Choose a background colour

Ger­ard ter Borch, Dutch, 1617-1681: Ice Scene with Two Men Pushing a Sled, c. 1633-34 

Dur­ing the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry in the Nether­lands, frigid tem­per­a­tures often endured for months, freez­ing canals, rivers, and water­ways that were, prag­mat­i­cal­ly, used by the Dutch peo­ple for both trans­porta­tion and recre­ation. Artists were espe­cial­ly inspired by their icy sur­round­ings, among them Ger­ard ter Borch, who com­plet­ed sev­er­al draw­ings of win­ter­time activ­i­ties around the age of six­teen. Here, two men push a woman in a sled with­out the aid of skates past cur­so­ri­ly drawn build­ings that per­haps rep­re­sent the city of Zwolle. 

Ter Borch’s skill­ful­ly ren­dered draw­ing once belonged to a larg­er sheet, a recent­ly iden­ti­fied work in the British Muse­um, Lon­don, which depicts addi­tion­al fig­ures play­ing kolf, an early form of golf played on ice.

This pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished draw­ing offers a charm­ing and infre­quent addi­tion to the drawn oeu­vre of Ger­ard ter Borch II, one of the lead­ing genre painters of his gen­er­a­tion whose inno­va­tions would have a last­ing impact on a num­ber of other major artists, includ­ing Johannes Ver­meer.1

His sur­viv­ing draw­ings num­ber about 175 sheets.2

The vast major­i­ty of these, all but about two dozen, remained part of the fam­i­ly estate for near­ly two cen­turies, descend­ing through the gen­er­a­tions with­out much out­side notice until it reached the atten­tion of Abra­ham Bredius in 1882.3

The family’s col­lec­tion (which also con­tains draw­ings by Ter Borch’s tal­ent­ed sib­lings, such as his broth­er Moses and his pro­lif­ic sis­ter Gesina) reached auc­tion short­ly there­after, with almost all of it reach­ing the Rijksmu­se­um. Ali­son McNeil Ket­ter­ing pub­lished a thor­ough cat­a­logue of this excep­tion­al and per­haps unique exam­ple of a near­ly fully pre­served assem­blage of draw­ings from a sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry artists’ fam­i­ly to reach the present.4

As Ket­ter­ing observes, we can log­i­cal­ly assume that most of Ter Borch’s few draw­ings out­side of this group, such as the present sheet, were most like­ly gift­ed or sold by the artist dur­ing his life­time.5

Fur­ther evi­dence for this notion can be found in the slight­ly greater degree of fin­ish one some­times encoun­ters these works, which Ter Borch may have worked up fur­ther in the stu­dio before releas­ing them. The wash­es he added to this par­tic­u­lar work are high­ly effec­tive in accen­tu­at­ing the cloth­ing of the men push­ing the sled, for exam­ple, and his sub­tle con­trol of the brush also crafts a remark­ably nuanced sense of the ice, with its flat glossy sur­face and muted reflec­tions. Amaz­ing­ly, Ter Borch was only about six­teen years old when he made this draw­ing. We know this because it accords very well with a group of ice-scenes he drew in the win­ter of 1633-34, some of which his father inscribed with Gerard’s name and the exact date of cre­ation, rang­ing from Novem­ber 24, 1633 to Jan­u­ary 25, 1634.6

His father began this prac­tice of inscrib­ing his draw­ings when Ger­ard was eight years old, no doubt proud of his artis­ti­cal­ly-gift­ed son and desir­ing to doc­u­ment his efforts. Despite the artis­tic incli­na­tions of many mem­bers of the fam­i­ly, Ger­ard would become the only one to ful­fill a career as a pro­fes­sion­al painter.7

After a short peri­od of train­ing under Pieter de Moli­jn in Haar­lem, Ter Borch entered the guild there in 1635, which at eigh­teen years old was a remark­ably young age to become a master.

These ice-scenes were there­fore made around the time of his appren­tice­ship. Haar­lem artists such as Jan and Esa­ias van de Velde already had devel­oped a rich artis­tic tra­di­tion of depict­ing local ice-scenes, observed espe­cial­ly in their prints. Anoth­er source of inspi­ra­tion was prob­a­bly the work of Hen­drick Aver­camp, who paint­ed and drew a large num­ber of win­ter scenes in Kam­p­en, near Ter Borch’s home­town of Zwolle.8

This present sheet was most like­ly made in Zwolle, given that some of the city’s tow­ers and spires fea­ture in anoth­er draw­ing from the 1633-34 group show­ing skaters in front of the city walls Fig. 1.9

The fig­ure on the left with the staff in this draw­ing even wears head­gear with a visor and draped neck cov­er­ing such as the one worn by the right­hand fig­ure in the Ackland’s sheet. It appears that Ter Borch win­tered with his fam­i­ly in Zwolle between peri­ods of for­mal train­ing in Haar­lem (and per­haps Ams­ter­dam), but kept his pen and brush active while he was home. Anoth­er draw­ing from this group, some­what loos­er but com­pa­ra­ble in style, shows men like­wise push­ing sleds with occu­pants Fig. 2.10

Unlike the fig­ures in the lat­ter sheet, the men in the Peck draw­ing appar­ent­ly have no need of skates (though they per­haps have some sort of ice-grab­bing attach­ment on their shoes). In all the draw­ings from this group, Ter Borch man­ages to cre­ate a vivid sen­sa­tion of the misty chill on the ice, in which fig­ures rapid­ly fade into shad­owy forms as they recede from the view­er. They also reveal Ter Borch’s pro­cliv­i­ty for depict­ing fig­ures from behind, which Gud­laugs­son noted as a leit­mo­tif in his early works gen­er­al­ly.11

