slightly dippy persons. It is the clothes they wear, or, more precisely, the delicately rich blue, white, yellow, red, and tan colors of these clothes, that chiefly sum up their presence as characters.
Ter Borch’s people interact with one another, and relate to the nearly empty, high-ceilinged rooms they inhabit, with dance-like balances. The virtually blank space above the heads of his figures somehow is crucial to the rightness of these tableaux. Set against the enveloping darkness, ter Borch’s characters, in a given work, form a sort of living, breathing heraldic emblem. The heart of this emblem is the satin dress. It gives off the brightest light and is by far the most palpable object in the scene. It seems to wear the young woman who is in it.
Ter Borch’s portraits, although pursued as a completely separate artistic endeavor, complement the genre scenes. The portraits, which generally show a single subject standing, in or near the center of the composition, which is otherwise entirely bare or sometimes includes a piece or two of remarkably plain furniture, strike a similar heraldic note. The difference is that where ter Borch’s genre scenes are darkened containers that become lighter and brighter toward the center, in the portraits the sitters invariably are in black clothes and are surrounded by a soft light.
Since ter Borch, as a mature artist, moved back and forth between his two seemingly separate lines of domestic scenes and portraits, it comes as a surprise that en route to finding these themes he attempted so many others. It is not a surprise that he brought a high degree of resolution to his every venture. One of the pleasures of the show is following ter Borch as he becomes himself. He began with a bang. Horse and Rider, which shows a soldier on his horse seen from the back—looming uncomfortably over a viewer even as they ostensibly are moving away from us—was made when ter Borch was some sixteen years old, and it is surely one of the most weirdly powerful images in Dutch art. It prepares the way for exquisite stable and barn interiors, a daringly designed if not altogether successful picture of a workman’s backyard called The Grinder’s Family, and a painting of flagellants, seen in a nighttime procession, that is thought to have influenced Goya over a century later. Ter Borch was an accomplished painter of portrait miniatures, too, which makes sense for he had a lifelong allegiance to the small picture. In size, his paintings range from objects that can easily be held in the hands to works—generally the interior scenes that revolve around women in satin dresses—that reach some thirty inches on a side.
That ter Borch comes across as such a nimble and consistently polished artist must be due in part to his family circumstances. He passed his life in the most encouraging and like-minded environment. His father, Gerard ter Borch the Elder, was a painter and illustrator and to a lesser degree a poet who spent his early years as an artist in Rome. He chose in the end not to try to live by his art, using his creative energies instead to encourage his children’s efforts. He dated and titled Gerard the Younger’s childhood drawings (many have been saved), and he was giving his son precise professional advice even when he was a young man traveling on his own. When Gerard the Younger’s mother died, his father remarried, and when his second wife died he married a third time. With this wife he began a new family, one that would be as integral a part of Gerard the Younger’s personal and professional life as his father was. Many of Gerard junior’s half-siblings followed artistic pursuits, and along with his stepmother they were frequent, if not the chief, models for his genre scenes. Our Gerard eventually married his stepmother’s sister, and this woman, who strongly resembled her sister, became a model for Gerard as well. (Few people in the ter Borch clan, unfortunately, had decent chins.)
Gerard the Younger’s half-sister Gesina seems to have been as big a factor in his life as was his father. She was perhaps the leading “actress” of her half-brother’s pictures, and when her brother Moses, who is the mop-haired boy in some of Gerard’s paintings, died in a military attack, Gesina and Gerard together painted a memorial portrait of him (which is in the show). She was also a poet and illustrator whose province was courtly, romantic relationships, including the doomed variety. In this, she was perpetuating some of her father’s artistic concerns, and she appears to have been greatly instrumental in her half-brother Gerard’s adoption of these themes in his genre scenes. The two Gerards and Gesina were all to some extent in the business of delineating chivalrous, romantic entanglements.
As is perhaps fitting for an artist who grew up and then spent his life in an atmosphere where the importance of artistic matters was taken for granted, ter Borch is supremely unemphatic in the way he makes his points. It is as if he worked with a built-in assurance that he would always have an audience on his wavelength, and thus needed to speak in no more than a whisper. His pictures come to rest on the tiniest details. He was, additionally, a wonderful painter of animals, and in some of his genre scenes, where the various human figures are engaged in one thing or another, the picture is made to live because a spaniel in the scene looks out and catches our eye. Sometimes a particular dog’s look is so subtle we can easily miss it. In Three Soldiers Making Merry, where we encounter people who give us little to warm to, we find ourselves pulled into the picture because a greyhound delicately rests his neck on the knee of the most far gone of the fellows and looks at us. The dog’s putting his trust in the drinker makes us question our initial response to the man and to the very scene. The dog’s gesture says, “Look again.”
