The encounter taking place at the doorway of this elegant, high-ceilinged room, decorated with gilded leather wall covering, seems the height of gentility. A debonair young man, hat in hand, bows slightly as he responds to the alluring gaze of the young woman who has come forward to greet him. She apparently has just risen from her green velvet seat where she had been playing a duet with the woman strumming a theorbo; the former's music book and bass viol can be seen lying on the table. Behind the women stands a man who, in the dimness of the interior light, warms himself before the hearth as he turns to peer at the visitor.
Ter Borch drew upon his surroundings in Deventer for creating a sense of immediacy in his compositions. The objects in this work, including the carpet 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. The model for the suitor was his student Caspar Netscher (Dutch, 1639 - 1684), who also features in other of Ter Borch’s paintings from the mid-to-late 1650s. Indeed, Netscher made a copy of this painting before he set sail for Rome in 1659, a date that establishes a terminus post quem for this work. Finally, the elegant standing woman, resplendent in her red top and white satin dress, is almost certainly Gesina ter Borch (1631–1690), the artist’s beloved half-sister.[fig. 1] [fig. 1] Gesina ter Borch, Self-Portrait of Gesina in a Gray Cartouche, Crowned with the Ter Borch Arms, 1659, Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam (poetry album, fol. 2r). Photo © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Not only did she frequently serve as a model for the artist, but her ideas seem to have had a profound effect on the type and character of the subjects Ter Borch chose to depict during this phase of his career.
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. Gesina’s poetry and pictorial images in this and other albums belong to that important Dutch literary genre, largely influenced by Petrarchan ideals, that both celebrates the delights of love and warns against the dangers of becoming ensnared in ill-advised attachments. In this respect she followed in the path of her father, who, aside from his topographic drawings, was also a poet and who, in the 1620s, helped illustrate an amorous songbook with images of lovers cavorting in the grass.
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 related print [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Jan Hermanszoon Krul, "De Overdaed en Doet Geen Baet" (The Excess That Brings No Profit), from Eerlycke Tytkorting, Haarlem, 1634, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC accompanies an emblem entitled “De Overdaed en Doet Geen Baet” (roughly, "The Excess That Brings No Profit"). The thrust of the emblem is a warning that encouragement by a woman is not always to be trusted. Whereas a suitor might feel that love and commitment would follow, all too often the lover is rejected and then belittled. Krul writes of the lover’s lament: “If you never intend to have me, why so much courtship? / It would honor you best to send me straight away.” The similarities between the painting and the print seem to imply that the outcome of this match will likewise be disappointment. Finally, not unrelated to the painting’s mood are the colors of the woman’s dress. In the list of color symbols Gesina compiled in her poetry album around 1659, white is equated with purity and carnation with revenge or cruelty.
In keeping with the sumptuous details of his subject, Ter Borch incorporated costly ultramarine pigment into the Washington painting in unexpected ways. Not only did he use it to compose the brilliant blue bodice of the female musician seated at the table, he even used it as an underpaint that, together with a layer of green glaze, creates the deep green color of the velvet seat cushion. The blue portions of the patterned rug draped over the table were probably also intended to appear as a green midtone, but the unstable yellow-lake pigment Ter Borch mixed with the ultramarine in those passages has since faded. As Gifford and Glinsman have discussed, such an incremental color shift from the deep green velvet in the foreground to the bright blue lute player would have helped articulate a sense of spatial regression in the scene.
The sophistication of Ter Borch's touch is matched only by the subtlety of his narrative and the gracefulness of his figures. His white satins were celebrated in poetry and emulated by his peers, though no artist could convey as effectively as he the shimmering surface of this costly fabric. Ter Borch painted deep shadows with translucent yellow and gray, and added contrast with pure white highlights. His brushstrokes vary from smooth planes to angular folds and he has softened the transitions with a dry blending brush. Such a subtle effect is also felt in the nuanced psychological interactions he created amongst his figures. Ter Borch’s effectiveness in depicting human emotion and a sense of inner life in such genre scenes may stem from his experiences as a portrait painter. Even the poses he used in these works are occasionally similar. For example, the manner in which the suitor holds his wide-brimmed hat is derived from a portrait the artist created in 1656.
Original entry by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., April 24, 2014.
Revised by Alexandra Libby to incorporate information from a new technical examination.
December 9, 2019