Eloquent letter writing—in Dutch and French—flourished in the Netherlands during the prosperous decades of the 1650s and 1660s. In this celebrated picture, the young woman to the left, wearing one of the Ter Borch’s spectacular satin skirts, has received a letter from an admirer. Her older companion brings a steadier hand and heart to the task of answering gracefully. One or two of Ter Borch’s half-sisters served as models for the figures in this painting and as muses for his sympathetic observations of women.
This painting, one of the key works of Ter Borch's maturity, probably dates from about 1660–62. Though it was painted when the artist lived in Deventer, the luxurious interior and elegantly attired figures evoke the cosmopolitan milieu of Amsterdam. The curious young woman at right resembles the artist's half sister Gesina (1631–1690), an amateur poet and artist, as she appears in other works by Ter Borch of several years earlier. Another half sister, Jenneken (1640–1675), may have been the model for the standing figure at left.
The candlestick and watch on the table are most likely conventional vanitas motifs. A painting like this one would have been considered a conversation piece, in which various nuances of meaning and observation might be discussed and appreciated.
[2010; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
Gaillard de Gagny, Paris (his estate sale, Paris, March 29, 1762, no. 15, for Fr 3,600 to Randon de Boisset); Pierre-Louis-Paul Randon de Boisset, Paris (1762–77; his estate sale, Paris, February 27–March 25, 1777, no. 52, for Fr 10,000 to Lebrun); [Lebrun, Paris, from 1777]; Monsieur Robit (until 1801; his sale, Paillet and Delaroche, Paris, May 11, 1801, no. 151, for Fr 9,000 to Bonnemaison); [Bonnemaison, Paris, from 1801]; duchesse de Berri, Palais de L'Elysée, Paris (by 1833–37; her sale, Paillet, Paris, April 4–6, 1837, no. 2, for Fr 15,200 to Demidoff); Anatole Demidoff, principe di San Donato, Palais de San Donato, near Florence (1837–68; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, April 18, 1868, no. 19, for Fr 71,000 to Seillière); baron Achille Seillière, Paris (from 1868); princesse de Sagan, Paris (in 1883); Freifrau Mathilde von Rothschild, Grünburg, near Frankfurt-am-Main (by 1912–d. 1924); her son-in-law, Freiherr Max B. H. Goldschmidt, Frankfurt-am-Main (from 1924; sold to Duveen); [Duveen, Paris, London, and New York, until 1927; sold for $175,000 to Bache]; Jules S. Bache, New York (1927–d. 1944; his estate, 1944–49; cats., 1929, unnumbered; 1937, no. 39; 1943, no. 38)
London. Christie's. "A Catalogue of the Matchless Collection of Dutch and Flemish Pictures of His Late Royal Highness the Duke de Berri," April 1834, no. 15 [for sale by private contract, but no one meeting the price asked, was not sold].
Paris. Galerie Georges Petit. "Cent chefs-d'œuvre des collections parisiennes," June 12–?, 1883, no. 126 (lent by Mme la princesse de Sagan).
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Exhibition of Dutch Art 1450–1900," January 4–March 9, 1929, no. 231 (lent by Jules S. Bache).
New York. World's Fair. "Masterpieces of Art: European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800," May–October 1939, no. 367 (lent by Jules S. Bache).
New York. Duveen Galleries. "Paintings by the Great Dutch Masters of the Seventeenth Century," October 8–November 7, 1942, no. 63 (lent by the Bache collection).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Bache Collection," June 16–September 30, 1943, no. 38.
Kansas City, Mo. William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art. "Twenty-fifth Anniversary Exhibition," December 11–28, 1958, no catalogue?
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 46).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 281.
The Hague. Mauritshuis. "Gerard ter Borch," March 9–April 28, 1974, no. 44.
Münster. Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. "Gerard ter Borch," May 12–June 23, 1974, no. 44.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting," March 18–May 13, 1984, no. 12.
Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting," June 8–August 12, 1984, no. 12.
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Masters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting," September 7–November 18, 1984, no. 12.
Athens. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. "From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," December 13, 1992–April 11, 1993, no. 16.
