Gerhard ter Borch (1617–1681) is considered one of the most important genre painters of Dutch Golden Age painting. There are two surviving, virtually identical versions of his iconic masterpiece, Gallant Conversation. Immortalised by Goethe in his Elective Affinities, one version is held in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, and the other in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For the first time in more than 350 years, both pictures will be exhibited side by side – complemented by repetitions of the motif, partial copies and imitations.
Born into a respected family of painters, Gerard ter Borch can be considered one of the key masters of Dutch genre painting. After completing his training in Zwolle and Haarlem before spending time in London, he settled in Amsterdam, where he became a successful and highly sought after portraitist of the Dutch regent class. Although Ter Borch was extremely successful as a portrait painter, from 1648 and into the early 1660s, he also specialised in genre paintings depicting the haute bourgeoisie, quickly becoming a master of the craft, and he continues to be viewed as one of the most outstanding exponents of this genre. In particular, his detailed and effective depiction of fabrics and surfaces brought him lasting renown. Like almost no other painter of his era, ter Borch was able to reproduce the visual effect of the shimmering satin clothing of his subjects with such deceptive and convincing mastery that people referred to his interiors as “satijntjes” (satin pieces).
His most significant work in this series is without a doubt his Gallant Conversation, in which the shimmering silver dress and its artfully arranged folds form the central focus of the image. The optical and tactile allure of the dress enters into a highly seductive interplay with the figure wearing the dress, who stands with her back toward the viewer, leaving an enigmatic impression.
No less than 24 repetitions, partial copies and imitations attest to the extraordinary popularity of this depiction and the overwhelming success of the composition, in particular the figure in the white satin dress facing away from the viewer. Alongside both versions of the Gallant Conversartion, this small, one-room exhibition in the Gemäldegalerie gathers together three more instances of the motif of the backward-facing figure produced by ter Borch and his closest associates. This unique convergence of the five versions, from the Gemäldegalerie, the Rijksmuseum, the Gemäldegalerie Dresden and from two private collections does not just enable viewers to study ter Borch’s refined and efficient painterly technique through a direct comparison. It also promises insights into how his workshop operated, which allowed startling convergences to emerge which astound viewers with the precision of their detail, of the drapery and the depiction of light and reflection. Finally, the presentation also shines a spotlight on the savvy marketing of ter Borch’s remarkably flexible choices of subject matter, motifs and pictorial compositions.
The meaning of the scene in the painting is also somewhat enigmatic, which is reflected in the recent renaming of the work, from The Paternal Admonition to Gallant Conversation. Conflicting with the earlier reading, there is significant evidence to suggest that the scene actually depicts an amorous seduction. And it is precisely ter Borch’s subtle treatment of his subject matter and his deliberate depiction of ambiguous moments which produces his outstanding narrative talent. This thematic vagueness allowed a new interpretation of this picture to emerge in each century. Which explains how this scene of seduction could have been given the title The Paternal Admonition in the 18th century. An impressive and prominent example of this phenomenon in the exhibition is J.G. Wille’s reproductive print (1765), which is held by the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and was also the source of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s famous description of the “fine, striking figure, in a folding drapery of white satin” in his novel Elective Affinities.
A special presentation by the Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
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