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.1 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 (fig 1).2 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 (fig 2).3
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 (fig 3).4 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 1655–585), 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.6 Although the painting has been in the past attributed to Caspar Netscher (ca. 1639–84),7 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 (fig 4) 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.8 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 (fig 5), 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.9