Ladies in Satin

Gerard ter Borch

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., November 7, 2004–January 30, 2005, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, February 27–May 22, 2005.
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,…

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