The cropped nature of the com­po­si­tion reflects its trim­ming at some point, most evi­dent along the left edge. It was like­ly cut away from a larg­er sheet con­tain­ing anoth­er part of the scene. A good can­di­date for the miss­ing por­tion is a draw­ing now in the British Muse­um that is also one of the few to have sur­vived out­side of the family’s col­lec­tion now in the Rijksmu­se­um Fig. 3.12

This draw­ing is about twice as large as the Ackland’s, but when the images are placed at rel­a­tive scale with their bot­tom edges aligned, the hori­zon line and dis­tant skaters match exact­ly, as does the per­spec­ti­val angle of the ice and the rel­a­tive scale of the fore­ground fig­ures. How much of the com­po­si­tion is miss­ing between the two extant parts is dif­fi­cult to say, but it does appear that the fig­ure doff­ing his hat with his hand over his chest in the Lon­don sheet is address­ing the lady (and per­haps an addi­tion­al occu­pant?) in the sled com­ing towards him.13

Mean­while the well-dressed man play­ing kolf, an early form of golf played on ice, has stopped to take notice as well.14

The fig­ure who has slipped and fall­en – a com­mon trope in Dutch ice-scenes – might, how­ev­er, pro­vide an obsta­cle for the sled dri­vers depend­ing on their now dif­fi­cult-to-judge angle of approach. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the artist’s name (G Ter­bourg) and date (25 Jan­u­ary 1634) appear on the verso of the British Muse­um draw­ing, though these were clear­ly added by a later owner who used spellings incon­sis­tent with sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry usage. The inscrip­tion nev­er­the­less prob­a­bly repeats one that must have orig­i­nal­ly been record­ed on the sheet (prob­a­bly again by Ter Borch’s father) before being trimmed away, there­by felic­i­tous­ly pre­serv­ing the exact date of the present draw­ing as well. One of the charms of this sheet is that it is the only one of his ice-scenes to pro­vide a glimpse of a lady, seem­ing­ly pre­fig­ur­ing one of those unob­tain­able Petrar­chan beau­ties that would later fea­ture in so many of his genre paint­ings.15

Gerard ter Borch II, Skaters Outside the Zwolle City Walls
Fig. 1

Ger­ard ter Borch II, Skaters Out­side the Zwolle City Walls, 1633-34. Pen and brush in black and brown ink on paper, 151 x 290 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP-T-1887-A-832.

Gerard ter Borch II, Man Watching Skaters
Fig. 2

Ger­ard ter Borch II, Man Watch­ing Skaters, 1633-34. Pen and brown ink and wash over traces of black chalk on paper, 117 x 120 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP-T-1887-A-831.

Gerard ter Borch II, Ice Scene with Kolf Players
Fig. 3

Ger­ard ter Borch II, Ice Scene with Kolf Play­ers, 1634. Pen and brush in brown ink, 139 x 103 mm. Lon­don, British Muse­um, inv. no. 1989,0513.82.

End Notes

  1. For the basic lit­er­a­ture on Ter Borch, see Gud­laugs­son 1959-60; The Hague 1974; Ket­ter­ing 1988; Wash­ing­ton & Detroit 2004-05. For his influ­ence on Ver­meer and other genre painters, see Paris, Dublin & Wash­ing­ton 2017-18, pas­sim.

  2. The draw­ings are cat­a­logued in full in Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, 85-191 (for those in the Rijksmu­se­um), and vol. 2, Appen­dix 1, 814-840. Only a few draw­ings have come to light in the inter­im, includ­ing the present sheet; as well as one notable re-attri­bu­tion to Ter Borch, for which see Rubin­stein 2015.

  3. For this story, see the Fore­word by J.W. Niemei­jer in Ket­ter­ing 1988, vii-ix.

  4. Ket­ter­ing 1988.

  5. Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, 88.

  6. For this group of ice-scenes, see Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, 88. For dated sheets, see Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 2, 824-825, Appen­dix 1, no. 19 (dated Novem­ber 24, 1633); vol. 1, 110-111, no. GJr 33 (dated Jan­u­ary 23, 1634); and vol. 2, 828-829, Appen­dix 1, no. 27 (dated Jan­u­ary 25, 1634).

  7. For Ter Borch’s early years, see A.K. Whee­lock in Wash­ing­ton & Detroit 2004-05, 4-7; and Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, 86.

  8. For win­ter scenes in Dutch art gen­er­al­ly, see, among oth­ers, The Hague 2001-02; and Ste­chow 1966, 82-100.

  9. Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, 112-113, no. GJr 35; The Hague 1974, 218, no. 83. One can observe in the back­ground, from left to right, the Broerk­erk, Jan­bagh­storen, Grote Kerk, and Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kerk.

  10. Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, 112-113, no. GJr 34.

  11. Gud­laugs­son 1959 – 60, vol. 1, 14.

  12. Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 2, 828-829, Appen­dix 1, no. 27; De Roth­schild 1987, no. 40. 

  13. Kettering’s idea (idem, no. 27) is that the man doff­ing his hat is play­ing a game of tip-cat’ (tie­pe­len) such as found in a cou­ple of draw­ings by Har­men Ter Borch (for which see Ket­ter­ing 1988, vol. 1, nos. H 62 and H 75), but the fig­ure in the British Muse­um sheet is most like­ly bowed in greet­ing with the appro­pri­ate hand ges­ture, which is only now more appar­ent when placed next to the Ackland’s drawing. 

  14. For the game of kolf, see Van Hen­gel 1985, 36. Ice pro­vid­ed the long stretch­es of smooth sur­face desir­able for the game.

  15. See Ket­ter­ing 1993 for these famous Ladies in Satin’.