An elective affinity of mirrors and brothels: The mirrors of Gerard ter Borch

This is not yet another posting about Johannes Vermeer; I wrote about Vermeer’s mirrors already (although lately I’ve found some interesting facts about him and his mirrors, and it’s time to write an update of this post… but not today, in any case.)

The picture above simply illustrates the fact that we’ve been to Amsterdam, and specifically to the Rijksmuseum, the largest museum in the Netherlands and again the mecca for all the tourists coming to the city. ‘Again’, because the museum was closed for nearly ten years, and went through massive reconstruction, that cost tons of money, but apparently was very worth doing – the newly shining museum was absolutely, totally, completely, fully packed with people when we’ve been there.

That’s all nice, of course, but bad, too, since one can’t really see any of the paintings now without elbowing your way toward them.  You can take a picture of a painting without somebody else’s elbows in it only if you are very lucky. But at least you can take this picture – the museum, similar to many Dutch art establishments, does allow picture taking.

Despite the opening painting is by Vermeer, today I’m planning to talk about another master and another work. This one:

As you see, I indeed had to work my way to the painting through the throngs of other art lovers.

Let’s start with an (almost) ‘clear view’ on this painting, the so called Parental Admonition, by Gerard ter Borch:

His name is spelled differently in different sources, often pasted together, like Terborch, or Terburg even. Dutch ‘ter’ is similar to ‘der’ or ‘van der’, and means something like ‘from’: Gerard from Borch. Although biographically speaking he wasn’t from any ‘Borch’, he was born in the Dutch city Zwolle.

But let me start from the painting first, and I will come to the artist later.

That’s how the work is described in the museum:

What exactly in the pose or expression of the young gentleman suggests his ‘indecency’ to you?

The description of the painting in the Google Art Project (that was recently renamed into the Google Cultural Institute) provides even more explicit explanation of the scene:

I will come back to this thrilling topic, of  ‘mirrors and prostitution’, but let’s look first at the ‘main suspect’ here (and I mean the mirror, “likewise pointing” to the direction of a brothel scene, allegedly depicted here):

It is a very interesting mirror, or rather the mirror’s frame (we don’t actually see the mirror surface here). It’s a marvelous example of a frame made like a box, or a book with an opening cover in form of a door, or shutters . Flat mirrors were not uncommon at that time, but they were still not very cheap, and had been treated with care – which includes closing them from direct sunbeams, so that their silver amalgam wouldn’t get dark too quickly.  But the frame here is not only functional, it is richly decorated and definitely adds the value to the mirror, increasingly a mast-have possession for wealthy women of the time.

We can zoom in even further, to discover the intricate details of the frame:

And yet, according to the interpretations, both in the Rijksmuseum and in the Google Art, this very mirror is a sign of a salacious scene, hinting perhaps to a predecessor of the red light district somewhere nearby:

Before we start exploring this ‘brothel scene’ further, let’s take a look at the other works by this artist, and to talk a little bit more about himself:

This long series of stamp-looking paintings could help you to guess that I will be talking about a typical Dutch artist of the 17th century, the Golden Century of art in the Netherlands. Such works fill hall after hall of the ‘Old Dutch Art’ in every respectable art museum today.

I have recently seen a documentary recently about the Golden Century (De Gouden Eeuw) in the Netherlands (wonderfully done, by the way, and a very interesting informative project). It was mentioned in this film that during this period, in less than a century, Dutch artists produced a stunning  5 (five!) million (!!) paintings. Not all of them survived till our time, but the number is staggering. Not surprisingly we have these endless series of Dutch paintings in nearly all art museums, worldwide.

Just to bring a flavor of historical context, here is the picture of the Amsterdam’s central square – De Dam – around this time (c.1650s):

Ter Borch, apparently, made quite a significant contribution to this colossal number (although at the end not so many of his works survived, their total number today is less than a hundred). But this is also very typical for that time: the paintings had been commissioned frequently and widely, and lot of them had been executed, but also a lot of them disappeared, without much regret from the owners (also because many of them were of not such a high quality). Ter Borch was valued much higher than an average master, of course; he was not “one of the many” and in fact was considered one of the best of its time (and especially in this genre – the genre scenes, as they’ve been called).

