Was Vermeer a copycat?
A new exhibition suggests that the Delft master was, in fact, ‘highly unoriginal’
trunk filled with clothes and art supplies, including a mannequin.
With it was a letter, offering instructions: “Use the mannequin and do not let it stand idle,” his father wrote. “Draw a lot: large, dynamic compositions.”
Evidently, the youngster took this advice to heart because, in time, he became one of the most renowned artists of the Dutch Golden Age. His work was sought after by the aristocratic elite of Amsterdam. And monarchs and rulers across Europe – including William of Orange and Cosimo III de’ Medici – desired his services.
Yet, today, Gerard ter Borch, as he was called, is hardly a household name. This is, surely, one of the great injustices of art history, for Ter Borch (1617-81) was a suave and spellbinding artist, famous for his pictures of juffertjes (young ladies) that showcased his marvellous ability to capture the sheen and texture of sumptuous satin gowns.
Moreover, he was an essential influence upon his younger contemporary, Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). And while, today, Ter Borch is, if not forgotten, then recognised principally by specialists, Vermeer is, of course, universally celebrated.
“Without Ter Borch, there would be no Vermeer – that is clear,” says Adriaan E Waiboer, the art historian responsible for Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, a scintillating new exhibition of 60 paintings (including 10 by the master of Delft), which is about to open in Dublin, at the refurbished National Gallery of Ireland.
Earlier this year, a version of the exhibition was staged at the Louvre, where it was visited by 325,000 people. Walking around, it was clear to me that the show’s unsung hero – the great innovator who popularised many of the subjects and motifs later immortalised by Vermeer – was Ter Borch, an artist associated not with the dynamic metropolis of Amsterdam, or even Delft, but with a small Dutch trading town called Deventer, out in the sticks, in the eastern province of Overijssel.
Born in Zwolle, also in Overijssel, Ter Borch was taught to draw by his father, who proudly kept an early sketch of a horseman by his son, executed when he was just seven years old.
Following apprenticeships in Amsterdam, Haarlem and London, where he must have been dazzled by the elegance of the English court, Ter Borch Jr departed for southern Europe. During his travels, which occupied him for the next decade and a half, he visited Spain where, it was said, he painted Philip IV. If true, this was an astonishing coup: it beggars
‘It’s clear that without Gerard ter Borch, there would be no Vermeer’