Gerard ter Borch is an artist appreciated both for his genre paintings as well as his portraits. His domestic interiors, in which he depicted the customs and activities of daily life in an intimate tone, influenced other artists of his day such as Pieter de Hooch and Gabriel Metsu, both represented in the Collection by works of this type. Within this field Ter Borch produced his most innovative works in the 1650s although he executed compositions of this type from the mid-1640s. In these interiors the artist paid more attention to the figures (which tend to be few in number) than to the settings, which are limited to simple spaces with a few essential details.
Around the mid-1650s, Ter Borch focused more actively on the portrait, maintaining the austere, plain formats that he had employed in the 1640s, despite changes in taste. These works retain their high quality and pay particular attention to the materials and to the lighting of the models, often leaving the backgrounds in shadow.
The provenance of this canvas is known from the early 19th century, when it may have been owned by the Amsterdam dealer Cornelis Sebille Ross. Before it entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection it was with various galleries including that of Daniel Katz in Dieren between 1934 and 1938, and that of H. E. ten Cate in Oldenzaal in 1929, where it is recorded in 1929 and again after World War II. The painting was acquired for the Collection from the Cramer gallery in The Hague in 1969.
In the present canvas, which was published by Hofstede de Groot in 1912, Ter Borch locates the sitter, dressed informally in a manner appropriate to the setting, in a private room of a house. There are various pentimenti in the background that are now visible to the naked eye due to the natural wear of the pictorial materials, which have lost their opacity and become more transparent over time. It can be seen that the bed was initially on the left in the position now occupied by the half-open door. This modification now appears as a shadow on the wall in which we can also see the original position of the decorative finial of the bed. As Gaskell noted, this original arrangement is used in the 1660s in compositions such as the one in the National Gallery, London, of a woman playing an instrument accompanied by two men, and a watercolour in the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam which is a work by Gesina ter Borch that reproduces a canvas by the artist. Also comparable is the portrait of a man dated 1668 in the Kunsthaus, Zurich. In that work the sitter is located in a simple interior with a half-open doorway on the left in a room only decorated with a textile on the end wall. As in the present work, the ceiling of the Zurich painting has wooden beams. In the 1670s Ter Borch continued to use plain backgrounds in his portraits, generally locating an object close to the sitter.
The identity of this sitter is unknown, although in 1934 and 1935 when it was included in two exhibitions it apparently had an inscription (now lost) on the reverse identifying him as the Burgomaster of Dordrecht, G. Beverningh. By establishing the approximate date of the canvas Gudlaugsson offered a clue as to the sitter’s identity, which Gaskell in turn related to the objects included in the setting. The atlas on the table, open at a map of the Low Countries and possibly showing the Scheldt estuary and the city of Antwerp, and the printed document that the sitter is holding have been related to the moment when French troops invaded the United Provinces. In addition, this young man is dressed in the manner of the patrician class in Amsterdam where Ter Borch was documented at this time. The date and the objects in the painting led Gaskell to suggest that this sitter may have played a part in events taking place at the time.