His father was also a painter (so Gerard ter Borch is sometimes referred as the Younger, or  Gerard ter Borch II).  The father’s occupation didn’t automatically define the choice of profession of his sons at this time, so it was more or less free choice, I assume; but when done, it did help young artist not only to gain professional skills yearly, but also help him with networking, both with the peers and clients alike. Gerard ter Borch not only learned from his father, he also visited the studies of other famous masters, in the Netherlands but also in Germany, in Italy, and even in Spain (we need to remember that at that time – Gerard was born in 1617 –  it was the most powerful kingdom in Europe, which officially had the power over the Netherlands as well – although not without some problems, as the Eighty Years’ War demonstrated.)  He also lived and worked London, and all available data shows that he was a very capable and very successful artist, with eminent clientele and a stable income.

Self portrait of Gerard ter Borch (1668) & Self-portrait in an oval frame (1670)

Today when we talk about the Golden Age of Dutch art, we usually recall the names of Rembrandt or Vermeer, the first was barely accepted by the contemporaries and experienced serious financial difficulties most of his life, and the second called the very ter Borch as his teacher.

Initially ter Borch planned to become a landscape painter – we now have a large number of his early drawings and sketches, demonstrating great technical skills:

He also made a number of city scenes:

But at some point he switched to portraits (did he like them more? have they been sold better?)  Here is one of his earliest portraits (which most likely depicts his sister Gesina – who will also became an artist, by the way – but officially known as The Girl in Peasant Costume, or The Girl Reading a Letter 1654):

His sister was a frequent model for ter Borch at that time, and most likely we see her again in another portrait, Woman writing a letter (1655):

We call these works ‘portraits’, but they are already closer to the genre we call ‘scenes’, the only difference is that we don’t see many people here but one. But the girl here is not simply posing to the painter, we see her as if captured in the middle of a creation action, which makes the painting much more lively, humane, compared to the official grand portraits .

Eventually ter Borch switched to these ‘genre scenes’ almost entirely, and it is them that made him so famous later. This is one of the earlier work, so called Suitor’s Visit (1658):

I wrote ‘so called’ because I am not sure it actually was such a visit; or rather it could be really anything, like A Music Lesson, A Messenger,  A Would You Like to Buy This Dog, or Something Else. By now we can interpret these images more like the TAT pictures, and they will tell about our assumptions, rather than about initial intent of the painter (or the commissioner).

Here is the painting by another Dutch master, Pieter Janssens Elinga, An interior with a painter, his wife, and a maid (1676) (and a mirror, I should add – in fact, there are two mirrors depicted here, and one is resembling the ‘indecent’ mirror by ter Borch):

But I am showing this panting here not to demonstrate yet another, but to illustrate the use of paintings in an average Dutch house of the time. The paintings were omnipresent, sometimes commissioned but more often bought on the market. I guess that the painters had to produce an assortment of the themes that would fit most of the houses, and better even, allow their owners a certain freedom of interpretations.

I wrote about this issues earlier, albeit briefly, when talking about ambivalent panels by Bellini; I feel that the scenes of ter Borch are somewhat similar to those images of the Italian master, in a sense that they also provide an opportunity for dual, or multiple interpretations.

In this sense the question is not if the interpretation by the Google Art Institute is correct or not, but that the work deliberately produced in such a way to evade singular interpretation, instead opening an opportunity for plural reading.   Of course, for many people this is not a very satisfactory option, and they would instead spend lots of efforts to find The One, the most accurate interrelation in their view.

The debates about the meaning of this painting are at least a century old already, and they will unlikely end any time soon. The spectrum of opinions is very wide, ranging from brothel to betrothal, each presenting many evidences in support.  

