The Wallace Collection

Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681), A Lady reading a Letter (P236)
Treasure of the Month - December 2004

Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681), A Lady reading a Letter (P236)

To coincide with the major retrospective of his work at present on show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Wallace Collection celebrates the achievement of the seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Gerard ter Borch, in this month’s Treasure of the Month. Initially trained as a landscape painter and portraitist, Ter Borch’s fame chiefly resides in the small, exquisite genre pictures he painted in Amsterdam and Deventer in the 1650s and 1660s. Many of these pictures can be interpreted as illustrations of courtship rituals and other prevailing ideals of seventeenth-century middle-class social behaviour. They gain an air of intimacy from Ter Borch’s use of his own family as models, including repeated portrayals of his young step-sister, and fellow artist, Gesina ter Borch. Thus in A Lady reading a Letter a pretty girl, modelled on Gesina, sits at a table, its carpet covering pushed aside to allow her to work. Instead, her sewing lies forgotten in its basket as she avidly reads a letter. Young people reading or writing letters in Dutch paintings of the period are invariably indicators of amorous intrigue, a fact hinted at in the picture by the red canopied bed just visible behind the blue screen.The distracting power of love is then emphasised by the heroine’s neglect of her proper household duties. As a French emblem book of the period warned, ‘better burn such letters before they enflame your heart through your eyes’

The picture, which was painted at the height of the artist’s powers in the first half of the 1660s, is remarkable for its subtle light and shadow, its rendering of material textures, and its masterful use of colour. The sombre, confined space of the interior serves to concentrate and intensify its effect: as if a door had been accidentally opened on to another age, and in this lies much of its appeal. Such stylistic innovations were to prove influential for a whole generation of genre painters in Holland, including Metsu, De Hooch, the Van Mieris, Eglon van der Neer and Caspar Netscher: works by all these artists may be compared in the same gallery.

Such technical finesse greatly endeared Dutch cabinet pictures to French connoisseurs in the eighteenth century. A Lady reading a Letter was described with a pendant of A Lady writing a Letter, in the second cabinet of the famous collector, Blondel de Gagny, in his hôtel in the Place Royale by the art historian Dezallier d’Argenville in 1757. This distinguished provenance and the picture’s exquisite quality in turn proved irresistible to one of the founders of the Wallace Collection, the 4th Marquess of Hertford, who acquired the picture in 1848.