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "Gerard ter Borch," November 7, 2004–January 30, 2005, no. 35.
Detroit Institute of Arts. "Gerard ter Borch," February 27–May 22, 2005, no. 35.
Amsterdam. Rijksmuseum. "Schitterend Satijn: Het Beste van Gerard ter Borch," June 10–September 4, 2005, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.
Rome. Scuderie del Quirinale. "Vermeer: il secolo d'oro dell'arte olandese," September 27, 2012–January 20, 2013, no. 4.
Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. "Vermeer and Rembrandt: The Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age," October 24, 2015–January 5, 2016, no. 42.
Tokyo. Mori Arts Center Gallery. "Vermeer and Rembrandt: The Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age," January 14–March 31, 2016, no. 42.
Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art. "Vermeer and Rembrandt: The Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age," April 6–May 8, 2016, no. 42.
C. F. Joullain. Réflexions sur la peinture et la gravure . . . Metz, 1786, p. 170, lists it in the Gaillard de Gagny and Randon de Boisset sales, and erroneously as in the collection of the maréchal de Noailles.
John Smith. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. Vol. 4, London, 1833, p. 118, no. 6, as "Curiosity," in the collection of the duchesse de Berri, and wrongly as in the Lalive de Jully sale of 1769.
John Smith. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters. Vol. 9, Supplement. London, 1842, pp. 529–30, no. 3.
Charles Blanc. Le trésor de la curiosité. Vol. 1, Paris, 1857, pp. 110, 354, lists sales.
Charles Blanc. Le trésor de la curiosité. Vol. 2, Paris, 1858, pp. 195, 421, lists sales.
Charles Blanc. Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles: École hollandaise. Paris, 1861, vol. 1, p. 16 of section on ter Borch, lists 1777 and 1801 sales.
Émile Galichon. "La galerie de San Donato." Gazette des beaux-arts 24 (1868), p. 406.
G[eorge]. W[illiam]. Reid. Gems of Dutch Art. London, 1872, p. 13, lists the Gagny and Berri sales.
C[ornelis]. Hofstede de Groot. A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Edward G. Hawke. Vol. 5, London, 1913, p. 62, no. 169, gives provenance and description; erroneously calls the figure on the right a maidservant.
William Gibson. "The Dutch Exhibition at Burlington House." Apollo 8 (December 1928), ill. opp. p. 322.
Arsène Alexandre. "L'art hollandais à la Royal Academy." La Renaissance 12 (March 1929), p. 122, ill. p. 119, questions the suitability of the title, suggesting instead Conspiration amoureuse (Love Conspiracy).
Walter Heil. "The Jules Bache Collection." Art News 27 (April 27, 1929), p. 4, ill. p. 16.
A Catalogue of Paintings in the Collection of Jules S. Bache. New York, 1929, unpaginated, ill.
W[ilhelm]. Martin. De Hollandsche Schilderkunst in de zeventiende Eeuw. Vol. 2, Rembrandt en zijn Tijd. Amsterdam, 1936, pp. 240, 512 n. 337, dates it after 1670; calls it "Die Nieuwsgierige".
A Catalogue of Paintings in the Bache Collection. under revision. New York, 1937, unpaginated, no. 39, ill.
Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941, unpaginated, no. 207, ill., dates it about 1660–65.
Harry B. Wehle. "The Bache Collection on Loan." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1 (June 1943), p. 288.
Walter Heil. "The Bache Paintings at the Metropolitan." Art News 42 (June–July 1943), p. 24, ill. p. 19, dates it 1660–65.
A Catalogue of Paintings in the Bache Collection. rev. ed. New York, 1943, unpaginated, no. 38, ill.
Eduard Plietzsch. Gerard ter Borch. Vienna, 1944, pp. 21, 47, no. 56, ill., dates it to the period Netscher studied under Ter Borch, thus 1657–58 at the latest.
