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). Ter Borch particularly favored depictions of music lessons, as the subject provided him the opportunity to depict the social interactions of people within a domestic setting and to explore the many symbolic allusions of music, from marital harmony to love and seduction. The theme also allowed him to show off his superb skills in rendering materials, especially the sumptuous textiles worn by his female subjects.
Ter Borch’s sensitive and elegant genre scenes were in high demand, and a large number of replicas and versions of his paintings were created by assistants in his workshop. Based on stylistic and qualitative comparisons, Music Lesson was likely painted by an artist working directly under Ter Borch’s supervision. Concentrating on her music book, an elegantly attired woman strums her bent-necked theorbo—a large baroque lute with an extra set of bass strings—to the beat established by her music teacher. The artist created his composition by adapting a number of motifs the master had used in earlier works. The most important source of inspiration was Ter Borch’s A Woman Playing a Theorbo to Two Men, now in the National Gallery, London.
Intently focused on her music book, an elegantly attired lady strums on her bent-necked theorbo to the beat established by her music instructor. The scene must have been familiar in the homes of well-to-do Dutch burghers, for the playing of music was a popular and socially acceptable activity among unmarried young people, particularly women. Numerous depictions of music lessons exist in Dutch art. Not only did the subject provide an opportunity to depict a leisure activity within a domestic setting, but it also was one in which the many symbolic allusions of music, from harmony to love and seduction, could be thematically exploited. It is not by accident, for example, that Ter Borch depicted an ace of hearts on the floor in a similar painting in the National Gallery, London
The comparison with the London painting reveals that the woman’s pose as well as the general disposition of the room and still-life elements on the table in The Music Lesson are virtually identical. While Ter Borch did occasionally repeat compositions and readapt figures in his paintings, stylistic comparisons between the women in the two paintings demonstrate that different hands were at work. The modeling of the woman’s face and hands in the London painting creates a greater sense of three-dimensionality than that in the Washington version, and the impression of sheen on the satin dress and the soft textural qualities of the fur jacket are more convincingly rendered. Similar comparisons can be made with the outstretched hand of the music master, and with the candlestick and cloth on the table.
Connections between The Music Lesson and other Ter Borch paintings also exist. As Gudlaugsson has pointed out, the music master replicates in reverse a figure in the depiction of a music lesson formerly in the Roach Collection.
Reproduced by Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–1960), 1:355, no. 221, as being in the collection of Mrs. W. J. Roach. This same figure is also found in at least three other paintings once attributed to Ter Borch (see Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959-1960), 2:203–206, for discussion of these and other paintings).
Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–1960), 2: 203. In addition to his prints after Ter Borch, Stolker also executed mezzotints and drawings after paintings by other Dutch artists, including
Little is known about Ter Borch’s studio, but the large number of replicas and versions of his paintings indicates that a widespread demand existed for his works.
Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–1960), 2:288–289, identifies a number of signed copies Netscher made of Ter Borch compositions. As indicated in note 4 in the entry on
Peter Schatborn, Dutch Figure Drawings from the Seventeenth Century, trans. by Janine Hamann-Orci (Amsterdam, 1981), 28–29, discusses the use of counterproof drawings by Gerrit Berckheyde and
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
(Van Diemen, Berlin and New York), in 1929. William R. Timken [1866-1949], New York; by inheritance to his wife, Lillian S. Guyer Timken [1881-1959], New York; bequest 1960 to NGA.
- Loan for display with permanent collection, Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, 1967-1971.
- Loan for display with permanent collection, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1979-1993.
The support, a fine-weight, tightly and plain-woven fabric, has been lined with the tacking margins trimmed. Three moderately sized complex tears in the background to the left and right of the man’s head have become visible again due to the cleaving and lifting of paint along the tear edges. Thin, fluid paint is applied over a thin, smooth, white ground with little layering and no appreciable impasto or brushmarking. There is some moderate abrasion overall. The contour of the man’s proper right shoulder and hair has been reinforced, and there is glazing over his costume, possibly to cover local abrasion. The varnish layer is matte and discolored. No treatment has been undertaken at the National Gallery of Art.
- Gudlaugsson, Sturla J. Geraert ter Borch. 2 vols. The Hague, 1959-1960: 2(1960):206, no. 221r.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 126, as School of Terborch.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 113, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Washington, 1975: 336-337, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. Washington, 1985: 387, repro.
- Ford, Terrence, compiler and ed. Inventory of Music Iconography, no. 1. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York 1986: 6, no. 129.
- Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 1995: 30-32, repro. 31.
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