Situated within a middle-class domestic interior, a trio of musicians is engaged in an intimate recital. The ensemble features a young woman playing the virginals, an early keyboard instrument known for its sweet, pure tone.1 She is flanked by two male instrumentalists: an elegantly dressed young gentleman sits across from her and plays a viola da gamba, while behind the virginals is a slightly older man who looks toward the others as he actively bows his viola da braccia. The features of the room—including the fireplace and canopy bed in the background, the woolen bedcovers tossed casually over the bench, and the scraps of paper and broken pipe on the floor—indicate that this is a common setting for a wide range of domestic pastimes and amusements.
In Musical Company, an important transitional work within Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s oeuvre, the artist evokes the immediacy of a moment taken from life. Drawing inspiration from his own family in Zwolle, Ter Borch modeled the seated figure at the virginals after his younger half-sister Gesina (1631–90), who was a frequent model in his paintings. Gesina’s distinctive profile and unconventional beauty appear in as many as twenty paintings throughout Ter Borch’s career.2 Here he has portrayed her at the tender age of about twelve or thirteen. Although Woman at Her Dressing Table, from ca. 1648–49 and formerly in a private collection in Paris (fig 1),3 is sometimes regarded as Ter Borch’s earliest depiction of Gesina in a genre painting, the present work predates it by several years and represents the fair-haired half-sister’s pictorial debut.
The hypothesis that Ter Borch painted this scene directly from life is supported by the existence of a black-chalk underdrawing (fig 2). The character of the simple, free-flowing lines and abbreviated figures, which correspond so closely with the final painting, suggests it was made quickly on the spot as an initial sketch.4 Ter Borch diverged only slightly from the original drawing in the final position of Gesina’s profile and of the violinist’s hat, and in the leaning angle of the kitchen maid’s pose. The fireplace and canopy bed in the background are also faithfully executed, while an extra hat, omitted in the final work, can be spotted on the bench next to the bed.
Visible on the inside of the virginals’ lid is the inscription “Musica…,” the first word of Musica Donum Dei (“Music is the Gift of God”), an inscription often found on such instruments. On the panel next to the woman’s lap are the letters “So…,” which almost certainly allude to another frequently found inscription, Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”). The easy rapport of the musicians suggests that they play together on a regular basis and are familiar with the music. As was common in such ensembles at that time, they have no written musical notations before them and play from memory, following each other through visual and audible cues such as the speed of a bow or the intake of breath. Ter Borch explicitly conveys the auditory qualities of music by portraying the viola da gamba player pulling his bow on an intoned string while the woman rolls out a full chord on the virginal, parting her lips as if to allude to the sound of a vocal melody.
The players are fully absorbed in their music and oblivious to the entrance of the kitchen maid, who pauses to rest her heavy basket of wood. Ter Borch contrasts the higher engagement of their musical harmonies with the implicit clatter of her menial household task. To this end, he uses dramatic tenebroso lighting, which selectively illuminates the ensemble while leaving the maid obscured in shadow.
The emotional rapport between the gentleman playing the viola da gamba and the young woman at the virginals connects the theme of music to that of love. Ter Borch guides our attention to their elusive psychological exchange by means of a vibrant red tablecloth and light reflections that sweep across the folds of the girl’s satin dress and over the smooth surface of the viola da gamba. The girl’s shaded eyes and steady gaze, directed at the male figure so fully engrossed in his playing, alludes to deeper affections of the heart. Although the theme of music making was a well-established metaphor for love and harmony, Ter Borch imparts an amorous overtone through suggestive nuances rather than through explicit narrative detail.6 The decidedly private and introspective mood of the present work thus differs radically from the jovial musical companies popular in Haarlem and Amsterdam that Ter Borch would have encountered in the work of his older contemporaries, such as Dirck Hals (1591–1656), Jan Miense Molenaer (c. 1610–68), Pieter Codde (1599–1678), and Anthonie Palamedesz (1601–73). Musical Company offers a new direction in this genre and contains the seeds of an idiomatic approach that Ter Borch would develop subsequently in his fully mature work.7
Musical Company likely dates to about 1642–44, relatively early in Ter Borch’s career. He probably painted it after returning from his voyages abroad and before settling in Amsterdam, with trips to Zwolle to visit his family.8 The work bears considerable stylistic resemblance to his Card Playing Soldiers before an Ancient Ruin in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, which Gudlaugsson dates to ca. 1643.9 The painting is close in conception to the artist’s earliest signed and dated work from 1635, also in Berlin, The Consultation, particularly in the dramatic use of light and carefully executed reflections.10
The painting introduces a number of features that would become hallmarks of Ter Borch’s mature style of the 1650s and 1660s, including his extraordinary ability to portray the alluring visual effects of fabric—here foreshadowed in the play of light across the crinkled black satin of the young girl’s dress—and his masterful depictions of genteel encounters between the sexes. The theme of love and attraction under the guise of music would become an enduring favorite. As demonstrated in works such as The Suitor’s Visit in Washington (fig 3), from ca. 1658, and The Music Party in Cincinnati, from ca. 1668/70 (fig 4), Ter Borch would continue to explore the social rituals and power dynamics of courtship while treating the engagement of music with nuanced psychological inflection.