Dutch Painter Gerard ter Borch: Putting people and things in perspective

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2010; 8:48 PM

Every day this week, art critic Blake Gopnik is discussing a painting (or two) from the Mantel Room at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

DAY 2: Ter Borch,

people and things

Only two days into my project, and already I'm cheating. Pondering the pictures stacked up in the Corcoran's deluxe Mantel Room, I couldn't help peeking around the corner into a connected space curators have dubbed the Small Mantel Room - and getting stuck there. It holds a pair of exquisite little portraits painted around 1666 by the Dutchman Gerard ter Borch. ("Gerard" is pronounced "Herard" - with that "h" sounding like the final consonant in "Bach" or "blech.")

Ter Borch was a contemporary of Vermeer's, and is one of my favorite artists: After seeing a rare survey of his work at the National Gallery of Art in 2004, I declared him better than Vermeer, with my tongue only barely in cheek. The two artists' peers might have agreed with my ranking.

Like the Chardin "Scullery Maid" at the Corcoran discussed Monday, the ter Borch portraits of a wife and her husband - Maria and Gerhard van Suchtelen - each show a figure in the middle of the room where they spend much of their time. But where the tiny Chardin painting made its modest little figure feel monumental, the two ter Borchs, though more than twice as big and treating more substantial folk, make their figures seem notably smaller than life. That's especially true if you compare the ter Borchs to the nearly life-size portraits by Velazquez that influenced them. (As a young man, ter Borch spent time in Spain; that is where he got his plain brown backgrounds and his figures all in sober black and white in front of them.)

But even without that comparison, Mr. and Mrs. van Suchtelen seem strangely recessive.

As I stood before the portraits in the gallery, that withdrawal seemed partly caused by the peculiar way the pictures' space is constructed - or at least that was my intuition. (No way to do a computer-assisted perspective analysis while taking in the artworks in the flesh.) Where Chardin's image of the maid seems to flatten its space, making you feel as though you're looking from a distance at a giantess, the ter Borchs have the opposite effect: Their two figures seem to be swimming in space, the way people do when you're standing right among them. (We look down on the chairs and tables in the pictures, as though we're almost on top of them, rather than seeing their seats edge-on as we would from further off.) But if we're so close to this couple, why don't they fill our view more completely? The only answer our brains can find is that the pair must be much smaller than us, the size of dolls in a dollhouse. So that's the impression they give.

That impression meshes perfectly with what these pictures might be about. This eminent duo - he was the mayor of Deventer, where ter Borch spent many years - are shown immersed in the fine things they own; they don't come off as much more important than those things. The culture of the Netherlands encouraged a particular way of taking in the world and the art that depicted it: The Dutch had a scanning eye, roving from one thing to another almost in the manner of a naturalist (a Dutchman invented the microscope) or of an inventory clerk (it was a country full of warehouses) or of someone consulting a map (the Dutch were great cartographers and merchant-explorers). Ter Borch's Corcoran portraits invite that kind of looking at this pair and their possessions: It's an equal-opportunity gaze that doesn't prefer person to thing.

That kind of depiction makes particular sense in one of the first great bourgeois nations, where, for almost the first time, a person's rank might be determined by the goods they'd amassed and the honors they'd won, instead of by their ancestry. Look at ter Borch's portraits and you feel right there among the fine things this couple owns, and that represent who they are.

Of course, for all of Holland's wealth and love of commodities - including wonderful paintings such as the Corcoran's, for which the Dutch established the first open market - the country was also puritanical. The showing-off on view in ter Borch's portraits is beautifully restrained: The couple's clothes are in modest black and white, with only ter Borch's stunning skill to tell us that we're talking satin and embroidery and the very finest lace.

Velazquez's austere, brown-on-brown portraits were often of ancient philosophers or lowly outsiders; ter Borch borrows that austerity to please people immersed in the world.

And maybe the best symbol of a properly austere, distinctly Dutch extravagance was to commission a modest, brown-and-black picture of yourself from one of the nation's very finest painters.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company