The Thinking 

The Stone Grinder’s Family

August 5, 2012


HERE is a scene vastly different from the sunlit domestic idylls of the nineteenth and early twentieth century by Carl Larsson. The Stone Grinder’s Family (1653-55) is the work of Dutch painter Gerard ter Borch. Here is a scene of squalor and toil, with the knife grinder in the background and a mother picking lice from her daughter’s hair. And yet it also conveys a domestic ideal. In his book, The Embarrassment of Riches, on the Golden Age of Dutch culture, Simon Schama wrote:

Some of the most affecting family scenes in Dutch genre painting are of children submitting to their mother’s inspection of their heads for nits and lice. Gerard ter Borcher painted two: one as much an image of domestic virtue as a lace worker or a distaff spinner, the second in the much more unusual setting of an impoverished knife grinder’s yard. This is all the more extraordinary for being anything but the idealized image of the kempt bourgeois household. It is, in fact, one of the few authentic pictures of the kinds of hovels in which many of the poorest artisans and semiskilled laborers lived in Dutch towns. Yet, for all the dereliction and squalor, it is also unmistakably an image of domestic virtue. It is virtue offered within the same canvas, at work and at home, the knife grinding invoking the universal image of hard unremitting toil, and in the foreground the mother at the threshold of the dwelling, occupied with the moedertaak, her labor of love. (p. 395)

Here is another view from the same era of a mother delousing a child. Pieter de Hooch’s The Mother’s Task (1658-60) shows the immaculate surroundings more typical of Dutch domestic scenes and the illumination of the darkened and serene home by light from two windows. Thus the prosaic act of removing bugs from a child’s hair is glorified and rendered a meditative form of connection. As in so many Dutch paintings, the contemplative quality of domesticity is masterfully conveyed as an anchor of the spiritual world.


Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

—— Comments ——-

Hurricane Betsy writes:

Everything by Pieter de Hooch takes my breath away. There’s an even nicer one called just The Mother…you can have your Rembrandts, I’ll take this one!

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