- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

Of the Dutch 17th-century golden-age painters such as Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch may be the least known.

Why the neglect?

Kenneth Clark, writing in his 1969 book “Civilisation: A Personal View,” contended that the artist was too busy recording Dutch preoccupations with wealth. As Mr. Clark pointed out, money — lots of it — came from the Netherlands’ colonies and trade.

The illustrious art scholar dismissively summed up Ter Borch’s legacy: “Bourgeois capitalism led to a defensive smugness and sentimentality: no wonder that early Victorian painters imitated the genre pictures of Metsu and Terborch.”

Thirty-five years later, Mr. Clark’s assessment is old hat. Recently, scholars have researched the artist’s importance, especially Ter Borch’s considerable influence on younger contemporaries such as Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer.

Along with others, Ter Borch (1617-81) flattered rich burghers with portraits of them and their homes. Holland was the major maritime power in Europe, and Ter Borch’s portraits — both the sober Calvinist ones and those of satin-clad women — were in big demand.

Visitors to the National Gallery of Art’s first comprehensive overview in the United States of Ter Borch will experience surprises. With about 50 of the artist’s paintings on view, the gallery covers all phases of Ter Borch’s art.

Until the National Gallery exhibition, Ter Borch was pegged mainly as a virtuoso painter of satin. By refracting light within and reflecting light on the outside, he does, indeed, dazzle visitors with the silk’s pearllike opalescence.

Ter Borch’s obsession with painting the elegant fabric places him squarely in what art historians call the “age of light,” along with Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gerard Dou, Adrian Corte and Albert Culp, among others.

The exhibit, titled “Gerard ter Borch” and organized by the National Gallery in cooperation with the American Federation of Arts, begins with the artist’s “Horse and Rider” in the first gallery. Done when he was a teenager, it depicts a tired horseman slumped in his saddle, away from his home base. Ter Borch had grown up surrounded by warfare and was familiar with these soldiers.

Exhibit curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the gallery’s curator of northern baroque art, writes in the valuable brochure that the artist was inspired not only by Calvinist doctrine, but by singular, darkened images created by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) as well.

The product of a wealthy, supportive artist family in Zwolle, Ter Borch began about 1624 studying with his artist father, Gerard ter Borch the Elder. Gesina, the younger artist’s half sister, frequently posed for him.

On a trip to London in 1635, he discovered Anthony van Dyck’s (1599-1641) elaborate portraits for the court of Charles I. A 1637 foray to Spain exposed Ter Borch to the expressive portraiture of Velazquez (1599-1660). On returning home, the Dutch painter leaned heavily on these sources.

The exhibit’s pendant portraits of a man and his wife (circa 1640, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) look to Velazquez’s figures dressed in black and placed in neutral settings. Ter Borch must have painted “Helena van der Schalcke,” a portrait of a tiny, elegantly dressed 2-year-old girl, after seeing van Dyck’s portrait “Clelia Cattaneo, Daughter of Marchesa Elena Grimaldi.” The van Dyck, which Ter Borch would have seen in London, now hangs on the main floor of the National Gallery’s West Building.

The van Dyck and Velazquez influences were even more pronounced in the scenes of everyday life — of rich and poor alike — the artist began painting in the 1650s. The exhibit really hits its stride with the artist’s “genre” scenes (scenes from everyday life), especially those with sexual undercurrents. The paintings are riveting in their ambiguity and erotic implications.

“Are these dignified depictions of courtship or ‘procuress scenes,’ in which a man pays a go-between for a woman’s sexual favors?” Mr. Wheelock asks in the brochure.

Ter Borch’s most famous painting, “Gallant Conversation,” perfectly illustrates the mixed messages of these amorous pictures. As Mr. Wheelock explains in the brochure, the painting has been given three interpretations over the years. It was known as “Paternal Admonition” to 18th-century admirers, who regarded it as a father admonishing his daughter. The 20th century saw the picture as a brothel in which a procuress expedites a soldier’s proposition to an elegantly dressed young lady. “Currently,” Mr. Wheelock writes, “Ter Borch’s masterpiece is interpreted as an image of seventeenth-century courtship.”

A similar work, in which he portrays Gesina turned in a three-quarters pose, with her arms curved outwards, is “The Introduction (An Officer Making His Bow to a Lady).” The picture includes his most beautiful painting of satin and, also, his most telling portrait of a sinister-looking soldier with dishonorable intentions.

Gerard ter Borch was no Vermeer, but he led the way to some of the Delft artist’s most revered art.

WHAT: “Gerard ter Borch”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Exhibit continues through Jan. 30.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

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