Caspar Netscher was probably born in 1636 or 1639 in Heidelberg or Prague, the son of the sculptor Johannes Netscher. He moved to Arnhem as a child and around 1654 he was sent to Deventer to study with the genre and portrait painter Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681). In the early years of his career he painted a number of history pieces, but mainly concentrated on genre scenes in the manner of his master. They reveal him to have been one of the latter’s most talented pupils. After 1670 he focused almost exclusively on portraits, according to Arnold Houbraken in order to make enough money to support his ever-growing family. These likenesses were inspired by the French portrait style, with which he had probably become acquainted during a sojourn in Bordeaux in the years 1659-1662. The enormous success of these works led Roger de Piles to comment in 1699 that ‘He [Netscher] had achieved so much fame and authority with this sort of picture that there is no one of importance in Holland whose portrait he has not painted.’
Netscher painted Lady washing her hands in 1657, when he was still working in Ter Borch’s studio. The latter had introduced the theme into Dutch art about two years earlier with a painting now in Dresden (fig. 1). The focus of our work is the standing woman in her beautiful silver-grey satin dress, washing her hands above a silver charger in water poured from a silver jug by an elegantly dressed black page. In the background a maidservant opens the red curtains surrounding the bed. Between the two women is a table laid out with a mirror, jewelry and an extinguished candle in a candleholder. Netscher faithfully uses the same ingredients we find in his master’s prototype, but places more emphasis on the bed by having the servant open its curtain.
Hand washing was a popular motif in seventeenth-century art and literature and was often used as a metaphor for purity and innocence – a notion with Christian origins. A person being baptised is submerged in water, Pontius Pilate washed his hands in innocence and in Psalm 51 we find the following phrase:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness:
according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
In the genre paintings on the theme by Ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Netscher and others, hand washing is generally meant to symbolise the main figure’s chastity, but it can also be read as an exhortation to lead a good life or a caution against sinful behaviour.
As noted above, it was Ter Borch who introduced the theme into Dutch painting, with Netscher taking it up a short time later and with slight variations. Because Netscher draws somewhat more attention to the bed, the contrast between virtue and base desire – the innocence of hand washing versus the temptation represented by the bed – is fairly obvious. In 1675 Eglon van der Neer (1635/36-1703) gave the subject a rather more explicit interpretation (fig. 2). In his version, the scene is set in what is clearly a bordello and the woman washing her hands in the foreground is meant as a warning against the immoral behaviour going on behind her. At the rear right a man makes a frantic attempt to enter the room, encouraged by a partially unclothed woman near the bed. Van der Neer based his tableau not only on Ter Borch’s model of around 1655, but also on a work by Metsu painted around 1660 (fig. 3). In the latter, where the intruder is given an even greater role, the admonition is far subtler: the seated woman holds a fine-toothed comb, a symbol of purity, while the woman getting out of bed thrusts her left foot into her slipper, a gesture full of sexual connotation.
A striking detail in our work is the young black boy acting as a page. Similar figures appear in many Dutch paintings from the second half of the seventeenth century. The reason for his inclusion is often obvious, as in the portraits of functionaries of the East India Company, or its West Indies counterpart, where he is meant to add an exotic note. Sometimes he is included in order to underline the atmosphere of wealth and luxury. It is not unthinkable that Netscher has here inserted the figure merely to provide variation in the scene. After all, Van Hoogstraeten had written in his Inleyding tot de Hoge Schoole der Schilderkonst of 1678 – which comprises both new ideas and simple reflections on current artistic practice – that variation was absolutely necessary in painting: ‘[…] the eye takes pleasure in the occasional inclusion of a Moor along with maids’.