These exceptional, small-scale portraits belong to a group of a dozen or fewer known paintings – including portraits and genre scenes, both faithful replicas and independent compositions – executed by Caspar Netscher in the late 1650s when he was active in the studio of Gerard ter Borch in Deventer. On account of Netscher’s copy of ter Borch’s Gallant Company, signed and dated 1655 (Gotha, Schlossmuseum, Museen der Stadt Gotha) and the appearance of Netscher’s likeness in several of ter Borch’s genre paintings of the mid- to late-1650s, it is generally agreed that the young painter was resident in ter Borch’s studio from circa 1655 until 1658/9, when he departed for Bordeaux. Netscher had already received the rudiments of his artistic training from the Arnhem portrait and still life painter Hendrick Coster. As such, his relationship with ter Borch was probably not simply that of master/pupil but one in which Netscher was equally a collaborator and independent artist in which he traded workshop assistance for practical training.
While guild regulations stipulated that pupils could not sign their works while still active in a master’s studio, the practice was only sporadically enforced around the mid-century. Moreover, the absence of a painter’s guild in Deventer likely meant that any such proscription was left to the individual master himself. It is in this context that the handful of Netscher’s signed and dated paintings from the second half of the 1650s were produced. The present portraits, each of which bears a date of 1656, constitute Netscher’s earliest dated independent compositions and confirm the young artist’s quick assimilation of ter Borch’s favoured formula for small-scale portraits in which the figures are depicted three-quarter-length before a simple, subtly shaded background. Indeed, Netscher derived the poses for the present pendant portraits of a gentleman and his wife from those that feature in ter Borch’s pendant portraits of Willem Everwijn and his wife Johanna Kelffken of 1653 (Arnhem, Huis Zypendaal). While Netscher made only minimal changes to his portrait of the woman, he substituted Everwijn’s sober black cloak for a far more fashionable costume with a broad collar, billowing sleeves and flamboyant double cuffs and further added a pair of gloves in his proper left hand. Despite their execution before Netscher arrived in ter Borch’s studio, Netscher would almost assuredly have been familiar with these portraits, for Everwijn was related through his maternal side to the Craeyvanger family. At about the same time Netscher produced the present portraits, he collaborated with his master ter Borch on a series of eight portraits of the Craeyvanger children (fig. 1; sold Christie's, Amsterdam, 6 May 2009, lot 78, €745,000; Leiden Collection, New York; see S.J. Gudlaugsson, Gerard ter Borch, II, The Hague, 1960, p. 113, under no. 103).
The third portrait of a younger man wearing a grey suit is remarkably similar to the other two paintings, but includes a number of changes as Netscher developed the sitter’s pose. Several of these changes, including the placement of the subject’s right arm, which was originally bent at the elbow, with his hand touching the centre of his chest, are visible to the naked eye. Others, like the extension of his left arm, are only visible in X-ray images. Betsy Wieseman has perceptively suggested that such modifications to the pose and figural proportions were likely necessary because, unlike the other two portraits, they had not been worked out in another composition (op. cit.).
X-ray images also reveal that each of these three portraits were extensively underpainted, the essential elements of the composition having been blocked out with ‘dead colouring’ over which thinner glazes were added to produce the highlights and shadows. In light of the collaborative working process in seventeenth-century artists’ studios, it is entirely conceivable that the initial design could have been blocked in by ter Borch, who may also have intervened as the painting process progressed to correct, modify or apply finishing touches to Netscher’s work. The exceptionally high quality of these portraits when compared with those Netscher painted in the years that immediately followed their execution and their relationship with ter Borch’s own in the period suggests that the master, at the very least, closely supervised their planning and execution.
These portraits have passed by descent in the same Dutch noble family since the seventeenth century. While the identity of the sitters has been lost, they are likely to be ancestors, or close relations of the family, who were originally from east Holland, close to Zwolle, Gerard ter Borch’s birthplace, and Deventer, where Netscher completed his training in ter Borch’s studio.