Exquisiteness In Plain View
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004
Gerard Ter Borch is a greater, more important artist than Johannes Vermeer.
I've said it. I believe it's true. Now I only have to prove it.
A wonderful exhibition opening today at the National Gallery should help me do that job. The curator, Arthur Wheelock, has brought together 53 paintings from around the world for this country's first survey of Ter Borch's art. I'm convinced that if reputation and name recognition had no effect on audience -- or if the machinery of hype would only look beyond established tastes -- Ter Borch could draw the massive crowds that Vermeer got in 1995.
Gerard Ter Borch (the "ch" is pronounced as in the Scottish "loch"; the "g" of his first name sounds more like an "h") was born in 1617, 15 years before Vermeer. He was from the provincial town of Zwolle, where he first trained with his father, a tax collector who had once planned on a career in art. After his marriage in 1654, Ter Borch moved to an equally out-of-the-way place called Deventer. Yet he managed to spread his name and influence throughout the Netherlands and across Europe.
He was one of the most copied artists of his day. His skilled rendering of his contemporaries' satin clothes was widely noted and admired; other major figures learned from his techniques, so that convincing images of deluxe fabrics became a hallmark of some of his successors' art. Ter Borch's exquisite pictures of daily life were shipped out from Zwolle and Deventer to feed an eager market in the wider world.
Portrait commissions, the artist's bread and butter, sometimes took Ter Borch himself right across the Low Countries and beyond. In 1648, he was the official portraitist at the signing of the crucial Treaty of Muenster that ended war between the Netherlands and Spain. He may have gotten the job because of a trip he made as a young man to Spain, where he painted a portrait of King Phillip IV that was a source of pride and fame throughout his life. Ter Borch's work in Muenster seems to have won him a knighthood from the Spanish court.
In 1653, when Ter Borch cosigned a document with Vermeer in Delft, he would have been the visiting hotshot, doing a favor for a young unknown who never made it big outside his own home town. (Vermeer was barely recognized until his rediscovery circa 1865 in France; Ter Borch has always had a name among all lovers of Dutch art.)
Ter Borch imported a crucial Spanish influence into the Netherlands. He made portraits that echo the bare-bones treatments of Velazquez, in which the sitter is shown isolated on a plain background, without architecture or furniture to give a hint of setting or status. A single figure is made to hold down the whole picture, as though one doesn't need impressive props to assert one's place in life. It's a trick that works, making us read someone's pictorial dominance as a token of their social prominence. And it's almost more impressive in Ter Borch, who painted on the smallest scale, than in the life-size images of Velazquez.
The typically Spanish belief in the power of unvarnished portrayal -- of realism almost for its own sake -- is a crucial element in all of Ter Borch's art, and there are few Netherlanders who got there before he did. The standard, Vermeerish image that we have of Dutch genre painting as being about silent, unannotated glimpses of the everyday seems to have strong roots in Ter Borch.
Earlier Dutch pictures of the contemporary world are mostly built around a telling narrative or some striking event: They show raucous parties, or naughty tavern or bordello scenes, or some other storytelling moment that's evidently worthy of attention. Ter Borch gives us scenes that seem to be there just for their own sakes. (Velazquez may be lurking in the background once again: think of the Spaniard's deadpan "portraits" of dwarves and famous dead philosophers, or even the placid scene of life at court in his later "Las Meninas.") Several of Ter Borch's principal figures are shown from the back, as though glimpsed by accident, and most are shown engaged in mundane tasks: A matron looks vacantly into space as her little boy attempts to read; a fashionable lady has her satin dress laced by a maid while a little page in splendid livery brings in her toiletries.
One stunning Ter Borch from Helsinki -- it may be the most breathtaking picture in the exhibition -- shows nothing more remarkable than a solitary woman in a satin dress sipping from a crystal goblet. There's nothing to sell the image to us viewers but the sleepy appeal of the scene and Ter Borch's exquisite rendering of it.
Critics have tried to read a moral or story into some of Ter Borch's snippets of domestic life, but have mostly failed. A famous Amsterdam picture now given the neutral title "A Gallant Conversation" used to be known as "The Paternal Admonition," because it seemed that the beautiful young blonde shown from the back was being told off by the military man sitting in front of her, while her black-clad "mother" cast down her eyes in shame. (This was the interpretation Goethe gave in an 1809 novel, in which some characters choose the painting as the source for a tableau vivant. The vignette shows Ter Borch's continued reputation right into the Romantic age.)
