Dutch seventeenth-century artists drew their subject matter from all elements of society. The refinement of the wealthy burghers in the second half of the century was best captured by Gerard ter Borch the Younger. His exquisite painting technique, which consisted of delicate touches with the brush and the use of thin glazes to suggest transparencies, allowed him to create realistic textural effects, whether of lace, satin, or the pile of an oriental tablecloth. His pictures’ calm moods and brilliant renditions of fabrics set a precedent for later painters such as Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667).
In this painting, an elegant gentleman bows gracefully as he enters the room. A young woman wearing a beautiful satin dress with an orange-red jacket stands to greet him while another woman plays a theorbo, a type of lute, at the table. Behind them a man warms his hands at the fireplace. The clothes, instruments, imposing mantelpiece, and gilded wallpaper all attest to the prosperity of the people. Ter Borch focused on the psychological interaction between the suitor and the standing woman, who communicate through glances and gestures.
Contemporary viewers would have greatly admired Ter Borch’s remarkable ability to render satins in The Suitor’s Visit, but they would also have been intrigued by the painting's subject matter. Does this scene depict an innocent social call, or does the graceful lady answering the door invite her suitor in for a sexual encounter? The answer is not easy to discern because the artist delighted in capturing the ambivalence of human relationships through his carefully considered renderings of gazes and gesture.
The encounter taking place at the doorway of this elegant, high-ceilinged room, decorated with gilded leather wall covering, seems the height of gentility.
This entry was originally published in Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Gerard ter Borch (Washington, DC, 2004), no. 30, and based largely on Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century (Washington, DC, 1995), 26–28.
Ter Borch drew upon his surroundings in Deventer for creating a sense of immediacy in his compositions. The objects in this work, including the tapestry on the table, the chair, the theorbo, the hearth, and the leather wall covering, were ones he knew well, as they reappear in different contexts in a number of other paintings from the mid-1650s.
Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–1960), 2:148, has carefully indicated other instances in which these objects appear in Ter Borch’s works. The table carpet, for example, is also seen in The Letter Writer (Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 797), the chair in The Visit (Bührle Foundation, Zurich), the mantelpiece in A Young Woman at Her Toilet (Wallace Collection, London, inv. no. P235), and A Lute Player with a Boy (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, inv. no. 349).
See painting from the National Gallery, London, Officer Dictating a Letter While a Trumpeter Waits, c. 1658/1659.
For information about Netscher’s signed copy on panel, see Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–1960), 2:148, cat. no. 139a, and Marjorie E. Wieseman, Caspar Netscher and Late Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting (Doornspijk, 2002), 314–315, cat. no. B2. The composition was also known to Gabriel Metsu. See Everhard Korthals Altes, "The Eighteenth-Century Gentleman-Dealer Willem Lormier and the International Dispersal of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Paintings," Simiolus 28 (2000–2001): 266, fig. 16.
See The Unwelcomed Call, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Alison M. Kettering, “Ter Borch’s Ladies in Satin,” Art History 16 (March 1993): 122 n. 66, on the other hand, suggests that the model was Gesina’s younger sister Aeltjen (Aleida), who would have been twenty-one years old in 1657. Gesina, who was born in 1631, would have been twenty-six.
By the mid-1650s Gesina had embarked on her own artistic and literary career with her poetry album, which is filled with arcadian images of love’s pleasures and disappointments.
See Alison M. Kettering, Drawings from the Ter Borch Studio Estate in the Rijksmuseum, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1989), 2:416–614. Gesina began this poetry album in 1652, and contributed to it intermittently until the 1660s.
See Alison M. Kettering, “Ter Borch’s Ladies in Satin,” Art History 16 (March 1993) for a discussion of the adaptation of Petrarchan concepts of love in Dutch literary traditions and in Ter Borch’s paintings.