One of the main pieces of evidence to support the ‘brothel’ interpretation of this work is a smaller copy of the painting, where the researchers allegedly found a small coin in the hands of the young man.  Experts are debating now whether this ‘coin’ was painted by ter Borch himself, or added later (or painted by ter Borch and painter over by one of the later owner of the work). I wasn’t able to find this copy at the website of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, but apparently the painting in question is this one:

I am mostly interested in the mirror, of course, and this mirror is a very similar to the one depicted in the first work:

Two mirrors from these two paintings are nearly identical, and indeed, these two works look like the twins.  Apparently, the subject was very popular, and ter Borch made a number of copies himself, plus the work was copied/reproduced by many other artists, time and again.

Below is just one such example, made by one of the unknown followers:

It shows, among other things, that it didn’t take too much efforts to transform the ‘young man’ into ‘girl’s father’, at least in terms of age, so the scene becomes indeed ‘parental’. The mirror, however, is still very similar to the original:

By the way, the meme about “admoniotary father” came from Goethe, he was the first who described the painting as a moralistic instruction in his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809), which was translated into English as The Effective Affinities ( it was published in Russian under not very accurate a title “Избирательное сродство“,  ‘Elective Affinities‘, so the title of the posting).

Another painting often presented as ‘self-evidently’ pointing to the ‘brothel’ connotation of the ter Borch ‘Parental Admonition‘ is his own work, called “Man Offering a Woman Coins” (c.1663)

Yet even this work, that apparently shows quite explicitly the scene of ‘paid love’ in fact allows for multiple interpretations, which also leads contemporary art researchers to conclude that “this picture and related works by ter Borch should be viewed in an ‘open-ended’, multivalent manner. Ter Borch accentuates their ambiguity and leaves it to the viewer to resolve what is depicted”.

Take another example of a very similar painting. Here we also see a young man making the ‘gesture’, the woman blankly drinking wine, and another woman in satin dress holding a boook with muscial scores – and therefore called ‘The Music Lesson’:

Notice that there are no toiletries near the mirror.

Here’s another “Singing lesson” – there is no mirror here, but many other elements are similar to the previous works;  the man would held a coin instead of the scores, would we call this scene ‘indecent‘ ?

There is another main ‘character’ in many of these works – namely, the marvelous satin dress. We can find many more examples of its portrayal in the multiple ‘genre scenes’ by ter Borch (including those far from any ‘brothel’, so to speak).

This is his later work called A Messenger (c.1672)

And another woman in the same dress, on the painting with a merely descriptive title ‘Woman in white sateen in front  of a bed with red curtains‘ (c. 1655)

All these paintings show that ter Borch, similar to Salvador Dali, liked women’s backs it is unlikely that a ‘prostitute’ would be a central figure of so many different works (of which I showed here only a tiny fraction). Yet if follow the logic of the Google Art Institute, we would need to define the woman here as a prostitute, since we have a ‘likewise pointing’ mirror here, too:

The mirror lost the doors here, and its frame is more simple, but it is still very similar ‘model’, a small table mirror.  But ter Borch has painted another mirrors as well.

One of the most peculiar ‘mirror work’ of him is the painting unpretentiously called Woman in front of a mirror‘ (c.1652):

To my knowledge, this is one of the very few paintings by ter Borch that shows ‘mirror at work’, i.e., we see it reflecting the figure of woman. And it does so not only in a very beautifully and powerful way, but very innovatively, too.

This is the case of a ‘mirror cocoon’, an intensive and immersive experience that emerges when a person look at the mirror – only here no one directly stares at this very mirror!

The mirror that nobody looks at is nevertheless a central element of the painting – partly because we see a reflection of a pretty face there, but also because it acts as a nod of all other gazes between the figures in this scene.

It’s also quite a different mirror compare to the previous ones – it’s bigger, and its frame doesn’t have any ‘doors’ or ‘shutters’.