S[turla]. J. Gudlaugsson. Gerard ter Borch. The Hague, 1959–60, vol. 1, pp. 124, pl. 164; vol. 2, pp. 168–69, no. 164, calls it a companion to "A Lady at Her Toilet" (Detroit Institute of Arts); notes that it was "no longer entirely intact in 1762"; dates it around 1660 or shortly thereafter on the basis of costume and style; suggests that the woman at the left is Ter Borch's sister Jenneken; notes similarities of figures and details to those in other works by the artist, comparing the fireplace to that in a drawing of his in the Ter Borch family album (Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam); suggests a connection between the footwarmer and the commentary in Roemer Visscher, "Sinnepoppen" (Amsterdam, 1614; Schock 3, no. 56) in which the footwarmer is called the "beloved jewel" of women and in which instructions in courtship are given to men who wish to be second to the footwarmer in women's esteem.
Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann. "Terborch's Lady at Her Toilet." Art News 64 (December 1965), p. 40, fig. 4, mentions a mantel similar to the one depicted here in the town hall of Deventer.
Franklin W. Robinson. "Gabriel Metsu, 1629–1667." PhD diss., Harvard University, 1970, p. 83, dates it about 1660.
John Walsh Jr. "Vermeer." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 31 (Summer 1973), unpaginated, fig. 57, dates it about 1660.
Hubert von Sonnenburg. "Technical Comments." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 31 (Summer 1973), unpaginated, figs. 86 (color detail), and 92 (x-ray detail), observes that the x-ray "shows a much-reworked image".
Gerard ter Borch: Zwolle 1617–Deventer 1681. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis. The Hague, 1974, p. 156, no. 44, colorpl. 44 and ill. p. 157.
Franklin W. Robinson. Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667): A Study of His Place in Dutch Genre Painting of the Golden Age. New York, 1974, p. 64, as "Letter Writer".
Baruch D. Kirschenbaum. The Religious and Historical Paintings of Jan Steen. New York, 1977, pp. 40, 58 n. 47, calls it "The Curious Servant"; dates it about 1660.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 344, fig. 620 (color).
Otto Naumann. Frans van Mieris (1635–1681) the Elder. Doornspijk, 1981, vol. 1, pp. 57–58 n. 42, p. 111 n. 143.
Walter A. Liedtke. "Dutch Genre Painting in Philadelphia, Berlin, and London." Tableau 7 (September 1984), ill. p. 62 (color).
Peter C. Sutton inMasters of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting. Exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 1984, pp. 149–51, no. 12, colorpl. 71, supports Gudlaugsson's dating [see Ref. 1959–60] and discusses its influence on Metsu.
Peter C. Sutton inThe Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis. Ed. H. R. Hoetink. Amsterdam, 1985, pp. 45–46, fig. 7, considers Metsu's "Young Woman Composing Music" (Mauritshuis, The Hague) to be "freely based" upon this composition.
Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 187.
Ben Broos. De Rembrandt à Vermeer: Les peintres hollandais au Mauritshuis de La Haye. Exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris. The Hague, 1986, pp. 266, 268–69 n. 6, fig. 2, as "La jeune fille curieuse".
Cornelia Moiso-Diekamp. Das Pendant in der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. PhD diss., Universität Köln. Frankfurt, 1987, pp. 483–84, no. D7, rejects Gudlaugsson's suggestion [see Ref. 1959–60] that Ter Borch's "Lady at Her Toilet" (Detroit Institute of Arts) may have been intended as a pendant to this picture.
Alison McNeil Kettering. Drawings from the Ter Borch Studio Estate. The Hague, 1988, vol. 1, p. 148, under no. GJr88, compares it to a drawing by Ter Borch, in which the fireplace and the two women at a table are similar.
Eric J. Sluijter et al., ed. Leidse Fijnschilders: Van Gerrit Dou tot Frans van Mieris de Jonge, 1630–1760. Exh. cat., Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1988, p. 137 n. 7.
Walter Liedtke. "Dutch Paintings in America: The Collectors and Their Ideals." Great Dutch Paintings from America. Exh. cat., Mauritshuis, The Hague. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1990, p. 52.
John Ingamells. The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Pictures. Vol. 4, Dutch and Flemish. London, 1992, p. 201, suggests that the subject of Metsu's "The Letter Writer Surprised" (Wallace Collection, London) may derive from this picture.