Two of ter Borch’s subtlest and best pictures revolve around animals. In A Maid Milking a Cow in a Barn, we see this creature in profile, while a second cow, who plods straight toward us from the darkened back of the scene, casts a bemused eye at the milkmaid or, it might be, at us. In A Horse Stable, a man grooms a dappled gray horse as a woman looks in from a doorway on the side. What gives these pictures their wit and tension is hard to put into words, but we are in another world from merely rustic scenes. The success of the pictures has to do with a mesh of formal and literary, or storytelling, elements. The glancing cow’s humorous character somehow makes us better see the strangely daring way the cow being milked is placed in strict profile, and, with its overly long body, is as much a wall as an animal. In A Horse Stable, the animal is also in profile, and, blocking most of the man from our view, has a wall-like presence, too. But then every element in this picture, from the woman seemingly trapped in a corner of the stable, who must be attempting to reach the man—who appears not to notice her—to the various poles and posts in conspicuous places, give the work a sense of uncertainty, frustration, and interference. Ter Borch’s point might be, to rework E.M. Forster, “We never connect.”
The authors of the catalog entries on the individual pictures, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., who also organized the show, Alison McNeil Kettering, and Marjorie E. Wieseman, certainly want their audience to see ter Borch in this light. In their commentaries they continually root out the “anxieties,” “uncertainties,” and “ambiguities” of these works, their largely “psychological” nature. Showing relations between people, and between people and animals, as subtly as he does, ter Borch benefits by being written about this way. Wieseman’s catalog entry for The Reading Lesson, for instance, a tiny picture which shows young Moses ter Borch trying to comprehend the Bible, with his mother beside him, her face and body going off in a different direction, helpfully makes us see that we are not looking at simply one more stereotypical image of domestic duties but that ter Borch’s subject is the adult’s wandering mind. Prompted by the catalog entry, we can wonder whether this woman could as well be on a slow boil about her pupil. We are left thinking that ter Borch’s staging of this indeterminate moment is an achievement in itself.
The catalog authors, however, make ter Borch into too much of a novelist. Yes, on the level of what is literally happening in his pictures, the painter creates a world where little is definite and the feelings of his characters are unreadable. But this sense of unease and irresolution is not what immediately comes to mind when we stand before the pictures. On the contrary, what ter Borch communicates is a lovely and often novel feeling for balance and order. The figures in his pictures, moreover, are a little too washy and impalpable to be the carriers of the ambiguities we are meant to find. There is actually a wan and generic quality to ter Borch’s people that keeps his paintings from being as charged as one might like them to be.
How to present faces in paintings where a relationship is being shown, or a drama is underway, is not an easily handled issue. With Vermeer, say, facial expressions are, miraculously, of a piece with the artist’s sense of space and light. Vermeer’s officers, ladies, servant girls, and courtiers have a physical beauty or a handsomeness, a fullness of form or even a weirdness (as when they have goofy smiles or bloated cheeks or no eyebrows), that meshes with the way the painter conceives all the elements in his pictures, whether chairs, milk pitchers, or carpets. The faces in the interior scenes of Pieter de Hooch, on the other hand, are a liability. The presence of de Hooch’s pleasant enough but essentially everyday, and sometimes rather haggard, folk, with their pasted-on smiles, subtly devalues the painter’s feeling for light and architecture.
The faces in ter Borch’s interior scenes are more delicately conceived than those of de Hooch (or, in truth, of most of the other Dutch genre painters of the time). We can even develop a fondness for a particular chinless blonde in ter Borch’s pictures, probably Gesina. Then, too, there might be a visual logic for the insubstantiality of his faces. Ter Borch sets up a world, in many paintings, where the clothing in the immediate foreground absorbs most of the light and therefore has the most physical presence, and where everything else in the scene, moving back into the darkness of the given room, gets sketchier and sketchier because that is what he saw as he worked. Besides, he obviously could give faces a dramatic weight in his straight portraits. His lively image of the painter Jan van Goyen, for example, makes this clear. In the end, though, in his genre scenes, some more stylized, or personal, way of rendering is wanted.
Yet Wheelock and his colleagues are surely correct in the larger sense. Although they don’t put it this way, they are right to believe that there is a profound pessimism in ter Borch. It happens to surface with the very issue of how to treat faces. Because in two of the most extraordinary pictures in the exhibition, the early Horse and Rider and the fully mature Gallant Conversation, where he places the leading figure (or figures) in the image with his or her back to us, the effect is genuinely disturbing. Artists before and after ter Borch have placed figures this way, but probably few have conveyed by it, as he does, so complete a sense of finality, unknowability, and exclusion. With these images, we aren’t led to believe that the figure turned away from us is in communion with what he or she is absorbing (as happens in pictures by the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich). In the ter Borchs, we feel we are simply being shut out. They are the only works of his to convey a strong emotion.
The pictures, in effect, are like glimpses of the void underlying existence. They seem to be glimpses, too, of ter Borch’s deepest thinking. But then it would be hard to say what the deepest note is in an art that manages to be at once highly formal, funny, gently sumptuous, and not a little disquieting.