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Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier

Gerard ter Borch the Younger (Zwolle 1617 – 1681 Deventer)
ca. 1655
oil on canvas
78.1 x 76.2 cm
inventory number
Currently on view: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Wieseman, Marjorie E. “Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier.” In The Leiden Collection Catalogue. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. New York. (accessed May 26, 2018).

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Fast asleep in his chair, legs casually crossed and arms wrapped tightly over his belly, Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s soldier enjoys a respite from his military responsibilities. His plumed hat has been tossed haphazardly on the floor, and his pistol is wrapped in a cloth and lies on the table beside him. This peaceful interlude is about to end, however, as a trumpeter has arrived with a message, and the woman moves to wake the officer by tickling him with a piece of straw. The trumpeter scratches his head, seemingly perplexed and perhaps concerned that his urgent message has not been met with the decisive response it requires.

The inherently paradoxical motif of the sleeping soldier has a long history in the visual arts. Sleep can render a fierce and vigilant warrior slack and defenseless, but it can also reduce a soldier to an object of ridicule, emblematic of sloth and dereliction of duty, particularly when his slumber has resulted from overindulgence in alcohol or tobacco. One piquant variation on the theme involved lightly tickling the sleeper to the amusement of his companions. The low comic nature of tickled sleep dovetailed nicely with the typically ribald humor of tavern and guardroom scenes, in which companions anticipate, with a smirk, the sleeper’s unpredictable and ungoverned reactions to a playful tickle often accompanied by a quick groping of the genitals. Ter Borch may have been inspired in his choice of subject by the work of Pieter Codde (1599–1678) and Willem Duyster (1598/99–1635) in Amsterdam, and by the Utrecht painter Jacob Duck (1600–67), who regularly included sleeping soldiers in his guardroom scenes and also explored the theme of both male and female sleepers being tickled awake (). Later in the century (and possibly influenced by Ter Borch’s paintings), Jacob Ochtervelt (1634/35–1708) made a minor specialization in scenes centering on sleeping soldiers being subjected to such teasing ().

Ter Borch’s Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier is an unusually decorous iteration of the theme: settled in his chair, the portly soldier is gently coaxed awake with a light touch from the young woman. The straw-wrapped bottle on the table beside him suggests that his stupor might have been induced by drink; his inert corpulence, with his gun is swaddled in a cloth, casts serious doubt on his ability to quickly leap into action. There is playfulness in the woman’s chosen method of waking the soldier, considering that the trumpeter could surely accomplish the task with brisk if brutal efficiency.

Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier is closely related to Ter Borch’s Sleeping Soldier in the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, which has been dated about 1656–57, a year or two later than the present work (). The differences between the two paintings are subtle but instructive, as they demonstrate concisely the artist’s transformation from a painter of simple guardrooms and domestic scenes (for example, GB-101) into an accomplished purveyor of supremely elegant high-life interiors. Though the figure of the sleeping soldier is much the same in the two pictures (possibly suggesting the use of a single figure drawing for both), the pose, costume and accessories of both the messenger and the woman have been considerably modified. In the present picture, the figures are densely clustered in the center of the composition, but in the Taft painting they are more loosely arranged. Furthermore, in the Leiden Collection picture, Ter Borch eliminated extra space at the bottom of the composition, thereby bringing the figures closer to the picture plane and enhancing the immediacy of the narrative. He also elaborated on certain details in the present work—the feathers adorning the sleeping soldier’s hat on the floor at right, and the arrangement of objects on the table—to produce a more overtly luxurious effect.

But the changes to the woman are literally and figuratively the most revealing. Whereas the girl in the present painting wears her jak modestly fastened, and shrouds her head with a kerchief (a similar outfit is seen in The Message Refused in Munich, of about 1655–58), the young woman in the Taft picture displays a beguiling dishabille. Rather than falling in simple vertical folds, her white satin gown pools around her feet, emphasizing the gleaming fabric. By altering her pose so that she reaches to tickle her dozing companion with her left (rather than her right) hand, Ter Borch eliminated that physical and visual barrier, opening the way for flirtatious engagement with both the soldier within the painting and the keen viewer without. Similarly, by deleting the messenger’s enormous hat, shifting the position of his trumpet, and adjusting his pose to accentuate the sweeping line of his figure, which terminates in one elegantly turned-out toe, Ter Borch transformed the figure from an awkward emissary to a bemused co-conspirator.

Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier is in a relatively good state of preservation, although dark areas, such as the sleeping soldier’s hair, are somewhat abraded. Although the painting has been in the past attributed to Caspar Netscher (ca. 1639–84), and was acquired as such by the Leiden Collection, details of the still life and of the costumes of the soldier and the messenger are sensitively handled and characteristic of Ter Borch’s hand. When Nancy Krieg restored the painting in 2005, the decision was made (based on William Chevalier’s engraving ()  to add the thin strand of hay to the woman’s right hand, which had presumably been removed inadvertently during an earlier restoration.

The existence of several virtually identical versions of the composition makes it difficult to clarify the early provenance of Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier, particularly as the abbreviated nature of most early sale catalogue descriptions render them ambiguous at best. William Chevalier’s engraving, published in 1836, most closely resembles the present version in compositional details, including the fragments of clay pipe stems on the floor (), as well as in its broader proportions, making it possible to identify this painting as the one then in the collection of Richard Artis. Version 2 (see Versions section), which is signed jointly by Ter Borch and Netscher, is very close to the present painting, but with a few notable differences: there are more complex folds in the woman’s white satin skirt, a planked wooden floor, and more slimly proportioned figures, all typical of the sort of adjustments Netscher made when adapting his master’s work.

- Marjorie E. Wieseman
  • Sale, [Ramsay Richard] Reinagle, Christie’s, London, 30 June 1827, no. 64 (“The Wife of an Officer waking him, and a Trumpeter waiting for Orders; highly finished,” for £89.50 to Richard Artis).
  • Richard Artis (1782–1860), London.
  • (Possibly) Mr. Brown, London, 1830.
  • (Possibly sale, Phillips, London, 18–20 July 1835, no. 128 [for £64.10]); Ellis (possibly Wynn Ellis [1790–1875]), London (his sale, Christie’s, London, 26 May 1836, no. 102 [bought in at 61 Gns.]).
  • Lt. Col. Francis Edwin Salvin Bowlby, M. C. (b. 1904), Gilston Park, Hertford, by 1933 (his sale, Sotheby’s, London, 27 March 1963, no. 91 [for £5,000 to Goyen]).
  • [Alfred Brod, London, 1963–65].
  • Private collection.
  • (Sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 25 January 2001, no. 204, as by Caspar Netscher, unsold; sale, Sotheby’s, New York, 5 June 2002, no. 40, as by Caspar Netscher, bought in).
  • [Johnny van Haeften, Ltd., London, 2004].
  • From whom acquired by the present owner in 2004, as by Caspar Netscher.
  • London, Alfred Brod Gallery, “Annual Autumn Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Paintings of the 17th Century,” 17 October–16 November 1963, no. 91 [lent by Alfred Brod Gallery].
  • Düsseldorf, Galerie Alfred Brod, “Fünfzig Gemälde alter Meister: Ausstellung im Künstlerverein Malkasten,” 19–31 October 1963 [lent by Alfred Brod Gallery].
  • Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, on loan with the permanent collection, January 2011–August 2015 [lent by the present owner].
  • Beijing, National Museum of China, “Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 17 June–3 September 2017 [lent by the present owner].
  • Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund, “Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection,” 23 September 2017–25 February 2018 [lent by the present owner].
  • Smith, John. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. 9 vols. London, 1829–42, 4:131, no. 43 (as “in the possession of Mr. Brown, 1830”).
  • Cunningham, Allan. Cabinet Gallery of Pictures by the First Masters of English and Foreign Schools. 2 vols. London, 1836, 2:43–45, no. 17.
  • Hofstede de Groot, Cornelis. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century Based on the Work of John Smith. Edited and translated by Edward G. Hawke. 8 vols. London, 1907–28, 5:31–32, no. 77. Originally published as Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten höllandischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts. 10 vols. Esslingen and Paris, 1907–28.
  • Gudlaugsson, Sturla J. Katalog der Gemälde Gerard ter Borchs sowie biographisches Material. 2 vols. The Hague, 1959–60, 2: 133–34, no. 121a.
  • Alfred Brod Gallery. Annual Autumn Exhibition of Dutch and Flemish Paintings of the 17th Century. Exh. cat. London, Alfred Brod Gallery. London, 1963, no. 6.
  • Alfred Brod Gallery. Fünfzig Gemälde alter Meister: Ausstellung im Künstlerverein Malkasten Düsseldorf. Exh. cat. London, Alfred Brod Gallery. Düsseldorf, 1965, 80–83.
  • Salomon, Nanette. “Dreamers, Idlers, and Other Dozers: Aspects of Sleep in Dutch Art.” PhD diss. Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1984, 105–7, no. 106, as by Caspar Netscher.
  • Kunzle, David. From Criminal to Courtier: The Soldier in Netherlandish Art, 1550–1672. Leiden and Boston, 2002, 604.
  • Wieseman, Marjorie E. Caspar Netscher and Late Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting. Doornspijk, 2002, 170, no. 5a.
  • Wieseman, Marjorie E. “The Craeyvanger Portraits in Context: shedding light on Caspar   Netscher’s early career.” Oud Holland 127, no. 1 (2014): 39, 47, n. 25.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier.” In Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Edited by Lara Yeager-Crasselt, 126; 184, no. 53. Translated by Li Ying. Exh. cat. Beijing, National Museum of China. Beijing, 2017.
  • Long Museum, West Bund. Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals in the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection. Exh. cat. Shanghai, Long Museum, West Bund. Shanghai, 2017, 132–33.
  • Yeager-Crasselt, Lara. “Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier.” In The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection. Edited by Polina Lyubimova, 212–13; 247, no. 73. Translated by Daria Babich and Daria Kuzina. Exh. cat. Moscow, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts; St. Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum. Moscow, 2018.

