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Art Ambiguity
In critiquing a painting critics are sometimes heard to remark that an area is "somewhat ambiguous," usually meaning that the artist perhaps might need to do a little more work in clarifying his or her artistic intentions in some manner. If such is a negative element in painting then one would be horrified in seeing the modest Dutch painting, Parental Admonition, by Gerard ter Borch. The whole painting is ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. Ter Borch was born in 1617, and apparently was something of a child prodigy with a surviving, dated drawing from when he was a mere eight years old. The son of a Dutch public official who also happened to be a painter, the boy entered the Haarlem painters guild when he was 18. Well-travelled and popular with the Dutch middle-class, he is best known for his modest-sized genre paintings, everything from Lady Peeling an Apple to Boy Removing Fleas from his Dog.

Parental Admonition is not unlike these though the subject matter is significantly more interesting. The 28" by 24" painting depicts the back of a richly attired young maiden along with a matronly woman and a young soldier. The scene is a bed chamber, wherein lies the ambiguity. Is the woman her mother or her procuress? Is the soldier holding between his fingers a ring or a coin? Is he proposing marriage or prostitution? If marriage, then why is the scene set in a bedroom? If he is about to purchase her sexual services why does the matron seem so demure and discrete? The seventeenth century Dutch were strong on family values but also pragmatic enough to accept the need for brothels as well. The mystery lies in the fact that in the original 1655 painting the gentleman did, indeed hold a coin, which was deftly altered to appear as a ring a hundred years later when the painting was given its current title, new theme, and sold at auction to a public appreciative of the positive moral message of parental guidance.

The coin/ring occupies no more than about one square centimetre of the 4,402 square centimetres of the entire painting, yet the tiny alteration of but a few brush strokes changes the entire meaning of the painting. Even today one has to strain to see exactly what the soldier so delicately holds between his thumb and index finger. To say that the area is somewhat ambiguous would be putting it mildly, but then this intriguing little quandary is quite the most delightful element of the painting, underlining with amusing unambiguity the changing manners and morals of Dutch middle-class society over the past 350 years.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 January 1999


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