Une mère, à la recherche de poux, peigne soigneusement les cheveux de son enfant. Le garçon, stoïque, subit l’inspection. Ter Borch réalisa beaucoup de scènes de ce genre, où les personnages principaux sont entièrement absorbés par ce qu’ils font.
La Chasse aux Poux renferme probablement une morale, car l’attention maternelle, l’ordre et la propreté étaient les qualités idéales d‘une bonne maîtresse de maison. Au 17ème siècle, le peigne à poux représentait à la fois la propreté de l’apparence et la pureté de caractère.
Children play a prominent role in various paintings in the Mauritshuis. The quiet little boy in Gerard ter Borch’s Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair (‘Hunting for Lice’) is extremely popular with the visiting public. The child is male, as shown by his white smock, then an integral part of a boy’s wardrobe. In the seventeenth century, both boys and girls wore skirts until about the age of six, because it was considered practical. This little boy wears an apron as well, to keep his undergarments clean. His rather long hair with shoulder-length curls was not unusual for boys either.
The woman bends forward to inspect the boy’s hair, while he leans backward against her knees. Looking dreamily out of the corner of his eye, the boy waits patiently for the woman to finish, so that he can take a bite of the apple in his hands. Before the existence of personal hygiene products, regular hair-combing was vital to good grooming. There was a great risk then (as there still is today) of young children contracting head lice, so mothers carefully inspected the scalps of their offspring as a matter of routine.
This painting, with its subtle effects of light, refined gradations of colour, and incomparable rendering of materials, is one of the highlights of Ter Borch’s rich oeuvre. The figures are painted in a restrained palette, which merges harmoniously with the grey-green colour of the background. Brushstrokes are barely visible: individual strokes can be detected only in the passages that depict hair, fur or velvet. Typical of this artist is the delicate handling, whereby the paint was applied in successive, thin layers, often wet-in-wet. Natural ageing, however, has caused some of the colours to change in tone. The fur-trimmed jacket did not initially have its current, indefinable hue; a bit of the original blue colour is still visible on the woman’s shoulder.
‘Hunting for Lice’ has traditionally been dated to 1652 or 1653, which is still tenable. Ter Borch’s step-mother, Wiesken Matthijs, born in 1607, stood model for the woman. She was the elder sister of his wife, Geertruid Matthijs, and the third wife of his father, Gerard ter Borch the Elder – which made her both step-mother and sister-in-law of Gerard ter Borch the Younger. The facial features of the woman in this painting are very similar to those in a portrait of Wiesken Matthijs drawn by Mozes ter Borch – Gerard’s half-brother and his junior by eighteen years – on 21 January 1660. Gerard ter Borch the Elder inscribed on the verso of this sheet ‘The year 1660. Mozes ter Borch. drawn after his mother’ (‘Anno.1660. Mosus ter Borch. nae zijn Moeder geteickent’), thereby establishing the woman’s identity and confirming that she was the mother of Mozes ter Borch. It has sometimes been suggested that Mozes stood model for the boy in ‘Hunting for Lice’. However, the small portraits that Gerard ter Borch painted of his half-brother, born in 1645, as well as the self-portraits that Mozes drew at a very young age, depict a different face, one with a characteristic pug nose. The Ter Borch family displayed a remarkable degree of artistic talent: in addition to Gerard and Mozes, their sister Gesina and brother Harmen were also artists.
‘Hunting for Lice’ is a feast for the eye, but it also offers a wise lesson. In seventeenth-century Holland, marriage and family life were held in high regard. A woman’s duties and obligations were extolled by clergymen and writers and depicted by painters. Maternal care, order and cleanliness were the pre-eminent qualities of a virtuous housewife, and the fine-toothed comb used in the search for lice was seen by seventeenth-century Dutch authors as a symbol of domestic virtue. In Roemer Visscher’s 1614 emblem book Sinnepoppen, the words ‘Purgat et ornat’ ([it] cleanses and adorns) appear above a depiction of a lice comb. The poet and moralist Jacob Cats also saw the comb as a symbol of cleanliness: ‘The comb is wondrous useful, the comb is wondrous clean / The comb can put the head in the best order ever seen’ (‘De kam is wonder nut, de kam is wonder net / De kam is die het hooft in beter order set’). The moral of the couplet is that a well-groomed appearance reflects a sound mind.
(this is a reworked version of a text written by Quentin Buvelot, published in: A. van Suchtelen, Q. Buvelot et al., Genre Paintings in the Mauritshuis, The Hague 2016, pp. 44-49)
Gerard ter Borch (Zwolle 1617 - 1681 Deventer)
'La Chasse aux Poux'
Nom de l'objet
Détails des matériaux et techniques
28.7 x 33.2 cm
op de stoelpoot, net onder het jak van de vrouw: GTB ineen; sleets
Johannes van Bergen van der Grijp, Leiden; his sale, Zoeterwoude, 25 June 1784 (Lugt 3750), no. 133 (for 371 guilders to Delfos); Abraham Delfos Gallery, Leiden, 1784; Hendrik Rottermond, The Hague; his sale, Amsterdam, 18 July 1786 (Lugt 4072), no. 32 (for 300 guilders to Fouquet); Pieter Fouquet Gallery, Amsterdam, 1786; Dorothea, Baroness De Pagniet, Utrecht, until 1836; her sale, Utrecht, 26 July 1836 (Lugt 14441), no. 32 (for 1,175 guilders to Steengracht); jonkheer Johan Steengracht van Oostcapelle, The Hague, 1836-1846; acquired at a family auction by his second son, jonkheer Hendrik Steengracht van Oostcapelle, The Hague, 1846-1875; by inheritance to his nephew, Hendricus Adolphus Steengracht van Duivenvoorde, The Hague and Voorschoten, 1875-1912; his sale, Paris, 9 June 1913 (Lugt 72900), no. 7 (for 305,000 francs to Frederik Muller for the Rembrandt Association); acquired with the support of the Rembrandt Association, 1913
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