(b. 1617, Zwolle, d. 1681, Deventer)

Paternal Admonition

Oil on canvas, 70 x 60 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

This painting having the popular title of Parental Admonition (another version in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) was the subject of a charming passage by Goethe. In his "Die Wahlverwandtschaften" Goethe notes the delicacy of attitude of the figures. He remarks how the father quietly and moderately admonishes his daughter who is seen from behind. The woman in black, sipping from a glass, Goethe interprets as the young woman's mother, who lowers her eyes so as not to be too attentive to the 'father's admonition'. This moralizing title, however, is without foundation and not in accordance with Ter Borch's usual themes.

The authoritative biographer of the artist interprets the picture in the opposite sense, as a brothel scene, assuming that the seated gentleman holds a coin in his right hand, offering it to the girl. In fact, the detail of the coin is not visible. (The coin is omitted in the engraving Goethe knew). In the Berlin version the passage is rubbed; a former owner may have had it painted over because she or he found it an embarrassing allusion. The Amsterdam version does not show the coin either, but its original paint surface is generally abraded; thus it is impossible to tell if it ever included the tell-tale coin.

Ter Borch's psychology is so delicate that the common scenes he repeatedly painted are raised to the level of highly civilized life. That Goethe's interpretation was possible at all shows the refinement of Ter Borch's treatment. Even if he made a mistake, Goethe had the right feeling for the way Ter Borch treated his subjects. Psychologically and pictorially he retains a sensitive touch and delicacy. The young woman is seen from behind; thus her face is averted. The only flesh visible is her neck, which is modelled with tender, silvery grey shadows. We have, however, opportunity to admire the silver-grey satin and black velvet of her gown.

Ter Borch's minuteness and nicety of handling concentrate largely on painting stuffs. Contrary to Vermeer's paintings, the dim light and the subdued chiaroscuro do not allow a forceful grasp of the whole field of vision. The light comes mostly from the front and stops at the glossy surfaces of the costumes and other textures.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.