In style and subject matter, Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s early genre paintings differ markedly from the rarified domestic interiors of his mature career. In the late 1630s and early 1640s, after his return to the Netherlands from travels first in England and then in southern Europe, he painted a number of scenes featuring soldiers relaxing or playing cards in the humble surroundings of a barn or rustic tavern. Although women are occasionally present, these dim, untidy spaces are decidedly masculine, strewn with the utilitarian paraphernalia that signifies the nomadic existence of a professional soldier (fig 1).
Formulated and initially popularized by the Amsterdam painters Pieter Codde (1599–1678) and Willem Duyster (1598/99–1635), Dutch guardroom scenes (depictions of soldiers at their leisure) came into vogue in the 1620s and remained popular throughout the century.1 The appetite for the subject was linked to the Dutch Republic’s ongoing war for independence from Spain; indeed, the years between the resumption of hostilities at the end of the Twelve Year Truce (1621) and the Peace of Münster (1648) coincided with the theme’s heyday. Unlike many of the artists who explored the theme, Ter Borch was intimately familiar with the everyday lives of soldiers, as his native city of Zwolle was a garrison town that played a strategic role in defending the eastern part of the Dutch Republic against invasion during the war with Spain.
Personal experience aside, Ter Borch may have been inspired in his choice of subject matter by the guardroom scenes of Duyster and Codde, which he could have seen during visits to Amsterdam in the early 1630s. Ter Borch’s soldiers also resemble the travelers who populate the landscapes of the Haarlem painter Pieter Molijn (1595–1661), with whom he studied in 1634. Finally, his guardroom scenes recall the work of the Flemish painters Adriaen Brouwer (1605/6–38) and David Teniers the Younger (1610–90), who, during the 1630s in Antwerp, painted comparable scenes of soldiers and card players in rustic interiors (fig 2). Although there is no documentary proof that Ter Borch visited Antwerp, he could easily have stopped there on his return from England in late 1635 or early 1636 and been inspired by the vivid spontaneity and uncompromising subject matter of the Flemish masters’ work.2
Guardroom Interior with Soldiers Smoking and Playing Cards depicts three soldiers seated around a large drum that has been pressed into service as a makeshift table. The man at the back smokes a long clay pipe, while his companions play a game of cards. The soldier at the right is dressed in drab and rumpled garments; one stocking has pooled around his ankle to reveal a bare and bony leg. He holds a playing card in each of his outstretched arms, thrusting them toward the better-dressed cavalryman with palpable urgency. A fourth soldier stands in the doorway at left and turns to look back at the card players. In the left foreground is a heap of objects associated with a soldier’s life: a hide-covered trunk, a coat and hat, a cuirass and almain collar, a bandolier with containers for gunpowder and fuses, and various bundles and bags. The purpose of the curious tapering cylinder protruding from the lid of the trunk is unclear; it may have accommodated the crown of a hat packed inside. On the rear wall of the room is a rack with matchlock muskets, a pike, and furkets for supporting the muskets while shooting.3
Guardroom Interior with Soldiers Smoking and Playing Cards was probably painted around 1640 or slightly later, after Ter Borch had returned to the Netherlands from his visit to Spain. Where exactly he might have been living when he painted this work is not certain, but the concentrated flurry of guardroom scenes that Ter Borch painted during the early 1640s suggests that he might have settled in Amsterdam, where the tradition of such scenes by Duyster and Codde would have been most strongly felt.4 Works closely related to Guardroom Interior, such as the Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards (fig 1) and An Encampment of Soldiers Playing Cards (fig 3), dated about 1644 and 1640–45 respectively, show that even at this early stage of his career Ter Borch was experimenting with ways of modifying the interpretation of a given theme.5 All three paintings show a trio of players observed by a figure standing to the side; all are executed in a restricted palette dominated by browns and grays and accentuated with just a few touches of red and brilliant white. The occasionally summary treatment of figures and background elements in these paintings is contrasted by the beautifully detailed still lifes of military accoutrements in the foreground.
Playing cards was a popular pastime in the seventeenth century, despite (or perhaps because of) its being considered disreputable; equated with cheating, gambling, drinking and sex, it aroused censure from civic and religious authorities, even as it offered fertile ground for artists. Countless Dutch guardroom scenes depict soldiers playing cards or other games of chance. Not only did this realistically portray how soldiers relaxed while awaiting the next call to arms, but it also alluded to the risky, unpredictable nature of a soldier’s life on and off the battlefield.6 Smoking tobacco was another dubious pastime and a subject of great public debate. From the time of tobacco’s introduction into Europe at the end of the fifteenth century, its physical and psychological advantages and disadvantages were vociferously disputed.7 In a military context, however, smoking could be considered restorative, and its use justified among soldiers and sailors who labored under stressful conditions.8
Ter Borch continued to incorporate soldiers into his elegant domestic genre paintings of the 1650s and 1660s, but by and large the polished officers and flamboyant trumpeters seen in these later paintings are little more than a picturesque military presence, their actions more suited to the drawing room than to a rough military encampment.9
Several copies of Guardroom Interior are known; some situate identical figures in a landscape setting (fig 3), a variation that Gudlaugsson felt reflected more the Flemish tradition of depicting military themes.10 From photographic evidence, none of these copies is of sufficient quality to indicate that Ter Borch had a role in its making.