Lice happens

Gerard ter Borch, Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, known as ‘Hunting for Lice’, c. 1652 – 1653. Image courtesy of Mauritshuis, The Hague.

At the Mauritshuis in the Hague, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is everywhere. She is outlined in sequins on the uniforms of the coat check attendants and guards, reproduced on myriad items in the gift shop (umbrellas, notebooks, keychains), morphed into a rubber duck or embroidered as a cat (each with the requisite earring and scarf) on bags that sell for over thirty dollars each.

Standing in Gallery 15 of this exquisite dollhouse of a museum, I was book-ended by the actual painting on my right, and, out the window, her face — with its sweet, perhaps melancholic glance, its open mouth with light-glossed lips — waving in the heavy wind.

The view from Gallery 15 (photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos)

But The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not the only painting in the Mauritshuis, or even in the gallery. Not for the first time, I was struck by how, for so many, the museum experience has become the selfie by the masterpiece (Girl with the girl with the pearl). I am not criticizing that impulse per se; anyone who follows my husband’s facebook page has seen me posed, like Let’s make a deal‘s Carol Merrill, next to whatever of the world’s masterworks we might be viewing. What surprises and, frankly, disappoints me is the way in which folks so frequently ignore what else is in the room.

Right next to The Girl, and pretty much unnoticed, hangs a much smaller work. Painted by Gerard Ter Borch (originally from Zwolle!), Woman combing her son’s hair depicts a simply but well-dressed woman, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun with a cap, her brown velvet coat edged with white fur, carefully searching her son’s blond hair for lice. He, too, is clean and composed, holding an apple in his hands, with his brown eyes gazing at what seems to be a window just outside the frame of the painting.

What is going on here? The Girl with a Pearl Earring is celebrated for its mystery: no one knows who the Girl is (Vermeer’s daughter? His maid, as Tracy Chevalier and Scarlett Johansson would assert?). In contrast, Woman combing her son’s hair (or Lice hunting, as it is also known) comes out of a tradition of genre painting that had a great deal of significance in seventeenth century Dutch culture, but whose meaning has been largely lost to those who haven’t learned about the period.

Before this time, known as the Dutch “Golden Age” (the gold, my students remind me, coming from the slave trade), the Netherlands had a long tradition of beautiful religious art; oil painting, in fact, was developed in the low countries before spreading to Italy. After the country became Protestant, however, art changed. The Calvinists were iconoclasts, who white-washed their church walls and destroyed many Catholic images, viewing them as idolatrous rather than sacred. But although art was no longer a part of worship, it did not disappear. Rather, it became part of the secular economy, a symbol of wealth and prosperity in upper- and middle-class homes.

And artists, instead of focusing on sacred images, became specialists: some painted the exquisite flower paintings I love, or the still lives that I can appreciate at an intellectual level, but, frankly, do not find appealing. Others depicted stories from the Bible, not as objects of veneration but as moralistic fables. And some created what are known as genre paintings, images of every day life and values.

Woman combing her son’s hair is such a work, giving us a glimpse into 17th-century life and hygiene. This is clearly not a scene of squalor or moral depredation, a “Jan Steen” family, where life and values are topsy-turvy.

Jan Steen, The Merry Family (image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Rather, then, as now, lice happens, even in the “nicest” households. If you have ever had the experience of receiving a letter from your child’s school, announcing that lice has been detected, you know such missives generally emphasize that lice should not be considered a sign of uncleanliness or a source of shame. (“Lice prefer clean hair” is a frequent assertion to signify that you are not a bad mother, even if your child has bugs in her braids.)

Perhaps such letters should include a copy of Ter Borch’s image, which underscores that lice hunting is not a sign of bad but good housekeeping, a “maternal duty,” as a similar work in the Rijksmuseum, by Pieter de Hooch, is known.

Pieter de Hooch, The Maternal Duty (courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Unlike the close-up of the image by Ter Borch, de Hooch draws back to show us the tidy and well-appointed household, light flowing in through clean panes and an open window, to shine on the spotless floor as, before the tidily made box bed with its white pillows, a mother carefully explores her child’s head. Like the images of the Madonna lactans of the 14th and 15th centuries, this is a moment of supreme maternal care and intimacy: Just as the Virgin Mary nurses her own child in a sign of the humility that paradoxically exalts her, so the housewife — not a maid or a servant — conducts this humble task of lice hunting, demonstrating that no detail is beneath her notice or attention in the most important work of caring for her family.

Madonna of the Firescreen (courtesy of the National Gallery via Wikicommons)

As a mom, I am drawn to these images of quotidian child care, which speak to me of my own experience. Just as I, now long ago, spent countless hours suckling my own babies, I have also (fortunately, also now long ago), invested considerable time in patiently combing through long, curly hair, with a tiny comb and lots and lots of conditioner, in the curious intimacy of hunting for lice.

That time spent is a reminder, paradoxically, of privilege. Cutting off the hair might be expedient, but drastic, cruel — historically, a sign of shame. As a mother, I was fortunate to have a job and a life that allowed me time to nurse my babies, and later, as necessary, to take time to attend to their other needs, when they were sick, or scared, or, perhaps, vermin-infested. Ter Borch’s painting, like De Hooch’s, celebrates that privilege in the context of the 17th-century Protestant work ethic, which allies fiscal prosperity, along with cleanliness, with Godliness. The good mother has time to invest in this time-consuming, intimate responsibility that is a synecdoche for the housekeeping that is her maternal duty.

And what about the lice? There are some who like to say, “Everything happens for a reason,” but I don’t agree with that. I believe that “everything happens” — including lice — whether we expect it or not, and it is our job to make sense of it, and, even, to find the good in it. We may or may not agree with the vision of motherhood, or all of the values, of these paintings by Ter Borch and De Hooch; we may prefer the mystery and luminous beauty of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But Lice hunting also reminds me of the unanticipated moments of intimacy and grace we may sometimes find in doing the humble tasks that are our duty to others.

Image courtesy of Mary Kate Andrepont