An artist’s personal history can be a visual roadmap into their past, subconscious, and their personal reality. The purpose of this paper is to explore these idioms in the work of Gerard Ter Borch and its historical relevance to art. Gerard Ter Borch had an established rapport with his uncle Robert van Voerst, a relationship that enabled the artist to claim his niche as one of Europe’s leading court portraitists. Robert van Voerst’s ties with Charles I began Borch’s career and launched him into his fame and status.
With royal backing it is no wonder that Borch kept much of his subject matter dealing with the rich and wealthy instead of the typical Dutch preclusion to the drab or mundane of human life. It is this significant turn of events that lead this discussion to Borch’s sophisticated representation of contemporary life (62). Such representations into modernity of Dutch life can be witnessed in Borch’s painting Curiosity (c. 1660). Since Borch’s family was so closely tied to an aristocratic lifestyle, it is no wonder that the artist’s work would reflect what he so intimately knew.
Although the composition of the work is best seen through the use of rich fabrics (as is most of Borch’s work) what should be taken note of is his use of diagonals to illustrate the inner psychology of the characters in his work. The moment of a letter arriving has each woman in the painting ‘curious’ as to its contents, but this curiosity is best exemplified by the woman on the left leaning over the other young woman’s shoulder in order to gain a better view of the letter’s contents. This leaning of the young woman gives the painting an enigmatic feel that is not present in other of Borch’s work.
A high profile woman that is a woman of so obvious a rich birth (as can be seen by her clothing) indulges in a dalliance of childish movement making the moment both entertaining and whimsical. This whimsical nature is given further emphasis by the vast background surrounding the young ladies. That this one woman would allow herself the indulgence of something so trivial as a childish leaning forward among all that tradition and overbearing space (notice the columns in the background as well as the ornate fixture of the diagonally placed mirror) is what is so appealing about this piece of work.
The reason for the letter writing with this trio of women is that Borch had a very close relationship with his half sisters, “[which] surely contributed to his affectionate sensitivity to how young women might behave on such an occasion” (76). With Borch’s obvious eye for the smallest detail a closer examination of the painting must be given, including symbolism for such objects. Of note in such objects is the watch key which precariously dangles over the edge of the table.
The symbolism of such a state for a watch winding key could mean for the viewer to take special note of temperance which would make sense with Borch having been raised in the Eastern Netherlands and privy to that regions Protestant upbringing. Since the objects on the table are of such small stature, from the candlestick to the watch winding key to even the letter itself, the viewer may imagine that the symbolism of such objects do not have equal weight as the characters themselves; therefore, motive for the letter takes precedence over any idea of temperance.
However, with Borch’s style leaning toward developing and understanding human behavior it may be worthwhile to ask Why did the artist choose to include a moral lesson in such small objects if not to make a point? Indeed, this curiosity of The Curiosity is the reason why the painting is known as a conversatiestuk or conversation piece. With such small detail making an impact on critiques and viewers alike what becomes predominately clear in studying Borch is that he continually uses small objects to emphasize his study of human behavior.
Upon first looking at The Curiosity a viewer is not completely aware of all of the objects in the composition. The element of light is what makes these objects more noticeable; such as the winding key on the table’s ledge that gives off a golden hue and is further emphasized by the piel’s body language pointing to the key. If the element of light is to be discussed in The Curiosity then most notably the woman on the right shimmers with luminescence – her costume as well as her countenance.
With such brilliance transposing the portrait it is a wonder that the woman stands at such a distance from the main action of the painting. This distance is only emphasized by Borch’s use of light on her. This leads the viewer to wonder the cause of the distance and to become enraptured by the back story of the moment of the painting and the relationship among these three women. Thus, by the use of light, Borch has made the viewer not only appreciate a fine painting but to become engrossed in the psychology of the characters and their reasons for standing the way he has painted them.
In this psychological history of the women, the viewer becomes aware of something else; a voyeuristic tone to the painting. The intimate moment of a woman opening a letter that may (by the stance of the women surrounding her) be from a lover or gentleman caller makes the viewer realize that the painter is a man, and that the interest of all of the women is of a man. Thus, the painter through these psychological stances becomes the object of the viewer’s scrutiny (76).
Upon revisiting the painter as the background object of the painting, the viewer must once again re-examine the objects on the table and their significance to the painter’s life. The time piece once again must be examined not as an abstract composition of temperance but as a revelation to the viewer of the artist’s own timeframe. Time is often associated with death, thereby; the death of the painter’s uncle during this time is significant. It is the uncle who allowed him his introduction to Charles I and which thereby gained him his entrance into the art world.
It seems that Borch is writing his own life history in the small objects on the table. The death of Borch’s mother Anna Bufkens would perhaps be also realistically attached to the significance to the time piece. The complex nature of the painting is revealed; the women gathering around the letter are anxious to find out the lover’s intentions but the objects on the table tell of lives and lovers past. Love quickly follows death for the viewers in Borch’s painting.
With so much psychology behind the small objects involved in Borch’s painting The Curiosity it cannot be said that the painting is for mere visual enjoyment that is most definitely not a conversatiestuk –it is far more than just a simple conversation piece. Without the use of light, of lines, and of composition such nuisances of Borch’s style would be lost on the viewer. Thus, the importance of these artistic styles is what ultimately makes the painter so interesting to the art world. If Borch desired to make a moralizing message it would be to enjoy the love letters when they are coming and in time to allow for the moments of death.
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