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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Anonymous Artist, Gerard ter Borch the Younger/The Music Lesson/c. 1670,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed February 23, 2024).

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Apr 24, 2014 Version
Jan 01, 1995 Version

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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 [fig. 1]. The Music Lesson, however, does not include such a motif, nor the bed, the dog, and the young suitor seen in the London painting, indicating that romantic concerns were not the thematic thrust of this work. It focuses instead on the woman’s intense concentration as she strives to master the harmonies of the music she is learning to play.

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.[1] He concluded that The Music Lesson is a pastiche, a joining together of motifs from the Roach and London paintings.  Just when such a pastiche would have been made is difficult to determine. Since Gudlaugsson brings into his discussion a later mezzotint by Jan Stolker (Dutch, 1724 - 1785) that reproduces the Roach painting in reverse, he seems to imply that The Music Lesson must have been produced long after Ter Borch’s lifetime.[2] Nevertheless, the quality of the painting is sufficiently high to assume that an artist working under Ter Borch’s supervision created it.

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. Caspar Netscher (Dutch, 1639 - 1684), who studied with Ter Borch before going to Italy in 1658 or 1659, made copies of his master’s paintings.[3] Ter Borch continued to use assistants and students for such work, even to the extent of encouraging them to create new compositions by combining elements from a variety of his images. It is probable that one of Ter Borch’s assistants derived his reversed image of the music master from a counterproof of Ter Borch’s preliminary drawing.[4]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


(Van Diemen, Berlin and New York), in 1929.[1] William R. Timken [1866-1949], New York; by inheritance to his wife, Lillian S. Guyer Timken [1881-1959], New York; bequest 1960 to NGA.

Exhibition History

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.

Technical Summary

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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fashion and clothing +aristocracy
nobility and patriciate
the rich
artist +Caspar Netscher + teacher of
high life
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