It is against this background of family interest in art, music, and emblematic literature about love and its complexities that one must consider the nature of the narrative that unfolds in The Suitor’s Visit. Under the veneer of gentility is a scene that is alive with sexual innuendo. The gazes of the couple at the door are at once enticing and yearning, a private communication that does not go unnoticed by the gentleman standing before the hearth. More explicitly sexual, however, is the nature of their gestures. The young woman clasps her hands in a manner that could be construed as an invitation for intercourse, as the thumb of her right hand protrudes between the index finger and second finger of her other hand in a most unconventional, and expressive, manner. His gesture in response appears to be an assent, for as he bows he forms a circle between the thumb and index finger of his left hand.
Ter Borch does not spell out the outcome of the woman’s ploy—for her central position in the composition and the dog’s inquisitive gaze clearly indicate she is the initiator of the intrigue. Undoubtedly, however, Ter Borch’s circle of acquaintances would have recognized that his composition had remarkable parallels with an image found in Jan Hermanszoon Krul’s influential Eerlycke Tytkorting (Honorable Pastimes), published in Haarlem in 1634, which contains emblems devoted to the delights and travails of love.
The contents of this emblem book were reprinted in Krul’s De Pampiere Wereld (Amsterdam, 1644), 295. Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–1960), 1:116–117; 2:148, was the first to draw attention to the relationship between Ter Borch’s composition and the print from Krul’s emblem, which he cited in its republished form in De Pampiere Wereld.
Jan Krul, Eerlyck Tytkorting (Haarlem, 1634), 16 (author’s translation).
Alison M. Kettering, Drawings from the Ter Borch Studio Estate in the Rijksmuseum, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1989), 2:440, fol. 39: “Wit Suijverheijt” and “Incornaet Vraecke or Vreedtheijt.”
The subtlety of Ter Borch’s narrative is matched by the gracefulness of his figures and the delicacy and refinement of his touch. No artist could convey as effectively as he the shimmering surface of a long white satin skirt or the undulating rhythms of a translucent lace cuff. His brushstrokes, while small, are quite loose and rapidly applied with the result that the surface has a richly animated quality.
In executing the satin, Ter Borch freely applied thin fluid paint layers that he blended wet-into-wet in a series of thin scumbles [
Gerhard Langemeyer and Hendrik R. Hoetink, Gerard ter Borch: Zwolle 1617–Deventer 1681 (The Hague, 1974), 136, cat. no. 36a.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
Charles-Auguste-Louis-Joseph, duc de Morny [1811-1865], Paris; (his estate sale, at the Palais de la Présidence du Corps Législatif, Paris, 31 May-12 June 1865, no. 82); Josè Salamanca y Mayol [Marquès de Salamanca, d. 1866], Madrid; (sale, at his residence by Charles Pillet, Paris, 3-6 June 1867, no. 126); Baron Adolphe de Rothschild [1823-1900], Paris; by inheritance to his first cousin once-removed, Baron Maurice de Rothschild [1881-1957], Paris; (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris); sold July 1922 to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 28 December 1934 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
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The tightly woven, plain-weave fabric support, composed of fine irregularly spun threads, was lined with the tacking margins trimmed. Broad cusping is visible along the left and right edges. A smooth beige ground is striated with white in places, suggesting the presence of a white underlayer.
Thin fluid paint layers are applied freely and blended wet-into-wet in a series of thin scumbles of liquid, soft-edged colors. Fine details are painted wet over dry. Flesh tones are composed of a gray underpainting, thinly glazed to form shading, more thickly overpainted to create light areas. Microscopic examination reveals a change in the placement of the dog’s front legs and an adjustment of the suitor’s proper left hand gesture.
Although the background has probably darkened over time, the painting is in excellent condition, with small abraded losses confined to the thinly applied darks. The painting was treated in 2003–2004, at which time discolored varnish and old inpainting were removed.
Related IconClass Terms
- postures and gestures of hands and fingers
- Arcadian scenes
- fashion and clothing +aristocracy
- high life
- portrait +Caspar Netscher