Deborah Krohn et al. inFrom El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exh. cat., National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. Athens, 1992, p. 307, no. 16, ill. (color) [catalogue section unpaginated].
Alison McNeil Kettering. "Ter Borch's Ladies in Satin." Art History 16 (March 1993), pp. 95, 108, 110, 113, 122 n. 69, pl. 53.
Bettina Werche inLeselust: Niederländische Malerei von Rembrandt bis Vermeer. Ed. Sabine Schulze. Exh. cat., Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Frankfurt, 1993, p. 146, fig. 8.2.
Tzvetan Todorov. Éloge du Quotidien: essai sur la peinture hollandaise du XVIIe siècle. Paris, 1993, p. 127, fig. 78 (color), misinterprets the subject, considering the figure on the left simply "content to be there".
Sylvia Jäkel-Scheglmann. Zum Lobe der Frauen: Untersuchungen zum Bild der Frau in der niederländischen Genremalerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. Munich, 1994, p. 86, fig. 77.
Alison McNeil Kettering inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 4, New York, 1996, p. 382, dates it about 1660.
JoLynn Edwards. Alexandre-Joseph Paillet: Expert et marchand de tableaux à la fin du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1996, p. 300.
Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts. Frameworks: Form, Function & Ornament in European Portrait Frames. London, 1996, p. 426 n. 13.
Mariët Westermann. The Amusements of Jan Steen: Comic Painting in the Seventeenth Century. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1997, p. 246 n. 55.
Alison McNeil Kettering. "Gerard ter Borch's Military Men: Masculinity Transformed." The Public and Private in Dutch Culture of the Golden Age. Ed. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Adele Seeff. Newark, Del., 2000, pp. 110, 114, fig. 12.
Marjorie E. Wieseman. Caspar Netscher and Late Seventeenth-century Dutch Painting. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 2002, p. 341, under no. C22, records a partial copy in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Peter C. Sutton inLove Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Greenwich, Conn., 2003, pp. 20, 38, 182, under no. 38, fig. 11.
Ann Jensen Adams inLove Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Greenwich, Conn., 2003, p. 63.
Wayne Franits. Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution. New Haven, 2004, pp. 104, 106, 185, 276 nn. 36–37, fig. 93 (color).
Alison McNeil Kettering inGerard ter Borch. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2004, pp. 26–27, 116, 138, 140–41, 207, no. 35, ill. p. 139 and on title pages (color, overall and detail).
Arie Wallert. "The Miracle of Gerard ter Borch's Satin." Gerard ter Borch. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2004, p. 36.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. inGerard ter Borch. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2004, p. 137, under no. 34.
Adriaan Waiboer inSenses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Jeroen Giltaij. Exh. cat., Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 2004, p. 219, fig. 2.
Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), pp. 42, 48, 70, fig. 54 (color).
Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. 62–63, 67, 76–79, 518, 522, no. 17, colorpl. 17, as probably dating from about 1660–62.
Eddy Schavemaker. Eglon van der Neer (1635/36–1703): His Life and His Work. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 2010, p. 41, fig. 14 of chapter 2.
Old Master & British Paintings. Christie's, London. July 3, 2012, p. 58, under no. 16, p. 108, under no. 26.
Walter Liedtke inVermeer: il secolo d'oro dell'arte olandese. Exh. cat., Scuderie del Quirinale. Milan, 2012, pp. 43, 58, 73.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. inVermeer: il secolo d'oro dell'arte olandese. Exh. cat., Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. Milan, 2012, p. 34.
Jeroen Giltaij inVermeer and Rembrandt: The Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age. Exh. cat., Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. Tokyo, 2015, p. 17.
Betsy Wieseman et al. inVermeer and Rembrandt: The Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age. Exh. cat., Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. Tokyo, 2015, pp. 124, 126, 193, no. 42, ill. pp. 125–27 (color, overall and detail).
Marjorie E. Wieseman inVermeer et les maîtres de la peinture de genre. Exh. cat., Musée du Louvre. Paris, 2017, p. 111 n. 11.