I found only one other painting where we see a reflection in the mirror:

Lady at her Toilette (c.1660)

Worth noticing that the reflection is, in fact, completely incorrect, we wouldn’t be able to see the face of the woman at such angle (and in any case, it would occupy much lesser space of the mirror surface). But as with many other examples of the Venus Effect, the goal of the painter was to show ‘some sort of reflection’, and not necessarily the accurate one.  It is also one of the most decorative mirror frames, and as far as I can judge, the largest mirror depicted by ter Borch.

I assume that similar triads, of a Woman, a Maid, and a Page-Boys, had been sold very well, because at a certain moment it becomes one of the most frequently depicted composition of this painter.

Here is another one, The Letter (1660):

Not all of these scenes have a mirror, but it is always a pleasure to study the details on such paintings, as they keep revealing both material culture of the time and also anthropological nuances.

As I said, there is no mirror in this work, but the chandelier resembles the one of van Eyck (and it’s very tempting therefore to search for the mirror here, too : )

Below is a sketch, a study drawing, not for this but for a similar work (apparently, the painting itself didn’t survive, or may be was never made); but the initial sketch shows that the ‘table mirror’ was appearing at a very early stage, and was as an important element of the composition:

Here’s another sketch, of more complex scene that also has a mirror on the table:

Few more examples of the paintings with the mirror on a table:

The Visit (c.1650s)

Woman Washing Hands (1658)

Woman in her bedroom with a maid (1658)

In all the above paintings the mirrors play relatively minor role, but there are also works where they are more prominent, and used more actively (and shall we assume, by the ‘prostitutes’? or are we more careful with our assumptions now?)

A Young Woman at Her Toilet with a Maid (1650)

The mirror here is also quite large, although its frame look more simple and modest – if only it wasn’t made from the precious kinds of wood, like black wood that was brought from India and was very expensive:

The Maid appears on two other works, both presenting the process of making hair, or coiffure.

A Lady Dressing her Hair (c.1650)


A few preliminary observations:

I started with one mirror, accused to be a symbol of ‘prostitution’:

But as I tried to show, mirrors had been depicted by ter Borch very frequently, and in various scenes.

In all the cases these were the table mirrors (I didn’t find a single mirrors hanging on the wall, yet).

Some of these mirrors are used more actively than others, but in all cases the context is explicitly female (they are either directly used for making hairs or doing make-up) or placed in the women’s bedrooms. Some of the scenes are of courtship, but they are rarely explicitly flirtatious (and the latter ones don’t have mirrors).

And in this case the interpretation of the very first work I started with, so called Parental Admonition, as the scene in brothel, seems to be pretty voluntaristic.  I can exclude, of curse, such an interpretation, but I wouldn’t assign it automatically, for example, simply because there is a ‘table mirror’ there.

If we would apply the logic equating ‘mirrors’ with ‘prostitution’, the entire oeuvre of ter Borch would become an endless depiction of the Red Light District of some sort:

However, the use of mirrors by ter Borch is much more diverse, as I tried to show, and in many cases he employes them as a pivotal (sic!) social nods, allowing him to make compositions more interesting and ambivalent.


This last section is more a post scriptum one. When looking for all these ‘table mirrors’ of ter Borch I found one work that I don’t quite know how to interpret – perhaps, not the general context, but specifically the use of mirror in it.

This work is called Consultation, and it is apparently in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, but again I can’t track it in their online catalogues, and therefore can not even say with any certainty that it is by ter Borch himself.

What we see is a doctor doing a ‘diagnostics’, of a vessel with urine, brought by the maid. One of the main reasons for such a test was to define if a woman is pregnant or not.

But what is the role of the mirror on the doctor’s table (if this is the mirror at all, of course)? One possibility to resolve the paradox is to assume that it’s not his table, but of the woman he visits – in this case we can understand the mess on the table, and the presence of the skull and the hourglass – theses are all the sings of the life turned upside down, and broken.

But I need to park these questions, until the moment I will have a better copy to study.


See also a slideshow of this story here.








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