When Ter Borch fully turned his attention to genre scenes around 1650, however, he depicted just a few individuals—sometimes even a single figure—engaged in leisure pastimes or tending to daily rituals in quiet, domestic interiors rather than the bustling communal scenes favored by the earlier generation of artists. This approach resonated with many of his contemporaries, including Vermeer, who soon followed his lead.
Among the most influential of Ter Borch’s paintings was Woman Writing a Letter (Mauritshuis, The Hague), which depicts his favorite model, his half-sister Gesina, in an intimate moment of putting her thoughts to paper. Quill in hand, and totally absorbed by her writing, she possesses an air of quietude and thoughtfulness. This feeling is enhanced by the delicacy of Ter Borch’s brushwork as well as his sensitivity to her emotional state of being.
Vermeer’s Lady Writing is one of several works by different artists that reflect the influence of Ter Borch’s masterpiece. In Vermeer’s painting, an alluring young woman poised over a letter looks out at the viewer with a knowing smile. Vermeer, like Ter Borch, minimized narrative and anecdotal elements that would explain the woman’s expression, and he endowed her with the same abiding grace that Gesina exudes. Although the compositions are similar, the Delft master brought a different artistic sensibility to his painting.
Whereas Ter Borch employed an earthen palette of ocher and reds, Vermeer harmonized lemony yellows with teal blues, blending their tonal values throughout the picture to create chromatic balance. He also carefully arranged the composition to enhance the scene’s equilibrium and instill a feeling of timelessness.
Midway in his career, perhaps sensing the change in tastes among patrons, he began portraying elegant women playing music, gazing in mirrors, pining for loved ones, or holding a pet. The subjects Dou and Ter Borch painted were related, but the two artists differed in their techniques. While Ter Borch painted in a flowing manner, smoothly blending colors using small, rapidly applied brushstrokes, Dou went further and worked in a “fine painting” (fijnschilder) technique, marked by invisible brushwork and extraordinary attention to detail.
Dou spent his entire career in Leiden, where he trained numerous artists in his refined style of painting, including Frans van Mieris, whom he called “the prince” of his pupils. At the same time, younger painters inspired by Dou also drew inspiration from each other. For example, Van Mieris and Jan Steen, who was also from Leiden, often borrowed compositional ideas, motifs, and figural arrangements from one another. This robust network of mutual influence, which encompassed not only those working in one artistic center but also artists in different cities, is borne out time and again in the rich body of seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings.
Around 1660– 1665, Dou took up the novel subject of a young woman tending to her parrot, an expensive pet that denotes her affluence. Dou’s painting found many admirers, including Caspar Netscher, working in The Hague, who painted his lustrous Woman Feeding a Parrot, with a Page (National Gallery of Art, Washington) shortly thereafter. Like Dou, Netscher represented a woman standing behind an open niche, and in both works, a drapery hanging in the niche is gathered to one side. A distinct difference between the two images is the woman’s demeanor: Dou’s figure appears sweet and chaste, whereas Netscher’s young woman is unabashedly sensual. Her gold-colored dress is cut seductively low to reveal the porcelain skin of her décolletage, while her coquettish gaze creates a lively, enticing image that feels both familiar and yet wholly original.
A comparison of his The Lacemaker with Nicolas Maes’s Young Woman Making Lace (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) further demonstrates this aspect of Vermeer’s artistic genius. In his painting, Maes depicted the lacemaker seated in the back of a dimly lit room, and included a number of pictorial elements—a portrait of Martin Luther and money bag hanging on the wall, and an open book on her desk—to symbolize her industriousness, frugality, and domesticity. Vermeer, however, closely cropped his composition and placed the young woman against a bare wall to focus upon the lacemaker herself. His image both captures the lacemaker’s emotional engagement in her work and conveys a sense of tranquility and permanence.
This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.