By the 1950s, scholars preferred to see the setting as a brothel, with the woman as a prostitute being offered to a client by her madam. And more recently, the painting has been read as a courtship scene, in which an eligible lady receives a suitor in the presence of her chaperone. Strangely, all this confusion seems to stem from the directness of Ter Borch's vision, rather than from some perverse complexity in it. Ter Borch rejects narrative and allegory in favor of a kind of uninflected realism that, like cryptic reality itself, often frustrates interpretation. Vermeer has something like this directness in his later, best-liked pictures. (He almost surely got the notion from Ter Borch.) But he rarely pares things down as fully as the older artist did. There's often a hint of portentous, poetic mystery remaining in Vermeer that Ter Borch had the guts to do entirely without. (According to Wheelock, X-rays show that when Vermeer revised a painting, it was often to remove its most evidently symbolic, allusive elements.) The world and an artist's vision of it -- or at least the very clever simulation of that pairing in a work of art -- were sufficient matter for Ter Borch.
Though Ter Borch tends to show a more elevated social stratum than most earlier Dutch art -- the fine interiors and clothes we see belong to the wealthiest merchant class -- the directness of his vision makes that luxury seem like a natural occurrence. Ter Borch takes the quiet grace of his lovely images of working life (a milkmaid in a barn with cows; a knife grinder in his workshop) and transfers it to a rarefied world that ought to seem exceptional but, thanks to Ter Borch, doesn't. The rare silks of Ter Borch's ladies get the same obsessive skill applied to them as the wet noses of his cows.
That skill is a crucial part of Ter Borch's influence and excellence that is too easy to overlook. Most critics rightly dismiss today's high realists for rehashing old techniques and effects, or for thoughtless cribbing from photography. But it's important to remember that Ter Borch was inventing or perfecting such techniques. He had to note all the ways in which light bounces from one form onto another and then into our eyes, then come up with surrogates for them using a handful of pigments. Yet there's nothing crabbed or dryly technical in his approach, as can sometimes be the case with his rivals and followers. (Guess which one I have especially in mind . . . .)
Look closely enough at Ter Borch's surfaces and you see a mess of tiny flicks and dabs, of transparent glazes that build the color of an object, topped with semi-opaque scumbles of paint that render light's reflection off it. Ter Borch achieves a kind of micro-bravura that should thrill us as much as the macro-virtuosity of a Frans Hals or a Rembrandt.
Ter Borch's artifice is, in fact, so perfect that his pictures almost always come off as a transparent vision of some world the painter had before him, even when there's strong evidence that they're constructed fiction. Even when you note that two quite different compositions feature precisely the same satin skirt, identical in every wrinkle and reflection, the pictures don't lose their reality effect.
Ter Borch got hours of painstaking craft to mimic a split-second's worth of sight. He constructs snapshot views of daily life, captured in all its cryptic contingency. And by doing that, he underlines the miracle by which his measured painter's touch can render vision's speed. No wonder his patrons were impressed; we should be, too.
And, most amazing, from the very start of his career up to its end, Ter Borch almost never slips up. A painting from his teenage years, giving a hoof-high view of a horseman riding away from us, is as novel in its enigmatic subject matter, direct in its vision and exquisite in its illusionism as anything he did later. In the 52 pictures that follow it in this exhibition, spanning the 50 or so years to Ter Borch's death in 1681, there are only two or three that fall short of the artist at his best. Whereas even the biggest Vermeer fans -- like Rembrandt aficionados, for that matter -- have to acknowledge their hero's moments of awkwardness and error.
Of course, Vermeer's eccentricities and weaknesses made him the perfect painter for the modern age: He is the model unappreciated artist, following a lonely path to a unique, almost surreal, sometimes fractured vision no one else could share. But what if we reject modernism's hackneyed taste for the capricious? Let's put ourselves instead in the shoes of a 17th-century art lover, who favors professionalism, evident excellence and innovations that have legs. Do that, and Ter Borch becomes the guy to put your money on.
Gerard Ter Borch is on view in the West Building of the National Gallery, on the Mall at Sixth St. NW, through Jan. 30. Call 202-737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.