The support is a single piece of medium-weight, plain-weave fabric with tacking margins removed, which has been lined. Cusping along all four edges indicates the support’s dimensions have not been significantly altered. There are no wax collection seals, stencils, import stamps, or labels along the lining or stretcher reverse.

A ground has been thinly and evenly applied. Although there is no indication of the ground color, the painting has the distinct feel of one executed on a dark-colored ground. The paint has been applied with no noticeable brushstrokes, but in certain fabrics, short hatched strokes have been used to depict texture.

The painting is unsigned and undated.

No underdrawing is readily apparent in infrared images captured at 720 nanometers, although compositional lines may be located along the door along the right side of the composition. No compositional changes are noted in the images, in the X-radiograph, or as pentimenti.

The painting was cleaned, lined, and restored in 2005 and remains in a good state of preservation.


  1. Chevalier after Gerard ter Borch, Lady Tickling a Sleeping Soldier, 1834, engraving (published in A. Cunningham, Cabinet Gallery of Pictures by the First Masters of English and Foreign Schools [London, 1836], 2:87, no. 17). Described as being in the collection of Mr. Artis. The proportions of the print are closer to this painting than to Version 2.

Versions and Copies

  1. Gerard ter Borch, Sleeping Soldier, ca. 1656–57, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 55 cm, The Taft Museum, Cincinnati, inv. no. 1931.398.
  2. Gerard ter Borch and Caspar Netscher, Sleeping Soldier, ca. 1658, oil on panel, 68.5 x 58 cm, formerly Louis and Mildred Kaplan Collection, New York, 1950. Jointly signed by Ter Borch and Netscher on the letter held by the woman.
  3. After Gerard ter Borch, Sleeping Soldier, oil on canvas, 71 x 60 cm, formerly Friedrich, Basel. As possibly by Netscher. Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–60), 2:134–35, no. 121d; Marjorie E. Wieseman, Caspar Netscher and Late Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting (Doornspijk, 2002), 170, no. 5c.
  4. After Gerard ter Borch, Sleeping Soldier, oil on canvas, 70.4 x 60.2 cm, sale, Christie’s, New York, 3 June 1998, no. 94 (as “Manner of Gerard ter Borch”).
  5. Workshop of Gerard ter Borch, A Letter to a Sleeping Soldier, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 60.4 cm, Kadriorg Art Museum (Art Museum of Estonia), Tallinn, inv. no. VM 12. Sturla J. Gudlaugsson, Geraert ter Borch, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1959–60), 2:134, no. 121c, as copy with variations of Cincinnati painting; Marjorie E. Wieseman, Caspar Netscher and Late Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting (Doornspijk, 2002), 170, no. 5b.
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